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An AFL culture review is needed to 'kick out' unethical practices

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AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan (image via YouTube)

There are considerable cultural issues that the AFL must tackle to be a socially responsible organisation, writes Pierce Field.

I LOVE FOOTY, which is why after nearly two decades in the game I never thought I would write these words on paper.

Like most people in their early-30s in New South Wales, I fell in love with Australia’s game around the time Tony Lockett kicked that point at the SCG in the 1996 preliminary final to give NSW its first taste of grand final fever.

Whilst the Swans got thumped by a dominant North Melbourne, I was hooked. As a kid growing up in Western NSW, following footy was hard.

Before the GWS Giants, the game was relatively unknown in what is true rugby league heartland. But I was lucky enough to find an Auskick program nearby, run by two die-hard Adelaide Crows supporters named Tony and Danny.

Footy, like for so many other kids, became my escape: a place I could go to forget about the stuff that was going on at home. In my final year of school, I played and umpired for a year in the remote Northern Riverina Football League.

It remains to this day the best footy experience I have had. Travelling to towns like Barellan, Hillston and Ungarie — you saw first-hand how much football and netball meant to these communities.

No matter who you were, where you came from or how much money you had, you were made to feel welcome from the time you enter the gate, all the way through to the post-match function.

More importantly, it helped shaped my values as a kid developing into a young adult. I learned about the importance of teamwork, integrity, hard work and resiliency — the latter developed quickly after being towelled-up by numerous Danihers that season.

I joined the AFL in 2012 in Brisbane. For me, it was a dream come true. I was working for the best sporting organisation in the country, working in the best game in the world. The kid playing full back with the Parkes Panthers under-17s really connected with the values of the organisation: "play to win", "play fair", "play with passion" and "play as one team".

I left the AFL in 2020 despite being offered a role after the COVID-19 shutdown. In the space of 12 months, I became one of the organisation's biggest detractors after learning about the systemic corruption, unethical practices and cronyism that had developed in Australia’s biggest sport.

My experience advocating on behalf of my colleagues who were having their redundancy entitlements slashed after dedicating their lives to the game gave me a new perspective.

The conversations I had with passionate and loyal staff across the country opened my eyes to the horrendous hypocrisy that Docklands has allowed to flourish.

They may "play to win" and "play with passion", but they certainly do not "play fair" or "as one team".

The AFL has a culture problem: that is a clear admission from Docklands with the appointment of HR specialist Rhonda Brighton-Hall to lead a culture review. This came after damning claims of bullying and harassment circulated in the media over the last twelve months, further sparked by the release of Herald Sun journalist Michael Warner’s damning indictment on the AFL, The Boys' Club.

Brighton-Hall has an impressive resume and her previous commentary around the ethical and moral implications of non-disclosure agreements and advocacy for women in the workplace shows she is qualified to lead such a review.

It is odd to make such an important without clear terms of reference. These details will be important, as a review managed by the existing AFL hierarchy that does not look at the key issue at hand – that is, the governance of the game – is compromised from the start.

I find it very hard to believe the AFL Commission would endorse a review that would potentially implicate the AFL executive in the organisation's misconduct.

Commissioner Richard Goyder has publicly backed in his CEO, Gil McLachlan, in response to the allegations whilst stating the AFL "had come a long way" with its culture.

This is a very interesting move by Goyder, given that McLachlan has claimed on numerous occasions he was unaware of allegations and the use of non-disclosure agreements.

To assess this claim, you need to look at a simple organisational chart of the AFL, either pre or post-COVID.

The AFL’s legal counsel and general manager of people report directly to McLachlan. The AFL executive meets weekly. For the CEO, not to be aware of these issues raises a lot of questions, given the tight-knit way the AFL executive operates.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have spoken to more victims of the AFL’s machine. I thought what I would hear would be bad, but the stories would rock any reasonable person’s core.

More alarmingly, I have come into the knowledge that the AFL are actively "backgrounding" against victims.

This is a move you would expect from Parliament House in Canberra, not AFL House in Docklands.

Despite moving on from the organisation, I cannot accept the fact that the game is being run by those who justify their unscrupulous actions in order to "protect the game".

I cannot accept the sport that is quintessentially ours as Australians operates in a way that flies against the terrific values being taught by everyday people to young men and women.

The reality is that the AFL’s modus operandi does not reflect the community standards that footy fans and the Australian community expect.

And it is incumbent on all of us – clubs, leagues, governments, unions, fans and the media – to hold its governing body accountable.

Australian football is our game. It is funded by Australians via broadcasting rights, memberships and large amounts of taxpayer dollars. It must reflect the standards Australians hold dear.

Put simply, the "Australian" must be placed back into the Australian Football League. It will take more than an internal cultural review for that to occur.

Pierce Field is the former State Umpiring Manager for the AFL in NSW/ACT and the former union delegate for AFL staff in 2020.

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