GEORGE FLOYD'S MURDER in May 2020 sent tremors around the world. It was the tipping point for international debate around people of colour and justice systems. It made people across the globe look in the mirror and rethink how they treat their own Indigenous people and all people of colour.
The Floyd tragedy hit home in Australia, a country which has an unaccountable 474 Indigenous deaths while in police custody since 1991. Time Magazine reported that Australia had the largest Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations outside of the United States. People showed up in "tens of thousands." Crowds gathered holding signs that read "my skin shouldn't be a death sentence" and "silence is compliance".
As the BLM protests rang out -- first in Canberra then Sydney -- the Australian Football League (AFL) had hit the pause button on the 2020 season and were on a pandemic-induced hiatus that lasted 80 days. During the week leading up to the return to play on June 11, players made it clear-cut to the AFL, coaches, club presidents, they believed in the Black Lives Matter movement, and wanted to show unification by taking a knee before each game.
"The AFL has an awareness of the movement from clubs discussed on Wednesday and is in full support," a league statement read in June, 2020.
Patrick Dangerfield, Geelong vice-captain and president of the AFL Players Association (AFLPA), considered the move a step on a longer journey.
The following evening, inside an empty, eerily quiet M.C.G, with no crowd, players from Richmond and Collingwood -- umpires too -- dropped to their knees in silence before the bounce. Other players and clubs followed suit that weekend. It was an undivided backing never seen before in the AFL.
Over the course of the weekend football eased back into normality. Fans took to Twitter to celebrate a welcomed return.
But just as round two was winding down headlines began surfacing that painted a picture of a grim and all-to-familiar reality: "Carlton's Eddie Betts calls out racist abuse", one read. Someone had posted an image of a monkey with the caption: " I (sic) here master Eddie is training the house down."
Betts re-posted that image on his Instagram wall with his response: "If at any time anyone is wondering why we work so hard to bring attention to the importance of stamping out racism, this is it."
Paul Marsh, CEO of the AFLPA, called out the racist message.
"First week back and our Indigenous players are already being vilified," he said. "There is no place in society for racism."
Betts got allied support from his Blues teammates -- including Marc Murphy and co-captain Sam Docherty -- the AFL community, NRL players, Matilda's captain Sam Kerr, and Olympian Nova Peris who called for the AFL to find and act against the perpetrator.
Racism in the AFL isn't new. There have been calls to transform its culture periodically and whenever public discourse breaks the dam wall. But without meaningful action the cycle repeats.
Nicky Winmar in 1993. Michael Long and Chris Lewis in 1995. Scott Chisholm 1999. Joel Wilkinson, Majak Daw and Lance Franklin in 2011. Adam Goodes in 2013. This is just the surface of what we know.
As ESPN has learned through reporting on this story, others remain silent for fear of the overwhelming backlash if they come forward. But with each distressing circumstance there's been an agreement by the masses -- media, players, coaches and league executives -- that there's no room for racism in the AFL.
Things hit different now.
Since the tragic murder of George Floyd and the significance it had on Australians and the AFL community 12 months ago there's been an awakening.
More non-Indigenous people are calling out racism online with vigour. More Indigenous players feel like they have the support to be able call out racism and some are taking it on themselves to educate others. Leaders in football are conceding that real change needs to happen. And, for the first time, there's an awareness and hope that change can happen.
But what has changed since the players took the player-led symbolic knee last June? And how does the AFL move forward from here?
WHEN AKEC Makur Chuot 15, she was living in Perth after spending most of her life in South Sudan and a Kenyan refugee camp. Like most migrant families, hers left everything they knew to build a better life in Australia.
One day she was walking to a petrol station with her cousin to buy some lollies. As they were crossing the road, a man jumped out of his white ute and said "you Black s---," and that if he had a gun he'd shoot them. It was her first incident of racism, but it wouldn't be her last.
Three years ago the 28-year-old moved to Melbourne to be closer to her mum and play football with Carlton in the VFLW amid a time when, Makur Chuot says, there was negativity and an anti-African sentiment toward the local communities, from sections of the media and state politicians. Chuot would soon experience examples of that sentiment.
On the way to training after work, she'd stop to grab something to eat at a store and would be subjected to racial profiling; security would ask her to show the items in her bag or a receipt. That became routine. She doesn't catch trams anymore because in her own words "no-one will sit next to her." And the constant staring in public creates a nervous anxiety that she's done something wrong.
"This has the potential to ruin your confidence as a young person. It has an impact that people don't understand," she said. "I always try to share my story because even someone who is a professional athlete, I still cop it daily. I speak about it so that people can understand how my community is feeling. It's not okay. Times are changing and people need to start changing."
