If You Haven’t Heard About The Growing AFL Racism Scandal, You Soon Will


Try as they might, the AFL hasn’t quite been able to make the Héritier Lumumba racism scandal go away. Chris Graham explains what it is, and why.

You can put a new coat of paint on a busted old car, but it’s still just a busted old car… with a new coat of paint. Equally, the Australian Football League can spruik its anti-racism credentials from the hilltops all it likes, but it still has a past pock-marked with vicious, deliberate racism and a present that, frankly, doesn’t really look much different.

You might not have heard much yet but over the past few weeks, a few key events have happened.

Last week, the AFL’s new diversity executive, Aboriginal woman Tanya Hosch, called bullshit on a private Adelaide Crows function she attended, headlined by ageing curiosity Greg Ritchie, a former Australian cricketer more famous for his ‘character’ Mahatma Coat (an overtly racist depiction of a Pakistani cricket official) than anything he ever did on the field.

In case you’ve forgotten, here’s Ritchie plying his ‘trade’ on Channel 9’s rugby league Footy Show in 1995, more than two decades ago.

It was racist back then, but by 2017 standards it’s staggering. But not quite as staggering as the fact that Crows’ Chairman Andrew Fagan and Port Adelaide Chairman David Koch (yes, ‘Kochy’, of Sunrise fame) were present at the recent event, and reportedly saw nothing wrong with Ritchie’s performance.

Caroline Wilson from The Age broke the story, noting: “A comedy performer in his post-cricket career whose Punjabi Sikh character Mahatma Cote was a regular on Channel Nine’s NRL Footy Show, Ritchie was effectively banned by Cricket Australia from appearing at its functions over the 2012-13 season. This was after another performance at the Adelaide Oval during the first Test that resulted in allegations of racism from the South African cricket team.”

So the Australian cricket team – famous around the world for sledging and racist abuse – bans the guy from performing because he’s even too racist for them. Half a decade later, senior officials within the AFL – a code which likes to claim it’s the national leader in addressing racism in sport – sees nothing objectionable in a white man adopting a fake eastern accent, and throwing in a bit of misogyny for good measure, according to Wilson.

Wilson has also been behind the excellent recent reporting on a scandal involving – go figure – the Collingwood Football Club.

And briefly, for posterity’s sake, the Magpies have either been linked to – or the cause – of innumerable outrages over the years, from the Nicky Winmar and Michael Long incidents in the early 1990s, to more recent events such as the sledging of Adam Goodes by a young fan (who called him an “ape”), followed by club president Eddie McGuire suggesting a few days later that Goodes should be used to promote the upcoming King Kong movie.

In the wake of Wilson’s reporting, SBS On Demand has released a one-hour documentary called Fair Game, which chronicles the life and career of Héritier Lumumba, a once popular Collingwood player with a cult following. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, Harry O’Brien might.

Lumumba, whose mother is Brazilian and father is Congolese, played under the name Harry O’Brien for most of his 12-year career in the AFL, before reverting to his birth name, Héritier Lumumba, for his final season with Collingwood in 2013, and two subsequent seasons with Melbourne. He retired from the game last year.

As the documentary reveals, among some players at Collingwood, Lumumba wasn’t even known as Harry. His nickname was ‘Chimp’, and he endured daily jokes about race from team-mates.

I’ve had the good fortune to see an advanced screening of Fair Game – it’s well worth investing your time in.

For their part, Collingwood has flatly denied the claims. Lumumba’s captain for three years, now coach of Collingwood, Nathan Buckley says he never once heard Lumumba referred to as “chimp”, and smeared Lumumba during a recent press conference (hosted on the official afl.com.au website) by alluding to mental health issues.

I won’t spoil the punch line, but you can watch the documentary from today, and decide for yourself if you think Lumumba is in any way mentally fragile.

Factor into that the reality that a growing number of players from the era are coming out to back Lumumba’s version of events, and broader claims about systemic racism in the AFL, including Shae McNamara, a white American who played at Collingwood during Lumumba’s time.

Rumours are also swirling that other players of colour are queuing up to blow the whistle on the systemic racism of the AFL this week, after Lumumba’s documentary airs.

In the meantime, here’s a statement from the man himself released on his official Facebook page, earlier today. New Matilda will have more reporting on this issue in the coming days and weeks.

“The nickname ‘Chimp’, that was used during my time at the Collingwood Football Club is just one of countless examples of institutionalized racism within the AFL.

The systematic nature of racism in the AFL is evident in the operation of Recruitment and List Management departments of football clubs; the management of players by agents; the AFL’s failure to protect its highest profile Aboriginal player, Adam Goodes, from ongoing racism that effectively ended his career; the AFL and Collingwood Football Club’s failure to sanction or penalise Eddie McGuire following his comments comparing Adam Goodes to an ape.

Furthermore, players like Joel Wilkinson, who have been direct victims of racism, have been threatened and silenced when their experience disrupts the AFL’s comfortable multicultural narrative, along with having their recruitment and careers jeopardized for speaking out.

It is disappointing that so far the Collingwood Football Club have chosen to minimise and dismiss my experiences. I’m further disappointed, but not entirely surprised, that the AFL and the AFL Players’ Association have made no comment whatsoever about the issues I have raised.

I am grateful to the players and former teammates who have stood by me and confirmed my story like Shae McNamara. I also recently spoke to Leon Davis, who said, “Your experiences of racism at Collingwood were a continuation of my own experiences at the club. I stand side by side with you.”

Chris Graham is the publisher and editor of New Matilda. He is the former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine. In more than three decades of journalism he's had his home and office raided by the Australian Federal Police; he's been arrested and briefly jailed in Israel; he's reported from a swag in Outback Australia on and off for years. Chris has worked across multiple mediums including print, radio and film. His proudest achievement is serving as an Associate producer on John Pilger's 2013 film Utopia. He's also won a few journalism awards along the way in both the US and Australia, including a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards. Since late 2021, Chris has been battling various serious heart and lung conditions. He's begun the process of quietly planning a "gentle exit" after "tying up a few loose ends" in 2024 and 2025. So watch this space.