Former AFL star Dean Rioli has laid bare how his cousin Willie’s protracted drug saga has gutted not only their famous football family, but also their entire island community in the Northern Territory.
Rioli — who played 100 games for Essendon before his career was cut short by injury in 2006 — has written an emotive letter to AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan pleading with him to help put an end to his cousin’s wait for clarity over an alleged doping breach.
Willie Rioli is alleged to have substituted his urine during a random drug test on August 20 in 2019 and is still awaiting his fate from the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority.
The 2018 West Coast premiership star’s father Willie Sr told The West Australian in August that the long wait for answers had taken a heavy toll on the family.
Dean, a 1997 South Fremantle premiership player, said that while his cousin had to accept his punishment when it finally came, the way he had been “left out in the wilderness” was unacceptable.
He pointed out how Collingwood players Lachie Keeffe and Josh Thomas had waited only six months for their results after testing positive to illicit drugs. He said his cousin’s
inexplicable wait continued to take a heavy toll.
“Willie was not found to have any illegal performance enhancing drugs in the sample he provided at the time of testing . . . (so) missing a finals series in 2019 and to miss an entire 2020 season is a hefty penalty already,” Dean wrote.
“He has been advised for the last eight months that his hearing is coming up in the next month or two and it has now dragged on where it is not fair on Willie, but also not
right for any individual to have to go through.
“Willie is from the remote community of Pirlangimpi on the Tiwi Islands with a population of 350, has a partner also from the Tiwi Islands and two young children aged three years and six months. He is in limbo here on Pirlangimpi until he awaits his fate.
“I am currently visiting my community of Pirlangimpi as I write this letter and I know the outcome of the hearing will not only affect Willie and his family, but the entire Tiwi Islands and the wider Aboriginal population across Australia.”
Despite the AFL’s deep concerns over the growing scourge of mental health issues among its players — a stance backed openly by AFL Commission chairman Richard Goyder — Rioli has been left in limbo on his Tiwi Islands home. It has left West Coast regularly expressing concern about his state of mind.
Dean believed his cousin should face a backdated suspension of no more than 18 months. That would allow him to play for the Eagles in the 2021 AFL season and he has regularly been posting vision of himself training on Tiwi Islands on his Instagram page.
A decisive and fair end to his wait and his ultimate return to the elite level of the game would also provide great role-modelling benefit to other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, particularly those aspiring to a similar path in football.
“I am saddened as I sit here today to see the issues and challenges faced in this part of
Australia,” Dean said.
“I know every Aboriginal community across Australia faces their own challenges with education, employment, health, alcohol, drugs, violence, overcrowded housing, incarceration rates and so much more.
“Willie Rioli’s outcome will give hope to so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Australia, showing them that regardless of the mistakes you have made, you can continue moving forward on your path and turn your situation into a positive outcome.
“The journey for Willie is an inspiration for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to never give up and that the continuous disappointments of being overlooked in many drafts does not have to be the end of your dream.
“His persistence and dedication are qualities many programs across Australia are
aiming to instil in our young boys and girls as they grow up to achieve great things in their
own lives. This is a great opportunity for the AFL to use its stance on Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander affairs to improve the outcomes of some really bleak situations faced by many across Australia.”
Dean was recently appointed as deputy chair of the Bridging the Gap Foundation and has supported more than 100 people into full-time work through his Aboriginal Employment Services business.
By Sarah Smit and Steve Butler