Heritier Lumumba: Did my black life matter to Collingwood?

The investigation into Collingwood began after allegations made by former premiership star Heritier Lumumba. Source: Supplied

Former Collingwood footballer Heritier Lumumba speaks exclusively to The Feed about the allegations he's raised over being given the nickname 'chimp' by his former team. Collingwood will conduct an internal investigation into this, but for Lumumba, it’s not quite enough - and other players have come forward to The Feed to back him up.

The AFL season restarted with a show of solidarity on June 11. Players from both Collingwood and Richmond football clubs 'took a knee' in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

"Racism needs to be stamped out," AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan told Channel 7 the morning of the game.

This issue has since become a critical matter for the club. With the season's start coinciding with the Black Lives Matter protests in the US and Australia, former Collingwood player Heritier Lumumba was compelled to speak publicly about his own experience of racism.

AFL Rd 7 - Fremantle v Collingwood
AFL Rd 7 - Fremantle v Collingwood
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In the days before the AFL restart, Lumumba took to Twitter to release a nine-point statement alleging Collingwood refused to acknowledge he had the nickname of 'chimp' between 2005 to 2013 and that he was ostracised for criticising club president Eddie McGuire over on-air comments about Adam Goodes.

And after consistent pressure in the public domain, the Collingwood football club announced on Monday in a public statement they will be investigating Heritier Lumumba’s allegations of racism at the club through their internal integrity committee. 

“We would like to talk with and listen to Heritier because his truth is a critical part of this,” the statement read.

Responding to Collingwood’s statement Lumumba told The Feed, he has no desire to convince Collingwood of a truth he claims they already know.
 
Lumumba is angry: speaking to The Feed after years deliberately out of the spotlight, the former Collingwood premiership defender believes he is right to be.

“You use the ‘Black Lives Matter' hashtag, now you’ve entered the discussion. Let's talk about black lives. And let's talk about how it was clear that my black life didn't matter to you at the time that I was at the club,” Heritier Lumumba told The Feed, referring to Collingwood.

Lumumba
Heritier Lumumba protesting in Los Angeles at Black Lives Matter rally.
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And amid the public commentary, two of Lumumba’s former Collingwood teammates, Chris Dawes and Brent Macaffer, have come forward, going on the record for the first time in speaking to The Feed, to support Lumumba’s allegations. 

“The nickname ‘the chimp’ and stuff like that which absolutely I remember clearly like that was [his] nickname from whenever I got to the football club in 2006,” Brent Macaffer told The Feed.

Chris Dawes told The Feed, “You mentioned the nickname ‘chimp’. I heard that a couple times.” 

Collingwood Magpies Training Session
Chris Dawes at Collingwood training session.
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It’s not the first time former teammates have gone on record to support Lumumba’s claims. In 2017, Leon Davis, Andrew Krakouer, Chris Egan and Shae McNamara confirmed hearing the nickname ‘chimp’.

Going public amid #BlackLivesMatter

When he made his statement on Twitter just prior to the competition restart, he raised a few key issues. First, he addressed the nickname he says he was given at the club, and said “there was a culture of racist jokes.”  

He also repeated claims he made in 2017, that head coach Nathan Buckley said Lumumba “threw the president under the bus,” in relation to Lumumba’s public criticism of McGuire over the Collingwood club president comments on Adam Goodes. He says he was “punished and isolated” within the club when he spoke out.

In 2017, Nathan Buckley claimed that he never heard the nickname name being used.

And when questioned on Nine’s Footy Show about the nickname the day after Lumumba released his statement on Twitter, McGuire told Caroline Wilson: “That was something I had never heard of.”

And Buckley addressed Lumumba’s recent comments at a press conference after the first round match against Richmond a few weeks ago.

“I would love to have him come to his old football club and see what we have become and the culture of acceptance, a celebration of difference, no matter your colour, religion,” Buckley said.  Eddie McGuire said on Nine’s Footy Show that Lumumba remains a “valued member” of the club and has been trying to reach out to him, saying he’d like to bring him back to Australia and offer him a life membership at Collingwood.

AFL Rd 18 - Collingwood v GWS
Heritier Lumumba and Nathan Buckley speaking during a game.
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So what happened inside the club, and what has compelled Lumumba to speak out again? 

How the nickname 'chimp' first came about

Lumumba is of Brazilan and Congolese descent, and came to Australia with his family when he was three.

In 2005, Lumumba was Collingwood's last pick in the AFL draft, and moved from Perth to Melbourne as a teenager to start his football career.

