‘It’s awakened a consciousness in me’: Collingwood urges AFL clubs to conduct racism reviews

<span>Photograph: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Collingwood says it is making strides to remove the stain of racism and wants other AFL teams to learn from its lessons, two years after an external review found systemic racism within the club.

The Do Better report, the result of an independent review in 2020 by the Jumbunna Institute, outlined 18 recommendations for Collingwood to transform its processes, values and culture to become a more inclusive workplace – all of which were adopted by the club.

“In all of the recommendations of the report there’s a tick,” Dr Helen Szoke, who led the expert advisory group to oversee Do Better’s implementation, said. The group submitted its final report card to the Collingwood board last month, noting 14 of the recommendations had been completed and four remained in progress.

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Key actions Collingwood has taken since Do Better include updating the club’s values with a clear stance against racism, revising its recruitment approach to encourage hiring diverse people and requiring all staff to undertake cultural awareness education.

The club welcomed back former Indigenous stars Leon Davis and Andrew Krakouer to help lead efforts on cultural awareness, which the president, Jeff Browne, said had a “really powerful effect”.

“It’s awakened a consciousness in me and I can tell you absolutely it’s had the same effect on others around the board table as we’ve listened to what we’ve had to hear,” he said.

Davis, a Ballardong and Whadjuk man who played for the Magpies for 11 years, has previously spoken out about the racism he experienced.

“When I played I obviously did not have as much support as I needed culturally and being in an environment like that was very, very hard at times,” he said.

Steele Sidebottom, one of the most senior players at Collingwood and a former teammate of Davis, said having him speak to players about the things he went through “made me think, like, why didn’t I do something?”.

“Back then I wasn’t aware of it. He spoke about it, he would be the last one to come in, because he almost didn’t feel included at times. If I knew that back then I would’ve stayed out with him.”

Related: Davis and Krakouer return to Collingwood to help drive cultural change

Since the Do Better report landed, the club has twice changed its president, injected new personnel on the board, welcomed a new football director and coach, and has diversified its workforce.

Part of the response to Do Better was setting a 5% target for Indigenous representation in its workforce – not just players. The club confirmed it had reached that target.

“Having people of colour in more senior positions within the club is just as important as actually having the value statement,” Szoke said.

Szoke, a former race discrimination commissioner, highlighted the work of board member Jodie Sizer, a Djap Wurrung and Gunditjmara woman who helped steer change within the organisation.

“There’s no doubt that having Jodie Sizer on the board of Collingwood and having her filter on how these decisions are being made has been absolutely critical,” she said.

The challenge for Collingwood now, Szoke said, is ensuring its new processes function in the event of any future issue.

“The club needs to be ready to respond to whatever incident wherever it happens, whether it’s a fan, whether it’s an umpire, whether it’s another player,” she said. “The test for Collingwood will be in how they respond.”

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Browne has confidence the new systems in place will build an inclusive club in the long-term – new candidates, for example, must now go through a values assessment. He noted the difference with the recent experience of Essendon’s short-lived chief executive Andrew Thorburn, who resigned a day after being awarded the job due to his affiliations with a church that espoused homophobic and anti-abortion views.

“The views that surrounded Andrew Thorburn are not inclusive,” Browne said. “They are harmful to everyone, not only the groups identified, because it starts to break down our cultural understanding of tolerance and inclusiveness. I wouldn’t welcome anybody into this club who promoted a lack of inclusiveness.”

The club is vowing to take a hardline against racism in crowds. “If they’re a member of the club, they’ll be dealt with by the club,” Browne stressed. “If I found out someone was taking an extreme view, or had extreme rightwing views that could be dangerous to people, then they wouldn’t be a member of this club.”

But Browne said education, not punishment, is the key to combatting racism, and hopes other AFL clubs will be encouraged by Collingwood’s experience.

“Should other clubs or the AFL do it [an internal review on racism]?” he said. “Yes, I think they should.

“Do the same yourself. If you want to learn from us, learn from us.”