Anti-vilification code 25 years on: How the AFL transformed Australia's sporting landscape

The AFL’s anti-vilification code eradicated player-to-player racism within the league and made the competition the envy of Australia’s sporting landscape, according to new research by Monash University. 

Just before the AFL’s annual Sir Doug (Douglas) Nicholls Indigenous Round, new research was published by the Monash Business School in The International Journal of the History of Sport that explored the genesis and contributing factors behind the establishment of the league’s anti-vilification code in 1995 - the first of its kind in any Australian sport.

Drawing on exclusive interviews with former AFL Chairman and CEO Ross Oakley; former media manager and senior executive, the late Tony Peek; and Indigenous player with Footscray (now the Western Bulldogs) and Brisbane Bears, Michael McLean, Monash researchers examined how First Nations players worked with each other, and with AFL leadership to fight racial vilification on the field and in the club rooms.

The research team of Associate Professor Lionel Frost, Associate Professor Pieter Van Dijk and Associate Professor Andrea Kirk-Brown from Monash Business School’s Peninsula campus, found that before the 1990s, Aboriginal players in Victoria were nearly always invisible.

Some of the greatest among them, such as Graham ‘Polly’ Farmer and Barry Cable, were not widely known to be Indigenous until after their careers were over.

Associate Professor Frost, Head of Monash Business School’s Peninsula campus – and Carlton Blues tragic – said Indigenous players throughout history were subjected to horrific racial and physical abuse based on their skin colour. Even worse, they had no recourse for action.

During the VFL era, Associate Professor Frost said the onus was on players to ‘bury the hatchet’ after games and not complain about their on-field treatment - whether that be racial abuse, verbal insults or physical violence.

“If umpires reported a player for a violent act, players would lie at the tribunal to help others escape suspension. ‘Squealing’ to the media or tribunal about what happened broke the ‘player code’ and was considered to be inconsistent with Australian values,” Associate Professor Frost said.

“For Indigenous players, this meant they could only respond to racial vilification by ignoring it, retaliating or withdrawing from the game.

“Syd Jackson, whom this year’s AFL Indigenous Round celebrates, found the Melbourne winters to be particularly cold. Carlton was a multicultural club, and he felt welcome there, but often confronted racial abuse on the field and from spectators.”

In 1993, Nicky Winmar made history by turning to a section of the crowd at Victoria Park that had been taunting him all day, lifting his St Kilda guernsey and pointing to his black skin.

Two years later, Essendon’s Michael Long insisted his club make a formal complaint with the AFL over a racist remark made to him by Collingwood’s Damien Monkhorst.

Soon after, McLean was racially abused by an Essendon fan - an adult with a child in tow - while retrieving a ball from near the boundary fence. From a position of trust and respect within a network of Indigenous players, McLean emerged as a leader who bridged the divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous stakeholders, keeping them involved in collaborative dialogue.

The AFL had to act, and subsequently produced a draft code to tackle racial vilification. However progress was slow because no comparable models from other sporting codes existed.

Oakley instructed AFL media manager Tony Peek to interview Indigenous players so the AFL could better understand the scope of the problem. McLean, Long, Gilbert McAdam (Brisbane Bears) and Che Cockatoo Collins (Essendon) emerged as natural leaders in the group. They argued that educating non-Indigenous players was crucial.

“The AFL anti-vilification code was developed smoothly after these discussions. Vilified players were empowered to make a complaint through their club or umpire on the day. The AFL would attempt to resolve the issue through mediation in the case of a first offence, and if the vilified player was unhappy with the outcome of the mediation, the case would be referred to the AFL tribunal,” Associate Professor Frost said.

“After the Code of Conduct was introduced, it was going to be very hard for anyone to resist. You wouldn’t have lasted in the game. The penalties are really severe, not only for a first offence, but a third offence would see you out of the game.”

Associate Professor Frost said unlike legislative provisions relating to racial vilification, the AFL rules don’t require a public act, resulting in possible incitement, to take place. Players abused in private can make a direct complaint.

It is this reason, according to the paper, that player-to-player racial vilification has been eradicated from the AFL.

“However, fan abuse at matches and on social media remains a serious issue as it can be difficult to identify abusers,” Associate Professor Frost said.

“In 2019, UEFA partially closed some stadiums for Euro 2020 qualifying matches and established a three-step protocol, with the referee to abandon a match if announcements inside a stadium don’t stop racial abuse by fans.

“But overall, the experience of Indigenous AFL players contains positive lessons for activists in other arenas. Making connections across divides at a grassroots level is a powerful way of gathering strength and building momentum for a cause.”

This year, the AFL’s Sir Doug Nicholls Indigenous Round was held across two weeks, with games in Darwin, Alice Springs, Sydney, Adelaide and Perth.

Associate Professor Lionel Frost led the study with support from Associate Professor Pieter Van Dijk and Associate Professor Andrea Kirk-Brown, Monash Business School

To download a copy of the article, please visit https://doi.org/10.1080/09523367.2021.1895759

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Leigh Dawson

T: +61 455 368 260 E: media@monash.edu