Researchers from Monash Business School have claimed player-to-player racism in the AFL has been “eradicated” since the introduction of the anti-vilification code in 1995.

The new research explores the factors behind the establishment of the code and how First Nations players worked with each other and AFL leadership to fight racial vilification on the field and in the club rooms.

The AFL introduced the code in 1995 with the aim of eradicating player-to-player racism within the league, the first of its kind in any sport.

Head of Monash Business School’s Peninsula campus, Associate Professor Lionel Frost said during the VFL era, the onus was on players to ‘bury the hatchet’ and not complain after games, regardless of the racial abuse, verbal insults or physical violence they experienced on-field.

“If umpires reported a player for a violent act, players would lie at the tribunal to help others escape suspension,” he said.

“For Indigenous players, this meant they could only respond to racial vilification by ignoring it, retaliating or withdrawing from the game.”

In 1993, Nicky Winmar made history by turning to part of the crowd at Victoria Park who had been taunting him all game, lifting his St Kilda guernsey and pointing to his black skin.

Two years later, Essendon’s Michael Long insisted the Bombers make a formal complaint with the AFL over a racist remark from Collingwood’s Damien Monkhorst.

Former AFL legend Michael McLean was also racially abused soon after, by an Essendon fan while retrieving a ball near the boundary fence.

The AFL needed to act but progress was slow as no comparable models existed from any other sporting code.

AFL chair and chief executive at the time, Ross Oakley, instructed AFL media manager Tony Peek to interview Indigenous players to allow the League to better understand the scope of the problem.

McLean, Long, Gilbert McAdam (Brisbane Bears) and Che Cockatoo Collins (Essendon) told the AFL that educating non-Indigenous players was crucial to eliminating player-to-player racism.

“The AFL anti-vilification code was developed smoothly after these discussions,” Associate Professor Frost said.

“Vilified players were empowered to make a complaint through their club or umpire on the day. The AFL would attempt to resolve the issue through mediation in the case of a first offence, and if the vilified player was unhappy with the outcome of the mediation, the case would be referred to the AFL tribunal.”

Associate Professor Frost said unlike racial vilification legislation, the AFL rules don’t require a public act resulting in possible incitement to take place. Players who have been abused in private can make a direct complaint.

While the research claims the anti-vilification code has helped eradicate player-to-player racism, Associate Professor Frost says the last known reported on-field racial abuse was in 2011, a more recent review suggests otherwise.

Collingwood Football Club’s Do Better report, released in February, found the Club was plagued with systemic racism and recommended significant reform of the Club’s internal conduct and processes.

The Magpies have been linked to a number of racist incidents, including allegations of racism within the Club from former Magpie Heritier Lumumba, and commissioned the independent review as a result.

The report challenged Collingwood to take a leadership position in Australian sport by confronting racism. Collingwood players have since issued a formal apology for their part in the Club culture and President Eddie McGuire stood down a week after the report’s release.

“While we can’t be 100 per cent definitive, the lack of any [formal] complaint or testimony since 2011 suggests that the problem of on-field abuse appears to have been eradicated.”

“However, fan abuse at matches and on social media remains a serious issue as it can be difficult to identify abusers,” Associate Professor Frost said.

Indigenous Players Alliance Chair Des Headland says the AFL is taking the right steps forward in calling out racial abuse and building partnerships to make the game a safer place for players.

“Memberships are revoked if [fans are] caught being racially abusive, and you don’t hear of as much on-field racial abuse which means the AFL clubs are taking the right steps forward and players are taking a stand,” Headland said.

Headland also said the majority of racial abuse today is coming from social media and agrees this is the biggest issue at the moment.

The Sir Doug Nicholls Indigenous Round continues this week with the traditional Dreamtime at the ‘G match between Essendon and Richmond to be played on June 5th. Due to the COVID-19 environment in Victoria, the game has been moved to Optus Stadium in Perth.

By Teisha Cloos