AFL and accusations of racism are no strangers.
In 2013, Collingwood Football Club president Eddie McGuire apologised for suggesting on radio that Sydney Swans star Adam Goodes be used to promote the musical King Kong. Days earlier, McGuire himself had apologised to Goodes after a Collingwood fan used the apparent racial slur “ape”.
Among those to publicly challenge McGuire was one of Collingwood’s own players, Heritier Lumumba. At the time, he was playing his best season of AFL.
A man of colour born to a Congolese father and Brazilian mother, Lumumba soon found himself painted as politically correct and hypersensitive for speaking up.
"People made it very clear to me that I had done the wrong thing, that I was the problem now,” Lumumba, now retired from AFL, says in the documentary Fair Game. “That I had thrown the president under the bus.”
Lumumba says he was called “chimp” during his years at Collingwood, though he and the club disagree on whether this was an ongoing nickname or a one-off incident.
In a statement this week, Lumumba added: “The nickname ‘Chimp’, that was used during my time at the Collingwood Football Club is just one of countless examples of institutionalised racism within the AFL.”
“It is disappointing that so far the Collingwood Football Club have chosen to minimise and dismiss my experiences. I’m further disappointed, but not entirely surprised, that the AFL and the AFL Players’ Association have made no comment whatsoever about the issues I have raised.”
Once a poster boy for diversity in the AFL, Lumumba was the game’s first Multicultural Ambassador when he was known as “Harry O’Brien” (an unwanted nickname combined with his beloved stepfather’s surname).
He achieved the AFL’s coveted All-Australian status, kicked a goal to clinch his club’s first Grand Final win in 20 years, and even met with the Dalai Lama.
But beneath the surface, Lumumba was conflicted, longing to be accepted for who he was. Fair Game tells the story of how he found it, stood up for it, and continues to do so.
‘It’s very easy to be labelled an angry black man,’ Lumumba says.
Through exclusive access to Lumumba, his friends and family, AFL legends Mick Malthouse, former Collingwood Capitan Nick Maxwell and sports journalists, Fair Game reveals the personal and professional journey of a man who at the top of his game, dared to hold a mirror to a nation that didn’t like what it saw.
"Australian football culture is a white culture,” says Lumumba in the documentary. “And nothing taught me that better than the Collingwood Football Club.”
Fair Game is now streaming at SBS On Demand