The nation’s most prominent union official has weighed into the racism scandal that has engulfed the AFL, warning Australia’s richest sporting code that it’s not immune from workplace health and safety laws.
Former Collingwood AFL star Hèritier Lumumba – who played 199 games for the Magpies under the name Harry O’Brien – was the subject of a recent documentary aired on SBS called Fair Game, in which he revealed that throughout his career, he was subjected to frequent racist taunts and jokes by players and officials.
Sally McManus, the head of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) told New Matilda in a written statement that all workplaces, even major sporting codes, were not immune from workplace health and safety laws.
“The AFL has the same responsibilities to players as any other employer would to workers in their workplace. They have a responsibility to ensure that players are safe, preventing racial abuse from fans or anyone else is a part of that responsibility,” McManus said.
“The ACTU congress has made clear its opposition to all forms of racial abuse, wherever it occurs and all Australian unions stand with Hèritier Lumumba and support him for speaking out.
“The AFL is a powerful cultural institution, and clear leadership on this issue from them would make a real difference in workplaces across Australia.”
This issue has dogged the AFL for weeks. The sporting body has been caught lying about how it dealt with the scandal, and accused of a campaign of smear, with CEO of the AFL, Gillon McLachlan claiming the issue was not about racism, rather Lumumba’s “state of mind”.
Lumumba told film-makers that during his time at Collingwood, he was nicknamed ‘Chimp’ by some players, and subjected to consistent racial abuse and ‘jokes’ through his time in the AFL.
His career finally descended into chaos in 2013, at the height of a national furore over the treatment of Aboriginal star Adam Goodes, who was called an “ape” by a young fan during the annual Indigenous round of the AFL.
Lumumba used his popular Twitter account to criticize Eddie McGuire – the President of Collingwood and arguably the most powerful figure in the AFL – after McGuire used his radio program on Triple M to suggest Goodes should be used to promote the film King Kong.
Lumumba’s relationship with Collingwood soured dramatically, and he left the club at the end of the following season, accused of “throwing the president under a bus”.
The scandal continues to attract comment from around the country, including a call by one of the nation’s most senior Aboriginal health officials, Sol Bellear, yesterday for the CEO of the AFL to resign.
ACTU Indigenous Officer, Lara Watson also added her voice to the issue overnight.
“Indigenous people know that racism is an issue which Australia is yet to fully confront,” Watson said.
“Indigenous Australians experience racism every day, whether it’s in the form of speech, action, or the pervasive systemic racism which shapes our relationship with our own government.
“The AFL can do more to address racism being directed against its players and it must act on this issue now.”
Meanwhile, New Matilda was part of a joint project with the Brisbane Indigenous Media Association and the National Indigenous Radio Service for the filming of a panel discussion hosted by BIMA CEO Kaava Watson with Lumumba, comedian and activist Aamer Rahman, prominent Aboriginal journalist Amy McQuire and academic Dr Chelsea Bond.
The three-hour taping of the panel is being released gradually over the next few weeks.