Cyril Rioli has teased a return to AFL circles immediately after an authorised hearing was scheduled to take place with Hawthorn Football Club to redress issues relating to Indigenous past players and their families.
A cryptic remark on Instagram to a Hawks' fan account celebrating Rioli's career with a GIF captioned titled 'job's not finished' aroused the interest of not only a litany of AFL supporters, but also the Tiwi Islander icon with a response of "no contract offers yet".
That came the day after plans to join former Indigenous teammates Carl Peterson and Jermaine Miller-Lewis, in addition to once club Indigenous liaison officer Leon Egan, in meeting club officials on December 16.
The 34-year-old appears unlikely to return to playing having been out of the game since the 2018 season over allegations of racism and culturally unsafe practices dating back to 2008.
A reappearance with Hawthorn again in a coaching or cultural capacity would seem to be impossible, according to comments made to The Age just last year.
"I would be up for helping clubs if they wanted me … Richmond or West Coast … but I would not go back to Hawthorn after what's gone on," Rioli said.
There was speculation on social media that Rioli's public response could be part of the deal to diffuse Hawthorn of a hefty financial bill for compensation, while also satisfying Rioli's demands to oversee a culturally safer environment at the club.
National Indigenous Times contacted Hawthorn last week with questions over resolving issues raised by a cultural safety review that investigated the club's handling of complaints from the First Nations players and a staffer.
The outcome of the hearing remains unclear, and it is unknown whether they will continue until a settlement is reached, as the Hawks have made no public comment since.
The review run by Indigenous former Richmond footballer Phil Egan found evidence of racism, bullying, intimidation, and discrimination that was linked back to a number of employees, including former coach Alastair Clarkson and football manager Chris Fagan. Both men have consistently denied the claims.
The most serious allegations include Hawthorn pressuring a First Nations' player to encourage his partner to terminate a pregnancy for the sake of his career.
Players were also encouraged to replace SIM cards from their phones to end contact with their partners, while they were relocated to end their relationships.
Clarkson, a four-time premiership coach now with North Melbourne, and Pagan, the current coach of Brisbane, will allegedly also be compensated an undisclosed amount for damage to their reputations and costs incurred after the AFL cleared them of any wrongdoing.
An AFL investigation into Hawthorn's dubious handling of complaints is expected to recommend that the club "make good" on paying out a sizeable financial settlement.
Club president Andrew Gowers has publicly confirmed that Hawthorn was prepared to financially settle with Rioli, Peterson, Lewis-Miller and staffer Egan, extending to two of their wives, to ensure a resolution that was adequate and acceptable.
The Hawks have apparently budgeted to pay out more than $2.5 million across both legal bills and potential payouts in the fallout from the investigation.
This has come about after a specified cost of around $1.5 million in the club's annual report for 2023 for what they say are legal and associated costs from the racism saga, having spent more than $1m in legal fees alone since the scandal erupted in late 2022.
That $1.5m sum in the annual report under a heading of "provisions" – an estimate of what the club might spend on legal fees and/or other costs – includes settlements with either players and partners affected, or coaches and officials as a potential liability.
Hawthorn also confirmed that its $3m increase in unspecified "other expenses" included the legal costs behind the racism probe in addition to an allocation of $1.5m for future legal bills or compensation.
"It's financially prudent, and it's for legal costs and expenses," Gowers said of the $1.5 million allocated.
Gowers and the Hawks said they did not know what they would end up spending on this First Nations' investigation fallout.
"It's undetermined," he added.
Gowers was also grilled by outspoken former captain and club great, Don Scott, at the recent Hawthorn annual general meeting, including questions about the extra costs and the cultural safety review.
Scott, in fact, was reported to have refused to relinquish the microphone when a staff member sought to take it after having asked a number of questions over the integrity of the club with regards to the treatment of its Indigenous players.
Gowers told the meeting that at this stage, there was no actual commitment to compensate – even though also previously stating on the record that the club was prepared to pay out – any of the parties following the racism investigation, which the AFL set up late in 2022 to address the allegations.
This concern of systematic racism at Hawthorn only came to light from an ABC report in the grand final week of 2022, sparking the AFL inquiry that ended without an adverse finding against Clarkson, Fagan or welfare manager Jason Burt.
But Hawthorn's handling of the matter is still subject to a separate AFL probe, the findings of which have not been completed.
The players and partners have taken the matter to the human rights commission, and are expecting to have a mediation process between the parties early in 2024.