Racial and Religious Code Work Like Majak

By Tanja Kovac

Last month, the first Sudanese refugee to be drafted to play in the Australian Football League, was subjected to racial abuse by a spectator during a VFL game between the Werribee Tigers and Port Melbourne.

Majak Daw is currently being groomed for professional football by the North Melbourne Kangaroos and plays regularly for their feeder club. He said it was the first time he had experienced racism of this kind and that the comments made him “feel small”.

The behaviour was quickly condemned by Daw, North Melbourne, the VFL teams and Victoria Police, with the spectator banned from attending games for the rest of the season. He will undergo racial and religious tolerance training and provide a written apology to Daw. The AFL also stepped into the fray, with CEO Andrew Demetriou condemning the fan’s conduct in the press.

The banning of a spectator is significant and historic. It is also not without difficulty. Identifying racial abusers amongst a large crowd of sports fans is complicated and policing the ban requires resources. Smaller crowds at VFL matches make enforcement easier, though Demetriou told talk radio recently that, “There are means we can stop people coming to the ground, make no mistake”.

The story of the AFL’s transformation into a crusading reformer on this issue, prepared to refuse entry to racist fans, was achieved by combining rules and laws with a long term, organisation-wide education program.

Before the introduction of the AFL’s Racial and Religious Vilification Rule in 1995, racism was rife on and off the field, especially towards Aboriginal players. In 1932, Sir Doug Nicholls was rejected as a recruit to Carlton for being “too smelly” before finally joining Fitzroy, where he was forced to dress on his own in a corner.

Jimmy Krakouer’s playing career was punctuated by a series of match bans imposed on him for striking out at other players, usually in retaliation to racist taunts. Sean Gorman, in his book Brotherboys: The Story of Jim and Philip Krakouer, drew a connection between the years of racial abuse suffered while playing footy and Krakouer’s later criminal behaviour.

But the role of racism in the AFL is forever captured by the iconic image of St Kilda player Nicky Winmar, lifting his jersey in pride to reveal his black skin. Winmar, who had been subjected to racial abuse from Collingwood fans all day, chose a gesture of non-violence and paved the way for Michael Long to make a formal complaint about racial abuse two years later.

The AFL’s response was to introduce Rule 30 – A rule to combat racial and religious vilification.

AFL Rule 30 prohibits conduct between players, clubs and other AFL officials which threatens, disparages, vilifies or insults another person on the basis of that person’s race, religion, colour, descent or ethnic origin. A complaint procedure, which includes a first stage conciliation followed by referral to the AFL Tribunal or Commission, replicates anti-discrimination law procedure at state and federal level.  Players who commit racial and religious vilification are forced to pay to the AFL a sum of money, which varies according to whether it is a first time offence. In addition, first time offenders must attend an education program conducted by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission or related bodies in other states. The cost of such courses is met by the club of the player involved.

Where a player has had previous involvement in prohibited conduct, the matter may be referred immediately to the AFL Tribunal to be dealt with as a Reportable Offence under the Laws of Australian Football leading to suspension. Clubs may be held vicariously liable for the actions of players or officials and must co-ordinate and keep records of ongoing education programs.

Rule 30 has profoundly changed the culture of the AFL. It has done this not just through the legal sanction of players and clubs, but by normalising the complaint making process by players, clubs and spectators.  The sanctions have contributed to behavioural change. The penalty system hurts clubs and players by suspending them from play whilst also hitting the hip pocket.

Justin Sherman of the Western Bulldogs recently abused Joel Wilkinson of the Gold Coast Suns, who was born in Nigeria. Sherman received a four week suspension, $5,000 fine (to be given to a charity), and must now take part in the club’s Red Dust Program, mentoring indigenous youth in remote communities.

But no one watching Sherman’s apology could fail to recognise the greatest impact of Rule 30 lies in  the publicly shaming of players.

Rule 30 has transferred the focus of embarrassment and ridicule from the victim of racial abuse to the perpetrator. Sherman’s chagrin demonstrated his awareness that racists are unlikely to elevate themselves to heroes of the game or more senior roles at a club. Likewise, sponsors pay a premium to sport stars who are also good sports. A violator of Rule 30 reduces his value on and off the field.

Justin Sherman was the first player in 13 years to have been suspended under Rule 30. The AFL has so reduced incidents of racial and religious vilification between players that such incidents now are greeted with shock and amazement. “The AFL is for everyone” said AFL Operations Manager Adrian Anderson “and we won’t tolerate this sort of behaviour”.  A zero tolerance approach to racism has made recent incidents the exception rather than the rule.

Rule 30 has also radically transformed the way the AFL recruits, nurtures and mentors indigenous players.

Jason Mifsud, National Community Engagement Manager for the AFL (who also happens to be a Gunditjmara man), pointed out at a recent conference organised by the community organisation Sports Without Borders that indigenous players make up 11 per cent of the AFL player list and 10 per cent of draft picks. Considering indigenous Australians represent just 2.7 per cent of the total population, it is clear that the AFL’s strategy to nurture and mentor indigenous talent has much to commend it.

Mifsud believes the AFL’s success should be studied and emulated in other areas.

One area of society that could learn a lot from the AFL is the legal profession. Sport, with its dependence on rules and codes of conduct, has much in common with the law.

Yet despite anti-discrimination laws at a federal level and the introduction of racial and religious tolerance and human rights protections, indigenous people continue to be over-represented in the justice system and under-represented in the legal profession.

While indigenous youth represent 60 per cent of the young people in juvenile justice, only 0.2 per cent of lawyers working in the profession are aboriginal. Clearly the statistics are related.  Improving recruitment and retention of indigenous lawyers in the profession will reduce the volume of indigenous people in courts and prisons.

Despite this, the Law Council of Australia is only now developing a Reconciliation Action Plan. It has a long way to go before it can compete with the AFL in boasting that the Bar is 11 per cent indigenous.

The AFL is of course, not perfect. Mifsud acknowledges that there is still a long way to go to recruit indigenous people into governance positions, coaching roles and senior management. Despite the Fair Game Respect Matters program working to prevent violence against women, poor behaviour of players off the field suggests that gender equality is still at its infancy in the code. VFL commentator and former player, Phil Cleary recently criticised the AFL for individualising cases of racism, such as the one involving Majak Daw, rather than tackling racism on a systemic basis. “As long as the AFL ignores racism at work in the broader social context, including the grassroots level of the sport, it is open to the accusation that it is merely protecting its brand rather than genuinely tackling the problem”, he said.

It is true that Majak Daw is an important ambassador for the AFL. But by investing in the Multicultural Development Program and creating and enforcing Rule 30, the league has shown a genuine desire to introduce Aussie Rules to new arrivals unfamiliar with the game, and to win over supporters from nations whose preferred ball is round.

Yes, Daw is good business for North Melbourne Football Club, which has struggled since the creation of a national league to build a fan base to match those enjoyed by other Victorian teams. The arrival of a new wave of migrants from the Horn of Africa, and their settlement concentration in Housing Commission flats in Flemington and Kensington, has given the club a new growth strategy.

But the support Majak Daw has enjoyed from his club and the competition as a whole is much more than an exercise in cynicism. While no profession is perfect, there is much others can learn from the AFL’s commitment to strong rules, strong sanctions and continuous education. These are the hallmarks of Rule 30 and the result has been an amazing cultural change in the sport.

Tanja Kovac is a writer and lawyer. She is also National Co-ordinator of the Human Rights are Aussie Rules Program.