Héritier Lumumba and the AFL’s problem with race

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Héritier Lumumba: career cut short by racism (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

After the resignation of two prominent footballers, it seems the AFL has learnt little about its relationship to players and fans of colour, writes Siobhan Simper.

LAST YEAR, Sydney Swans player Adam Goodes was forced to retire from the AFL following intense public pressure. His crime was not a matter for the judiciary, nor was he caught in a sexual scandal like so many players before him. Rather, as an Adnyamathanha man, Goodes was the subject of sustained racial abuse which hinged on the pride he displayed in his culture. The audacity of Goodes – to be Aboriginal and proud of it – shone a light on the racism of the AFL, in a manner too uncomfortable to bear for its perpetrators.

It appears the culture of racism at the AFL has not changed in this past year. Another footballer, Héritier Lumumba, has recently left the AFL after enduring years of racial taunts from his teammates. As Lumumba writes in The Guardian, for 12 years he worked alongside those who called him '"black c**t", a "ni**er" and a "slave"'. His immediate nickname in the club was "chimp".

Lumumba begins:

‘I loved playing football. I gave 12 years of my life to playing the game professionally. But those years were also marked by the pain of being trapped in a culture that condoned racism through a combination of ignorance, habit, and arrogance. In the end, the message to a young, black man like me was clear: I was only of value if I didn’t challenge the status quo.’

But challenge it he did. When Collingwood president and media personality Eddie McGuire referred to Adam Goodes as an "ape" on his breakfast radio show, Lumumba spoke out. He also challenged the homophobia and sexism prevalent in football culture. For his efforts, he was labelled arrogant and attention-seeking by the media and finally retired after what he describes as a 'concerted campaign' for him to leave.

The relentless persecution by the media and the AFL community of Goodes and Lumumba reveals a racism so deep, so ingrained in the psyche of the game that it seems inextricable from AFL itself. It was, after all, on The Footy Show in 1997 that Sam Newman donned blackface to humiliate Aboriginal player Nicky Winmar. The fact that racist dinosaurs such as Newman and McGuire still hold their prominent positions in the AFL, while Goodes and Lumumba left under pressure, is telling of how little the AFL values its players and fans of colour.

Perhaps sporting culture invites bigotry or, more likely, it reflects a broader racism which inhabits the Australian consciousness. We are, after all, a country which imprisons refugees in harmful and dehumanising offshore detention centres, a policy which has been condemned as an egregious human rights violation by the UNHCR. We remain the only Commonwealth country that does not have a treaty with its First Nations people and celebrate Australia Day on a date symbolising their invasion, dispossession, and mourning.

What happened to Goodes and Lumumba is representative of Australian racial relations as a whole, played out in the grand theatre that is Australian Rules Football. That is not to say that the AFL cannot effect change — in fact, if leading sportspeople and commentators took a stand, most of their fans would sit and listen. But with a CEO who misled the media and blamed Lumumba's experience on his mental health, known aggressors such as McGuire and Newman maintaining positions of power in the sport, and a fan base who will willingly boo a player out of the game for the colour of his skin, it seems an unlikely prospect.

Siobhan Simper is a psychology graduate living in country Victoria. She blogs about disability at chronicallysiobhan.com. You may follow her on Twitter @siobhansimper.  

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