When Australian Football League (AFL) CEO Gill McLachlan signed the mother of all broadcast rights deals with Channel 7, Kayo Sports and Foxtel in September, it should have been the jewel in his multi-million dollar crown.
Closed just weeks before the AFL Grand Final, the deal is worth $4.5 billion over the next seven years. Its product reach is so broad, it has raised serious concerns it might kill off free-to-air games.
Nonetheless, the ink was dry and the AFL, its clubs and liquor and gaming affiliates were more than happy to move on to the annual revenue bonanza — the Grand Final Season.
Having already announced his retirement at the end of the year, after a tumultuous tenure, McLachlan must have been ready to go out in a blaze of broadcast-deal premiership glory.
But the game can change very quickly in the last quarter if any one of the team fumbles the play.
The AFL was set to score an own goal: a time bomb of its own making was about to blow up in its face.
History ever repeats
Since Australia’s first Indigenous Victorian Football League player Joe Johnson ran onto the paddock for Fitzroy in 1904, the AFL has struggled to treat First Nations players with the same equality and respect their non-Indigenous counterparts — and their wives, girlfriends and families — can take for granted.
From Nicky Winmar’s 1993 slap down of racist Collingwood fans by lifting his jersey and proudly pointing to his black skin, to the 1999 suspension of St Kilda star Peter Everitt for racially abusing Melbourne’s Scott Chisholm during a game there are too many examples of players having to find a way of protesting racism.
There have been some notable attempts to address racism in AFL, such as the Rule 30 initiative, but club executives kept putting public relations above player welfare. The list of Integrity Unit investigations just kept getting longer.
From bad to worse
Sydney Swans champion Adam Goodes was racially insulted in early 2013, during an Indigenous Round match, by an AFL fan who turned out to be a 13-year-old girl.
Goodes wanted education rather than penalty, but the incident had already sparked a social and mass media firestorm, along with a sustained booing campaign by an AFL fan base who were used to getting away with it.
Many had high hopes that things would change. They didn’t, resulting in a fed-up Goodes finally quitting AFL in 2015.
BLM and AFL collide
Seven months after the Goodes saga, Collingwood premiership star Harry O’Brien reclaimed his African heritage and his original name, Héritier Lumumba, in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Lumumba then publicly confronted Collingwood President Eddie McGuire about racism at the club, and told the ABC he was “made a pariah and mauled by the press” for it behind closed doors.
It triggered another publicity storm that was so fierce that Collingwood was forced to announce a workplace safety review.
The resulting report, Do Better — Independent review into Collingwood Football Club, was given to the Collingwood board in late 2020.
By February, Collingwood still had not publicly responded. It had mistimed the play badly, holding the ball way too long. Inevitably, the report was leaked to the media, forcing McGuire to front the cameras in his now infamous car-crash presser.
It laid bare the systemic racism and terrible abuse Indigenous players and their families were suffering, and both Collingwood and the AFL’s wider corporate paralysis in dealing with it.
The fallout was intense. The chaos led McGuire — who has a history of racist leadership — to leave the Collingwood presidency a year early. Reading the frustration in the room, the AFL again promised change.
The Hawthorn report
When the Hawthorn racism review scandal broke in the early hours of September 21, the frustration turned to despair. The Hawthorn allegations are so serious, their harm so egregious, its author Phil Egan said it was “like a nightmare” and called for an audit of all clubs.
The need for an all-clubs racism audit was echoed by Indigenous AFL great Eddie Betts. A racist, who was later banned, threw a banana at Betts at an Adelaide game in 2016.
The latest report echoed all the rest: racism at the AFL is systemic and management driven.
Making matters worse, the AFL had been sitting on the Hawthorn review report for two weeks, perhaps hoping to put it off at least until after the Grand Final.
That anyone thought parking it behind the grandstand until after the game was a good idea helps explain why it keeps getting worse.
It also just keeps getting paid.
How much public money is too much?
The AFL enjoys so much public funding that it markets itself as “proud partners” with all state and territory governments as well as the Commonwealth, their logos displayed with its corporate sponsors.
Public funding to AFL clubs is a complex, lucrative game of “political football” with politicians falling over themselves to give sports clubs money to curry favour with the community.
It might include state funding such as the New South Wales government’s $15 million for the GIANTS Stadium and facility upgrades. Or it may be a federal grant, such as for Collingwood’s $15 million sports program. Or individual grants to community-level clubs via the Local Sport Grant Program.
Add election promises and pork-barrelling, such as the “sports rorts” scandal that engulfed the Scott Morrison government, and you get an idea of just how big a pot of taxpayer’s money it is.
Yet neither AFL or the National Rugby League and their now monstrously profitable clubs pay any tax, despite the massive public investment.
Turfmate noted that football clubs since 1936 have been tax-exempt, the rule intended to allow community clubs tax relief in exchange for providing local facilities and encouraging sports participation.
It alleges that clubs game the system to amass operational surpluses, rather than using funding for the intended community good.
The AFL is raking in billions, its clubs bloated with alcohol and gambling profits funnelled in from the community.
Meanwhile, AFL fans run the gauntlet of privatised ticket sellers, price-gouging airlines and exorbitant catering prices to watch their beloved game that they could once take the kids to for free in a stadium their taxes have already paid for.
This is the polar opposite of what the original tax exemption ruling — and indeed the sports grant structure itself — was supposed to achieve.
Starting with one man in 1904, there are now more than 80 Indigenous players in the AFL. Yet, their basic human and workplace rights are still not being protected.
If we want racism out of sport, at the very least MPs need to stop publicly funding it while expecting a different corporate result.