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Connolly: Hawthorn allegations reflective of wider racism problem in society

Football, we have a problem. Actually, no. It's much bigger than that. Australia, we have a problem. It's racism. And Wednesday's shocking revelations concerning the Hawthorn Football Club simply underscore its extent.

What makes the sickening allegations about the Hawks' pressuring of young Indigenous players to separate from their partners and in one instance actually terminate a pregnancy for the sake of the player's career even more significant?

It's because the AFL has for 30-odd years now been seen as a culturally progressive organisation leading the way in the understanding and treatment of Indigenous people and culture.

The football industry's employees have more exposure to and contact with Indigenous lifestyle than Australian society at large. They have more resources upon which to draw to educate themselves in the business of dealing with First Nations people. They supposedly "get it".

So what else can you conclude from these allegations, if true, about the behaviour and attitudes of key figures within a club so disgraceful and anachronistic it's actually hard to comprehend, other than that if this is taking place in so-called enlightened surrounds, how bad must it be around the rest of the country?

I've long believed that a major reason Australia still grapples so frequently with racism is a fundamental failure to refine its definition.

The contrarians on this issue inevitably point to the relative scarcity these days of overt racism, of abuse signalled directly at a target.

And yes, by definitions of the 1970s, we appear to be less racist than we were. What they fail to recognise, however, is the undiminished presence of a more institutionalised form of racism, inherent in the paternalism and condescension of white society towards Indigenous people, the suggestion that "we" know what's best for "them", that these allegations lay strikingly bare.

The Hawthorn horror story even carries with it echoes of the "Stolen Generations", almost unbelievably in an elite, 21st century professional sporting environment.

But AFL football, both its clubs and its central administration, seemingly prefer to turn away when discussion about Indigenous culture in this country isn't confined to the nice stuff, the spectacular on-field exploits of stars like Cyril Rioli and Kosi Pickett, or romantic images of small children playing football barefoot as the sun sets on a central Australian vista.

AFL football is particularly big on gestures, particularly when it comes to Indigenous issues, things like Sir Doug Nicholls Round, and the wearing of special jumpers designed by Indigenous players or artists.

Tokenism is easy, though, what about when it comes to real action? Why, for example, are there several AFL clubs still without sufficient resources to look after their Indigenous playing contingents, in some cases comprising nearly one quarter of their entire playing list?

Football the industry is good at tut-tutting and saying the right things when yet another Indigenous player is the subject of foul social media abuse from Joe Public. That's an easy free kick, the perpetrator cast easily as a rogue outsider not reflective of the vast majority.

But the game isn't as good at dealing with its own. That can be the case when it's a careless bit of casual racism, to which the standard defence is almost always a "slip of the tongue", an "accident" and "not a racist bone in his body", rather than courting the less comfortable idea that those slips and stumbles might reflect an uglier unconscious truth.

It might be the case when clubs continue to make their players from minority racial groups feel unsafe in their workplace by subjecting them to racism disguised as supposedly good-natured banter. Or it might be the case when there's a disturbing lack of haste in dealing with such allegations.

Think, for example, about the AFL's failure to act with any sort of speed or authority after the disgraceful public treatment of Adam Goodes. Think of Heritier Lumumba's ostracisation and demonisation as some sort of troubled nuisance for a long time after he raised allegations of racism at Collingwood. Think of the lack of action which followed Adelaide's infamous preseason training camp.

Messy situations all, in which the game, be it via the AFL administration or that of its clubs, was reluctant to take a strong stand and walk the walk, preferring only to talk the talk via romantic montages of Eddie Betts' goals.

Then there's perhaps the ultimate in grim irony from Russell Jackson's shocking report for the ABC, the tale of the Indigenous Hawthorn recruit who was determined to avoid the social traps which threatened to trigger childhood trauma, and was then reproached by coaching staff for not being sociable enough. Damned if he did, damned if he didn't.

Of course these allegations will be vigorously contested by Alastair Clarkson and Chris Fagan. Of course there will be plenty of scepticism from some who genuinely can't bear to believe the claims could be true.

Clarkson issued a statement saying he "was not afforded any due process and I refute any allegation of wrongdoing or misconduct and look forward to the opportunity to be heard as part of the AFL external investigation."

The Hawthorn Football Club also issued a statement, saying "This important work has raised disturbing historical allegations that require further investigation. Upon learning of these allegations, the club immediately engaged AFL Integrity as is appropriate."

And the AFL said it was taking the allegations "very seriously" and is "finalising a process to investigate the allegations and has sought further details of those who shared their experiences in order to progress its investigation."

And what of the aforementioned Betts? The champion player, already on the record this season about his own horrific experiences with racism, was asked during an emotionally charged appearance on AFL360 if he believed the allegations.

"I'm always going to believe the players and the brothers, as we've faced this is all systems not just AFL... we grew up with this stuff,' Betts said.

Whatever the outcome of the independent investigation commissioned by the AFL, this must not be a horrific episode discussed only in isolation. It's the recurring theme in these on-going horrific episodes which should most trouble the league.

And it's the fact a game which prides itself on its progressive social values is still dealing with this ugly spectre 30 years down the track from when it was first tackled that should indeed trouble us all as a nation.