AFL investigates continued abuse of Indigenous players


Performers depicting the Indigenous flag. Photo: Michael Coghlan (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It was barely two rounds into the 2023 AFL season, when racism reared its ugly head again – during the Western Bulldogs’ loss to St Kilda, racial abuse was directed towards Indigenous forward Jamarrah Ugle-Hagan.

Both sides were quick to condemn the abuse, with the Western Bulldogs saying racism “of any kind does not belong in our game, nor in our society.”

“We cannot tolerate it,” the club said in a statement.

The AFL was also quick to come out in full support of the young star while the Herald Sun described the abuse as ‘horrific’.

‘The hunt is under way to identify the culprits of ‘abhorrent’ racist attacks… during and after Saturday night’s match against St Kilda,” the publication stated.

Now, the AFL integrity unit is investigating the abuse not just of Ugle-Hagan, but of four other Indigenous players (the Brisbane Lions’ Charlie Cameron, the Fremantle Dockers’ Michael Walters and Nathan Wilson, and the Adelaide Crows’ Izak Rankine) who were vilified on social media in the span of two days.

I’m angry and disappointed that we as a footy club as well as an industry, have to constantly deal with this.

— Greg Swann, Brisbane Lions CEO

With such a rich history of Indigenous players and culture within the AFL, as well as the ever-growing education for players and fans, some may ask why this still occurs in this day and age.

While many individuals blame it on lack of awareness, others are questioning if the AFL has done enough to intervene with this clearly prevalent, and ongoing, issue.

The attack on Ugle-Hagan occurred nearly 30 years to the day that Indigenous former St Kilda superstar Nicky Winmars lifted his jumper and pointed at his skin colour to opposition fans who’d persistently racially vilified him.

In a fitting fashion Winmar’s gesture was copied by Ugle Hagan the week after he was attacked in an exciting, five goal match-winning performance against the Brisbane Lions.

In a heartbreaking interview with Dale Thomas following the Dogs’ win he said he “did want to make a stance.”

“Proving a point that I’m just a boy trying to play some football – same as the other Indigenous boys,” he said.

The powerful and emotional statement was a reminder of what Indigenous football players continue to have to endure, proving the issue remains within our game.

An AFL players’ union survey conducted in 2022 found that of the then 92 players surveyed who were Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander or a person of colour, 29 had experienced racism while listed as an AFL player.

Devastatingly, only 17% of those players felt their abuse was dealt with entirely, while 21% said they were “somewhat partially” dealt with, and 62% said their incidents were not dealt with at all.

The study also found that there were “reported incidences of vilification from people within the industry,” which also blatantly suggests the AFL has some sinister issues to deal with.

While some will argue the league is doing everything it can, an article published by Ben Abbatangelo about the contradictory nature of the AFL’s ‘no room for racism’ slogan delves into how the issue runs deeper than just verbal and online abuse.

“Slogans are meaningless,” Abbatangelo argues, “if the league continues to partner with entities detrimental to Indigenous Australians.”

He refers to various sponsorships and partnerships of the AFL or its clubs such as Fremantle and Woodside, West Coast and BHP, and other arrangements with organisations that “destroy Aboriginal culture” and “damage (Indigenous) heritage.”

This once again suggests that the league needs to do a lot more to rectify the issue and grab it by the scruff of the neck to protect our oldest culture and the game we love.

Can you imagine an AFL without Nicky Winmar, Eddie Betts, Peter Matera, or Buddy Franklin?

The culture of Indigenous Australia is woven within the fabric of footy, through the original roots of marngrook, which is why holding the AFL accountable and urging it to go above and beyond to eradicate racism in the game is so crucial.