If you follow Makur Chuot on Instagram you'll quickly learn there's more to her life than her athleticism and sleek ball skills. In fact, if you might make the mistake of not knowing if she's an AFLW player at all. A quick scroll will reveal: documentaries on racism, her sister Ayor being sworn in as the first Western Australia parliamentarian from South Sudan, and her playing soccer. But speaking out against racism and supporting people of colour has become her unofficial calling.
Last year, Makur Chuot attended the June 6th Black Lives Matter rally in Melbourne to make her voice heard. For a lot of the crowd there was anger toward the Australian government but the large majority wanted to ask questions to try to understand what people of colour live through every day. Using her voice and speaking out against racism is something Makur Chuot feels confident in doing even though it usually results in being targeted with abuse.
The week George Floyd was murdered, Makur Chuot couldn't bear to watch the video. She had read multiple reports of what transpired but because she's all too familiar with what can happen to men and women of colour in police custody, she couldn't watch it.
"I was really heartbroken. His life was tragically ended by somebody who (job) was supposed to be protecting him. That's what was really painful," she said. "The attitude in Australia is that we don't want to talk about racism. It's always swept under the carpet. As soon as people start talking about systemic racism that Indigenous people face in this country, you are the problem."
When ESPN asked Makur Chuot about change in attitudes in the AFL and AFLW, she remembered the symbolic knee that the AFL players took just over a year ago and thought it was a good start to something bigger. But nothing else came of it. She said it's going to take year round education for those who are still ingrained in systemic racism.
"For those players taking a knee, it's taking a vow to be an ally. Someone who's' going to fight for the rights of Indigenous people and people of colour," she said. "There needs to be something bigger. It cannot just be a knee and that's it."
Makur Chuot believes things are better than they have been in football but there's still a long way to go. She says that every organization - not just the AFL - has a role to play. And for the first time in a long time people are starting to listen because of loud conversations. But unless there is a shift to more diverse hires in leadership positions across the AFL, she says change will be an uphill battle.
"People that are having these issues are not in the boardrooms. Until we can start having representation in the boardrooms changes can't happen," she said. "You can't have white people making decisions about racism when they're the ones being racist."
IN THE past 12 months, through the COVID-19 pandemic, stories about abusive and toxic behaviour in the AFL toward its Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people rang out one by one.
In the week leading up to the return to play in June last year, former Collingwood premiership player Heritier Lumumba called out his former club on social media, to publicly acknowledge that his experiences of racism were inadequately dealt with and caused further harm. That same weekend, Betts was targeted in a tweet with a photo of a monkey. After that it was Michael Frederick. Then came Elijah Taylor. It happened to Caitlyn Miller, Tim Kelly's partner. She was blamed for Geelong not winning the Grand Final because Tim moved home to Western Australia. With the ease of creating a fake account on Twitter, the racist abuse is hard to keep up with.
When there are incidents of racism in the AFL, people become outraged about comments or posts. A club or league statement might follow and then maybe an anti-racism social media campaign. Once it dies down we move on to the next breach of moral standards. The awareness means something but it doesn't solve the systemic portion of what is playing out.
Almost all of these cases echo what Joel Wilkinson has lived through the past decade - he still believes that he doesn't have justice for alleged racism, discrimination and sexual harassment. This year, the 29-year-old called out AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan and spoke to reporters to address a number of incidents of racism and abuse during his 26 games with Gold Coast across three years in the league.
The explosive stories included how he was racially abused on multiple occasions by fans who made monkey noises at him. Wilkinson also described how he was subjected to a "vulgar" locker room culture that forced him to change and shower in the visitors' rooms. He was even subject to a blackface incident. This year, it was revealed that his former manager told him that clubs shied away from recruiting him because he spoke out against racial abuse and was told he should probably "shut up".
The Australian reported Wilkinson's career and case was likened to that of Colin Kaepernick's, when he took the AFL and several clubs to the Human Rights Commission which ran from 2018 to November 2019, but it didn't appropriately address his concerns regarding racism.
"The AFL and individuals consistently have denied, dismissed, abused and been corrupt throughout their dealings with me," he said. "When it came to me, they used their institutional power to keep me silent. In the end, I know I was racially blackballed from the league."
Wilkinson has also continually reported there's been a lack of real consequences or accountability for all the racist incidents in the AFL.
Collingwood's leaked Do Better report during pre-season created a groundswell of dialogue around how to improve the safety of clubrooms when players are racially abused. It confirmed everything that Lumumba had been saying for years: that the Collingwood Football Club had a history of racism and continually ignored it.
