Hawthorn at centre of ‘disturbing’ allegations involving treatment of First Nations players

WARNING: This story contains intergenerational trauma for Indigenous people and pregnancy loss

UPDATE: AFL boss Gillon McLachlan says an independent, external review will be set-up to investigate what he says are “harrowing” accusations against the Hawthorn club.

The Hawks have confirmed a club-commissioned review has uncovered “disturbing historical allegations” involving treatment of First Nations players during the time that Alastair Clarkson was head coach and current Brisbane Lions head coach, Chris Fagan, was a senior member of staff.

It comes after the ABC published a report containing graphic examples of alleged mistreatment of the players.

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It alleges young First Nations players were separated from their partners, and that one couple was pressured to terminate a pregnancy in order to help the player’s career.

“Sharing these stories is not easy,” McLachlan said. “But, it is important that you do, and I want to thank you all who shared their experiences as part of this review.

“These are serious allegations, and it’s important that we treat them appropriately, whilst also ensuring the formal process provides support to those impacted and also natural justice to those people who are accused.”

McLachlan said the league needed to be at arm’s length to the investigation.

“This is a process that is appropriate to be held independent to the normal AFL integrity department response,” he said.

“As such, we appointing an external, independent panel, that will be made up of four people, led by an eminent King’s Counsel.

“(It) will have the right mix of diversity and an approach that prioritises cultural safety for all those that have shared their experiences.”

McLachlan said none of the accused have been stood down at this stage, noting that the timeframe means they’ve since moved on to other positions.

“I had conversations this morning with clubs, representatives of those accused, and I feel that the way they will be approaching this impending investigation will be clear today,” he said.

“I will leave it to the clubs and the representatives to make their positions clear.”

In a statement released earlier on Wednesday, the Hawks conceded the allegations were “disturbing”.

“Earlier this year the Hawthorn Football Club engaged external First Nations consultants to liaise with current and former First Nations players and staff to learn more about their experience at the club,” the club said in a statement.

“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.

“The club will continue to provide support to those who have participated in this process, and their wellbeing remains our priority.”

The ABC report says the club had more than 20 First Nations players during the period under review.

It also alleges the club asked at least two players to swap SIM cards in their mobile phones in order to separate them from their partners and devote their energies to football.

“While the process indicated the current environment at the club is culturally safe, it also recommended that some of the club’s current First Nations training and development programs should continue to be strengthened,” the club said.

“The club places the best interests and welfare of our players and staff as our number one priority.

“Given the matters raised are confidential, the club will not provide any further comment at this time.”

According to the ABC, one player, given the pseudonym “Ian”, alleged he was encouraged by the club to have his partner’s pregnancy terminated, and to leave his partner and move in with an assistant coach.

“It was so intimidating, confusing and upsetting,” Ian told the ABC.

Victorian sports minister, Steve Dimopoulos, said the claims need to be fully investigated.

“They are extraordinarily serious allegations, and I feel for everybody involved,” he said.

“I’ve spoken to the AFL, and they will investigate them thoroughly and comprehensively.”

In a statement, the AFL says the allegations will be treated “extremely seriously.”

“The AFL is committed to providing a safe, welcoming and culturally appropriate environment for all players and staff throughout the industry, ensuring that physical, mental and emotional welfare is a key priority for all in our sport,” it reads.

“The AFL takes extremely seriously all matters where people report experiencing harm, discrimination or mistreatment in our industry. We recently received a document from the Hawthorn Football Club outlining very serious allegations gathered during the recently completed review by an external consultant who interviewed current and former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players.

“The experiences outlined in the document are extremely serious and require further and full examination.”

“The AFL 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,” it continued.

“The AFL is committed to ensuring all who shared their experiences are fully supported through this process. The AFL will liaise with the parties to ensure appropriate support and cultural safety are in place in accordance with the wishes of those involved.

“We are committed to the welfare of all involved. Once we have spoken to those who have shared their experiences, we will be able to provide an update on the next steps in the investigation.”

The investigation at Hawthorn comes in the wake of the “Do Better” report at Collingwood, which sent shockwaves through the sport.

Minister for Women, Senator Katy Gallagher, told the ABC the report is “very distressing”.

“Well, I’ve only just seen some reports, but obviously … [it’s] very distressing,” she said.

“I think any time you see things like this … it does shock people, and that’s no different. And I have no doubt that these matters will be looked into very, very carefully.

“I think it sends a message again about how much work there’s still to do around having inclusive environments across the community but particularly in sport.”

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