Collingwood's Harry O'Brien and the clubs 1938 premiership team, March 20th 2007. THE AGE Picture by JOHN DONEGAN
Heritier Lumumba during his early days at Collingwood.
John Donegan

He remembers going out for a night out with teammates almost a year into his time at Collingwood.

They were in a taxi driving along the West Gate bridge. Lumumba was in the front seat, and at the back were a few teammates. One had a little too much to drink, according to him.

"I had like a shaved head. And he was like slapping the back of my head to make this slapping sound," Lumumba said.

"And I remember him making a comment about it like he was slapping me like I was his 'little chimp' and it got giggles around the place."

That was the first time Lumumba would be called 'chimp' by his teammates. He was 19-years-old, a rookie at the club.

"I was starting literally from the bottom of the fucking ladder," he told The Feed.

Lumumba felt "just a numbness" to it all. He thought at the time: "You've got to survive in this system, you got to."

"I didn't want it to be difficult for me on the day to day," Lumumba said.

Lumumba found the nickname dehumanising, drawing from a long history of racism comparing black people to primates, but he wanted to fit in.

A catalyst for change

Lumumba had travelled back to his homeland regularly throughout his youth, constantly aware of the physical threat posed to Afro-Brazilians. He recently said on Twitter: “I was consistently brutalized by Rio’s police. Most of my off-seasons were spent with family in my community. I had MANY close calls.” A 2017 report found that  a young Afro-Brazilian man is killed every 23 minutes -- something Lumumba said validated his feeling about the situation. 

He told The Feed, “[The violence] makes us feel fucking many emotions. You go from feeling helpless because you know, you're dealing with guys that have some heavy artillery, and they use it on black people.”

Collingwood Magpies Recovery Session
A tattoo of Africa is seen on Heritier Lumumba's back as he walks into the water during a Collingwood Magpies AFL recovery session at St Kilda Beach.
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On a visit to Rio de Janeiro in 2012, discoveries about the extent of police brutality confirmed to him that he needed to do something about his own situation. He told The Feed, “My understanding of the reality for black youth in Brazil grew with each off-season that I returned there. It reached a point in 2012, where my understanding of that reality transformed how I moved in the world."

After he returned from his travels, every time he heard the nickname ‘chimp’ he says “it was like a dagger into my back.” 

Addressing the nickname with the club

Lumumba revealed publicly in recent weeks that he began to self medicate with psilocybin - magic mushrooms - to cope with his depression while he was still playing. He says it helped him confront his teammates about the alleged name-calling.

"The only way forward for me was to address that. Because not doing that would result in destruction," he said.

"So I was like, fuck, I have to do this."

Four weeks after speaking out against McGuire, Lumumba set up a meeting with the leadership group.

"We call Nathan Buckley into the meeting as well. Well, I called him. I called this meeting," he told The Feed.

"I got up and I spoke about my experience, I spoke about racism. I spoke about internalised racism, you know, that spoke about the, the internalised inferiority or the racist ideas of black inferiority.

"After that meeting the nickname stopped."

And this, he says, contradicts Buckley's claims that he 'didn't hear' the nickname.

Collingwood Magpies Training & Media Session
Heritier Lumumba and Nathan Buckley at training.
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The meeting wasn't just an opportunity to call out his nickname but to address the culture at the club.

Brent Macaffer was at the meeting: "I remember like we're going to being in the meeting room, you know, the players and coaches and other other staff at the football department at the time and [Heritier] getting up and speaking about those things that he's obviously dealt with internally by himself for a long period of time."

A week after the meeting, Lumumba recalls a club staff member joking about then Collingwood player Paul Seedsman's hair saying: "He had a 'lesbian hairstyle'."

Lumumba says no one laughed.

Macaffer remembers Seedsman's nickname was 'Lez'.

"And obviously with Heritier not wanting to be called 'chimp' anymore. Was it still alright to call Seeds 'Lez'?"

To break the tension, according to Lumumba, Buckley made a joke.

"Buckley gets up. And he was like, sort of looked at me and goes, 'Oh, is everything okay there, H? Is that okay? Is that okay?'," Lumumba said.

"I was just like, in my head. Just a matter of a few days before I just poured my heart out, I was so vulnerable."

That's when the communication between Buckley and Lumumba broke down. Lumumba left the club the following year in 2014.

"So, for you to not acknowledge and not come in with compassion for Heritier, that tells me a lot about you."

Brent Macaffer can't see how people at the club could be unaware of the nickname.