Notably, one of the most alarming conclusions was when complaints about racism were made within the club, they weren't responded to in an effective manner. Collingwood has received praise for being an example of what other clubs should be doing to make the workplace a safe space, but the dossier made clear on page one: "Nothing in this review can be taken as exonerating the Club from any alleged wrongdoing."
A few weeks ago when Adam Goodes rejected the AFL's Hall of Fame invitation, it sent the football community into a spin and back to 2015 when he was booed out of the game, referred to as King Kong by former Pies president Eddie McGuire and racially vilified by a young girl. The reactions led to comments like 'he's making it about him' and 'he should get over it'. It was like no time had passed at all. This latest outrage only confirmed just how deeply ingrained racism is in Australian culture.
All this leads to further proof that racism is alive and well in the AFL but also how incidents of racism keep mutating into the next discriminatory act. And sadly, there will be more victims next week and the following weeks after that. Even months down the track. Whatever clubs have been doing isn't working, at least not broadly or consistently. It needs to change. No more official statements. No more hashtags. None of it stems the flow of daily venom.
AFL EXECUTIVE Tanya Hosch recalls, when she was a kid, the only time she ever saw Aboriginal people being cheered for was watching local footy played on community grounds and at school. She would often see them experience racism when they weren't playing football, but when they were on the field they became heroes and were deeply respected. Everyone has their football story. Hosch said this was hers.
Racism is an issue that is close to her heart. Last June, she attended the Black Lives Matter rally in Adelaide to hear the conversation domestically about the sort of deaths in custody in Australia of First Nation people.
"It certainly made me think about a lot of things," she said. "What can I do? And what can we do as a code?"
Speaking via Zoom from her South Australian home, Hosch mentions a Player's Tribune piece that caught her eye penned by Chelsea FC centre back Antonio Rudiger titled "This article will not solve racism in football".
Rudiger wrote about the impact of racism and the different responses that permeate from it: "If you are a human being with a beating heart, you are marked by it forever." What struck a chord with Hosch was how his story had a similar undertone of what Indigenous AFL players go through in the AFL and the desire to be understood. "This is not a 10-minute conversation. This is not an Instagram caption. This is my life. Do you want to understand?" wrote Rudiger.
This August will mark Hosch's fifth anniversary working for the AFL. When she started there was only one Aboriginal board member on a club board of 18. Now there are seven. That's progress. She calls it a significant milestone and is confident that number will grow.
"You've got to have people in decision making roles who represent the diversity of our communities. I'm not saying that because it's tokenistic, I'm saying that because I know it makes a difference to have that around the table," she said. "I'd like to think that my inclusion at the AFL executive has meant that the executive is having conversations they wouldn't have had if I wasn't there."
ESPN asked her what's changed since the Black Lives Matter player-led kneel 12 months ago.
When her and her teams started their review of Rule 35 in 2019 -- now known as the Peek Rule to honour the work of long-term AFL administrator Tony Peek -- they were tasked with identifying measures that would make the game safer for Indigenous players. Following that, two documentaries were released within two months of each other: The Final Quarter and The Australian Dream featuring stories untold about Adam Goodes' sad exit from football and the fallout from being racially vilified.
Hosch felt both films acted as evidence you can't look away from. In an effort to reflect on them both she chose to hit the pause button on furthering the Peek Rule.
"I would do that again. I have no apologies for putting that on hold. That was the right thing to do then," she said. "When you get those moments you can squander them to run with an existing workplan or you can take those opportunities which are actually pretty rare when the broader public discourse is talking about racism."
Much as it did with every other sporting code, the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc with the AFL. Just as Hosch was about to resume the Peek Rule review, the AFL stood down 80 percent of its workforce. Finally, earlier this year, the review was completed, and from it were recommendations that will take three years to implement.
Hosch told ESPN there's a focus on racism and elements aimed at community football which attracts vilification on the field in a way the elite game doesn't. She says, the Black Lives Matter movement, George Floyd's murder, the two Adam Goodes films gave the review a stronger piece of scaffolding around how to set laws that will reduce and eradicate incidents of racism.
It's not shocking to learn that social media platforms have been an antagonistic cesspool for racial abuse and death threats. Last year ESPN reported that there was a surge of abuse between March and September with more than 172 percent increase in image-based abuse. The Indigenous round is considered to be the worst weekend on the AFL calendar. Since then Instagram has made it easier to report abuse and made it more difficult to set up multiple fake accounts.
