AFL investigating ‘harrowing’ allegations of bullying of Indigenous players at Hawthorn

Hawthorn have been hit by ‘harrowing’ claims of bullying

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The Australian Football League (AFL) is investigating “extremely serious” allegations about the treatment of Indigenous former players at 13-times champions Hawthorn, including one player who said coaches urged him to have his partner’s pregnancy aborted.

Citing an independent review commissioned by Hawthorn, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported that the club’s staff had separated players from their families and controlled communication between them so they would focus on their careers.

The players were not identified in either the review or the ABC report.

One player said former head coach Alastair Clarkson and assistant coach Chris Fagan were among Hawthorn staff who urged him to “get rid” of his unborn child and separate from his partner, according to the ABC.

“He told me to kill my unborn kid,” the report quoted the player as saying of Clarkson. “I was then manipulated and convinced to remove my SIM card from my phone, so there was no further contact between my family and me.

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“They told me I’d be living with one of the other coaches from that night onwards.”

The player said he had made multiple suicide attempts since leaving Hawthorn and that the club had broken him “as a man, as a footballer and as a family man,” the ABC reported.

Clarkson, who led Hawthorn to four AFL championships from 2008-15, left the club last year after 17 seasons as head coach and was recently appointed to coach North Melbourne, where he was due to start work on 1 November.

However, North Melbourne said Clarkson would delay the start of his tenure to fully participate in the AFL’s investigation.

“The North Melbourne Football Club is aware of serious historical allegations made against individuals who worked at the Hawthorn Football Club, including incoming North Melbourne coach Alastair Clarkson,” the club said in a statement.

“The matters raised are now with the AFL’s Integrity Unit and Alastair welcomes the opportunity to co-operate with any investigation relating to the claims.”

Former head coach Alastair Clarkson is one of those under investigation

Clarkson’s management did not respond to requests for comment from Reuters.

Fagan left Hawthorn after the 2016 season to coach the Brisbane Lions.

The Lions said on Wednesday they had “mutually agreed” with Fagan that he should step down immediately to cooperate with the AFL investigation.

The club added that Fagan was not consulted during Hawthorn’s review and he looked forward to being heard.

The AFL said it would set up an external panel to investigate further.

“These are serious allegations, it is important we treat them appropriately, while also ensuring the formal process provides support for those impacted and also natural justice to those people who are accused,” AFL Chief Executive Gillon McLachlan said on Wednesday morning.

“This is a process that is appropriate to be held independent of the normal AFL Integrity department response. There is harrowing stories, there is increasing courage of the complainants to speak out.

“Both sides need to be heard and the process will flesh that out. It’s inappropriate to make a comment in advance of that.

“At face value, it’s hard to find more serious allegations. We need to do more, and we will. We need greater education and safety in our game, and we will do that.

“There are so many people hurting today and have been hurting for a long time. As a game we will do everything to ensure the hurt you experienced is not a hurt experienced by others.”

Hawthorn said it had received the final report of the review two weeks ago and immediately passed it on to the AFL’s integrity unit.

The club said neither management nor the board were aware of the allegations until the review’s submission.

Once slow to recruit talent from Indigenous communities, Hawthorn developed a slew of Indigenous champion players in the past two decades.

Elite forward Lance Franklin, now at the Sydney Swans, and the retired trio of Chance Bateman, Cyril Rioli and Shaun Burgoyne were key contributors to the club’s dominant phase from 2008-15.

Hawthorn commissioned the review this year after Rioli, who retired in 2018 at the peak of his career, said his decision to quit was triggered by a remark made by President Jeff Kennett to Rioli’s wife.

Kennett, who later apologised to the Rioli family, defended Hawthorn’s culture in April and said neither he nor the club were racist.

Hawthorn Chief Executive Justin Reeves said the club had offered support to the relevant players and families, though they remained “de-identified”.

“It’s tough reading, it’s heartbreaking,” he said of the review. “We are profoundly disappointed that some of our former players and their families feel like this, about their experiences at the club.”

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Reeves said the review had given him confidence that current Hawthorn players felt “culturally safe”.

“But like so many institutions we have to face our history and our past.”

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