The AFL – once again under fire over its handling of racism allegations within the nation’s wealthiest sporting code – appears to have mislead journalists that it has met with the player at the centre of the growing media storm.
Late on Monday evening, the Herald Sun reported that “the AFL has met with Héritier Lumumba over his explosive racism claims as another former Collingwood indigenous player rallied to his cause”.
But leaked emails, obtained by New Matilda, reveal that the AFL was actually still seeking a meeting with Lumumba the morning after it claims it had already met with the star player.
Lumumba has confirmed to New Matilda that he has never met with AFL officials over the issue, beyond “bumping into” Tanya Hosch – the code’s new General Manager of Inclusion and Social Policy – for a couple of minutes prior to his appearance on Marngrook last week.
There is no suggestion from New Matilda that Hosch – a respected Aboriginal official – was in any way involved in misleading media.
Lumumba, who played for Collingwood under the name Harry O’Brien for a decade, was the subject of an explosive documentary aired on SBS 10 days ago, called Fair Game, in which he revealed that he was given the nickname “Chimp” during the early stages of his career by other Collingwood players. Lumumba also spoke about being forced out of the club after expressing public anger over club president Eddie McGuire’s now infamous comments in 2013 that Aboriginal AFL star Adam Goodes should be used to promote the movie King Kong.
A succession of former players and officials, including star Collingwood forward Leon Davis, have since publicly backed Lumumba’s fight, but the allegations have been flatly denied by Collingwood and the AFL, with officials backgrounding journalists that instead, it was Lumumba’s ‘mental health’ that was the issue.
An email obtained by New Matilda – sent from SBS to the producer of the Fair Game documentary – reveals the AFL began pursuing a meeting with Lumumba on Wednesday, August 31 as the issue began to attract increasing media interest.
“Tanya was hoping she could be put in touch with Héritier, in the hope that they might meet while his (sic) is in Australia,” an SBS official writes.
“She is aware of the content of the documentary and his experiences while playing AFL, and has expressed that if he was generous enough to share some time with her about his experiences, it could be beneficial.
“She’d be grateful for an introduction – is this something you think you’d be happy to facilitate? Obviously it’s Héritier’s choice if he wishes to meet – but just wanted to put it to you.”
Lumumba has confirmed to New Matilda that he never responded to the request. Instead, the following evening, he arrived at SBS’s Melbourne studios for the filming of Marngrook to find Hosch and her assistant, Katriina Heikkanen, waiting for him.
“[Hosch] was waiting there backstage for me, outside the green room,” Lumumba said.
“She introduced herself, and told me about her cultural background. I said to her, ‘You need to realize the far reaching consequences that the AFL’s silence is having.’ “I said I will happily and openly speak the truth about the AFL’s incompetence in dealing with this, and I asked why have the AFL not condemned [what I experienced]publicly?
“[Hosch] said, ‘I’m trying to have conversations’. She seemed really torn, like she was caught in the middle. She was almost trembling.”
Lumumba says Hosch requested a meeting, which he said he was open to. “I gave her my email, and then yeah, that was it.” Lumumba says the ‘meeting’ took no more than two or three minutes.
The following morning, Lumumba received an email from Hosch’s assistant, as promised.
“It was great to meet you last night… as mentioned, Tanya is keen to try and catch up with you next week, if both your schedules permit….
“We understand that you are only here for a limited time so happy to try and work out some alternatives if the times above don’t suit.”
Lumumba says he never responded to the request, because the AFL continued to spin on the issue, falsely claiming his mental health was the problem while remaining silent on his treatment.
But by Monday night, September 4, the AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan issued a statement to media claiming Lumumba had already met with officials, and continuing the smear that the issue was really about Lumumba’s fragile mental state. It was in response to scathing criticism on the popular Fox Footy podcast earlier that evening, in which the AFL was attacked for remaining silent on the issue.
“The AFL’s general manager of inclusion and social policy, Tanya Hosch, met with Lumumba last Thursday at the Marngrook footy show and AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan has been briefed on Heritier’s comments,” the Herald Sun and Fox Sports reported.
The story quoted Gillon directly: “The AFL is a far different place to what it was four years and we’re all still improving and listening to people and learning.
“That’s why we’ve got Tania Hosch, amongst others, around my management team. We learn from her on a lot of issues.
“With respect to Collingwood – I know Tania has met with Héritier – this issue is really about where he’s at and his state of mind and his welfare.”
“We’ll do what we can and what’s appropriate. We’re so much better but we’re not where we need to be.”
Lumumba has confirmed that beyond being “ambushed” for a couple of minutes by Hosch at Marngrook, no AFL or Collingwood official has ever contacted him to enquire about his “state of mind or welfare”.
Last night, Lumumba told New Matilda the smear against him by the AFL – that they were concerned with his mental health – was simply an attempt avoid having to deal with the problem of racism in the game.
“It’s not about a witch-hunt. I’m not isolating anybody…. it’s not about Collingwood having done the most heinous things, I really want to make that distinction. Racism is a system.
“It’s the AFL’s responsibility (to properly tackle racism within the code)… the AFL lacks competence and understanding in how to deal with racism effectively.
“For an industry doing billion dollar media deals, that’s just not acceptable.”
New Matilda is seeking a response from the AFL this morning. For some excellent background reporting on this issue, visit The Guardian’s recent piece here.
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