Hosch says the AFL will continue to deepen their ties with the E-Safety commissioner and platforms like Twitter and Facebook, but cautioned: If we focus on the one-off incidents alone we will never make much of a difference. A short-burst social media campaign about anti-racism doesn't create change. "It's the systemic part that enables racism. That's what needs to be seriously challenged," she said.
The pandemic recovery will impede the AFL's pace at tackling racism. But after the storm clears, the league will need to hit the ground at full tilt to try and recover the loss of diversity staff in the downturn. It's a void that prompts Hosch to admit "If we don't address these issues not only do we end up missing out on untold amounts of talent -- not just playing but at all levels of the ecosystem -- but we'll struggle to be the best that we can be."
A lot can happen in the next five to 10 years and real change will require a blue collar approach from all parts of football. Hosch says the AFL can be more.
"Our best years are ahead of us. We've had some cracking years behind us. I hope that tackling racism and making a substantial change that is undeniable that we've made a contribution against racism. If we don't do that work, then we won't get there."
ON THE morning of June 5 last year, Kangaroos defender and Indigenous player Aaron Hall stood at the top of a circle on the Arden Street oval surrounded by teammates, coaches and trainers who were donning blue and white training gear.
"Right now black lives don't matter to a lot of people," he started off. He spoke for three minutes about the Indigenous deaths in custody and how there's not one conviction.
"Let that sink in. That could be your family. Your great grandfather. Your mother," Hall says. He normalized the feeling of being helpless in this fight against racism but cited education as something everyone can do at home. "But when you see racism, say something. Challenge it," Hall said.
"We're pretty valued in our football club, and in our industry that we are valued and treated equal, but out there in our communities and the world, it's not the same case."— North Melbourne (@NMFCOfficial) June 5, 2020
Aaron Hall addressed the North playing group with an important message this morning. pic.twitter.com/Sb1DvJZRUl
For North Melbourne's Jed Anderson the death of George Floyd hit hard. He first saw the video on Instagram but thought it was fake content. He had to watch it a couple of times to understand what was happening. And when it clicked he felt sick to the stomach.
"It had an impact on me because my pop was part of the stolen generation. He was taken away from his parents and just how much impact that had on him and his life," he said. "It's still happening in Australia and for people to see it (Floyd) live and like that it was really raw."
The 27-year-old said the Black Lives Matter movement and Floyd's death triggered a lot of conversations with his family, his teammates and players in the AFL. As an Indigenous player, Anderson felt empowered when AFL players took a knee and was galvanized by the fact they could influence the general public to make change. But change what exactly?
"Word got around the change rooms pretty quick. We all watched it together. No-one really understood how to feel," he said. "A lot of questions were being asked about the education and understanding behind what was happening and how it's not just an American problem but one that exists in modern day Australia."
If you ask Anderson would he be as brave five years ago to challenge racist abuse, he says no. He felt uncomfortable doing it and didn't want to bring unwanted attention to him and his family because of how hurtful the comments are and the negative impact that can have lasting impressions.
"It's heading in the right direction. It's slowly, slowly getting there. Kids are seeing a lot more influencers getting on board," Anderson said. "The more we educate the younger generation the better we will be in the long run. It's not on and we want to change it."
MUCH EFFORT is being made by independent groups like the Asian Australian Alliance (AAA), an advocacy network which empowers, advocates and creates a platform for change for all Asian Australians. They've just launched their Stop Asian Hate campaign and will be looking to ramp up more digital campaigns to raise anti-racism awareness.
Among them is Molina Asthana, one of the co-founders who is the former commissioner and current advisory board member of the AFL South East Commission. The lawyer from India has spent five years on the board and is an advocate for community sports. She acknowledged that casual racism exists within her community football environs.
"Casual racism is ignored constantly because people don't think it's serious enough. You're targeting a community based on your perception of that community. I get that all the time," she said. "You start wondering if you are considered an Australian or not. I'm perfectly comfortable with who I am. I can't change my ethnicity. My skin colour. And if that has a negative connotation and a reason to not treat me as everyone else then obviously I'm going to start questioning that sense of belonging."
At the end of 2020 there were 87 Indigenous players on AFL lists - around 9 percent of the total playing group. There were only 3 coaches out of 150 employed. And there has never been a senior coach. In the history of the game, only 1 Indigenous umpire has ever made VFL or AFL level. And this lack of diversity at the top of the game, seeps into the grassroots.
When Asthana heads down to local football what she sees is a lack of diversity: on the field, inside the coaches box, umpire's rooms, inside club rooms, in the outer, at the canteen. It's a sea of white people. She says that for people of colour it's hard for them to speak out when they are vilified because the structures aren't the same at club level as it is at the top (AFL).
"Those issues aren't even able to come out in community sport," she said. "It's not a welcoming space for them. If you don't see someone like yourself playing on the field you don't feel that connection to the sport."
A 2019 study investigated how junior sports clubs manage diversity by conducting 100 interviews and 450 surveys with players, coaches, parents and committee members across five sports - football was one of them. The findings showed that racial vilification was common among players as well as spectators. It was occurring among both boys and girls with non-white kids being the targets of abuse. "Our Sudanese boys get vilified every second to third week at least," one club official said. Even though it was found that all the clubs had an official process for handling racial abuse, similar to the one developed for players in the AFL, it wasn't always used.
When news circulated about the AFL recommendations to be made to the Peek Rule, Asthana said it wasn't going to be the silver bullet alone that would create serious change: Laws of vilification are very difficult to prove and most people will not be prosecuted. She believes the rule does discourage racist behaviour, but it doesn't take into account systemic racism that exists and the cultural shift that is required.
"We've seen laws exist before. One example is sexual harassment. But we still see the problem because the cultural problem still exists. And those behaviours have been condoned over a long period of time," she said. "How will you change the structural institution? That's where the work needs to be done."
RACISM CONTINUES to be a wrecking ball in the AFL. In the space of a week, St Kilda's Paddy Ryder was targeted about depression. Then, West Coast Eagles small forward Liam Ryan was called a "Black d--" online; one football fan casually confessed he called Ryan an "ape" during a recent match "in the heat of the moment."
It feels like football hasn't changed all that much in the last 12 months. Indigenous footballers still have to worry about privacy settings and they can't post certain types of photos because it might attract certain types of biting behaviour; Makur Chuot says she doesn't comment on AFLW Instagram posts anymore because of this reason.
But in other ways it seems like progress has turned the landscape to some degree. Former St Kilda player and AFL Indigenous Officer Jason Mifsud says he believes the game has evolved with less on field vilification at the elite level but believes the league still grapples with how to be a big broadcaster for social issues.
"The AFL is the keeper of the code. That means it does have a social obligation to tackle these really complex national issues as they emerge," he said. "There's no shortage of campaigns that last a moment and then the next one turns up. It's one of the complexities around Black Lives Matter and the consistency of advocacy and agitation of your profile as an individual athlete or brand, club, code to stay the course and address those systemic issues."
The worry for Mifsud is that the AFL rests on its laurels and every Sir Doug Nicholls Round they just roll out the latest Indigenous jumpers and historically aged campaigns that's been done over the last 10 years.
"That we become a passive participant -- as opposed to a driving force -- in the endeavour toward a more reconciled nation. That's my biggest fear," he said. "It's a power and a privilege that the AFL has at its disposal. The critical question is: does it know it has that power and privilege? And if so, what does it want to do with it?"
When Nathan Lovett-Murray spoke about his first incident of racial vilification on the Ripple Effect documentary that aired recently, it was the first time he talked about it publicly.
He was nine years-old. He remembers running laps around his school oval when an older kid called him "stinking abo". More vile insults followed with each lap. Lovett-Murray didn't know what racism was, but he knew those words hurt him.
"You hear about racism in the media. It takes you straight back to that moment and how you felt," he said. "It was a lot of healing for myself to be able to share my story."
Throughout his 145-game AFL journey, the Essendon life member recalls feeling more connected with teams that had more Indigenous players on the list. It settled him. He was able to focus on football. He talked about family with them. They hung out and had dinners and some of them talked about dealing with homesickness. It was a brotherhood.
"What shows me if clubs are serious about it is when they're employing Indigenous people to look after the Indigenous players," said the 38-year old. "As a parent you want to make sure that it is a culturally safe space whatever club they are going to."
If the AFL is to move forward, Lovett-Murray says educating fans who come to games on what racism is and its impact is a start. He also wants the league to heavily target trolls online - but identifying them is difficult.
Tackling racism is bigger than the AFL but the league can take ownership of their own ecosystem. To get there it's going to take a collective effort full of persistence where actions outweigh the words and brightly lit digital campaigns.
It's going to take a set of diverse voices, hires, people in leadership roles - presidents, coaches, boards. It's going to take more than protests and movements. It's going to take more than just a knee. Maybe the AFL will get it right. Maybe they won't. But it's past the point of wondering what the next step might be.
"Be a Nicky Winmar. Stand up," said Lovett-Murray. "We need allies. We can't accept this anymore."