"I've seen that [Buckley] said that he wasn't aware of it. I find it very difficult people at the football club at that time could be unaware that would be his nickname as it was used just frequently as anyone else's nickname is around the club," Macaffer said.

"But that's for [Buckley] to decide if they heard that or not."

Collingwood Magpies Training Session
Brent Macaffer during a Collingwood training session.

Former player Shae McNamara - who spoke out in support of Lumumba in 2017 - says if he had to speak to the leadership at Collingwood in relation to Lumumba's allegations: "I would be like, I don't have to prove that this happened, because you have all been guilty of making jokes and you've all been guilty of being stereotypical."

"So, for you to not acknowledge and not come in with compassion for Heritier, that tells me a lot about you."

Speaking out: "this is actually a problem that Australia has that needs to be addressed."

In 2013, Lumumba was playing opposite Adam Goodes in the now infamous game where Goodes was racially abused when a teenage girl called him an 'ape'. McGuire immediately apologised to Goodes on behalf of Collingwood.

But the very next day, McGuire suggested - live on air - that Goodes could be used to promote the King Kong musical in Melbourne. McGuire issued an on-air apology and said it was a "slip of the tongue". But Lumumba's emotions boiled over. He felt he needed to speak out.

First, he contacted Collingwood's media department, and told them he was planning to make a public comment about McGuire on Twitter.

In recalling this period, he told The Feed, "I said, this isn't acceptable, this shouldn't be acceptable. And this is actually a problem that Australia has that needs to be addressed."

He took to twitter in 2013 and wrote: "I'm extremely disappointed with Eddie's comments and do not care what position he holds, I disagree with what came out of his mouth this morning on radio. To me Eddie's comments are reflective of common attitudes that we as a society face. To me Australia is very casual with racism..."

But the next day, when the team flew to Brisbane, Lumumba felt like he was the "elephant in the room" and says he was left with the feeling that the club thought what he did was wrong.

Division over the incident was brought up when Lumumba was exiting the club in 2014. When having his final meeting with head coach Nathan Buckley, Lumumba says Buckley told him: "You threw him under the bus, mate," in relation to his tweet about Eddie McGuire.

Lumumba told The Feed, "I didn't have any support network because there was no one in the AFL, or the AFL players association or Collingwood that could help me navigate this issue.

Former teammates agree there was a lack of support for Lumumba during his time at Collingwood.

"There probably wasn't enough emphasis and actual support," former team mate, Brent Macaffer told The Feed.

"You just shake your head a little bit and go, I think we could have done more as a club or certain individuals could have and should have done more rather than, 'hope he's doing well'."

Shae McNamara, who left Collingwood before Lumumba's public comments about McGuire, told The Feed the club backed Lumumba on the field but the support stopped there.

"But when it came to him as a soul having a human experience, you didn't support him. And that really hurts. And he wants to be acknowledged that, you see that, that his pain is real," he said.

NAB Cup Quarter Final 2 - Collingwood v Sydney
Shae McNamara clapping the hands of fans during a game.
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“You cannot jump onto this movement and post your black squares”

In 2017 Lumumba released a documentary about the ordeal, but says he felt tired when this behaviour was not being acknowledged by Collingwood or sections of the media, after former teammates went on the record to support what he was saying.

He put his belongings in storage, said his goodbyes to friends and family, then went to the airport. He had a one way ticket to Brazil with no plans on returning to Australia. 

“I left Melbourne and I was like ‘I do not want to come back here anytime soon.’”

Now residing in Los Angeles with his wife and young son, he’s joined Black Lives Matter protesters on the streets of LA in the wake of George Floyd’s death. 

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Heritier Lumumba with his young son in Los Angeles protesting at a Black Lives Matter rally.
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It’s why he’s speaking out now. He wants the club to publicly acknowledge what happened to him.

He wrote on Twitter: “Why a public acknowledgement? Because I have been discredited publicly.  I don’t want a private handshake.  I want justice for how I was treated.  That includes correcting public denials about my account of the racism & isolation I faced.”

After weeks of Lumumba’s public statements on Twitter, Collingwood announced on Monday they will be conducting an internal review to investigate the allegations. The full statement can be read here.

The integrity committee will include Collingwood directors Peter Murphy and Jodie Sizer alongside chief executive Mark Anderson.

“This is a serious issue. As a board we have come together and unanimously agreed we need to take action. The integrity committee has started to map a way forward.”

“Collingwood is also on its own journey and important to both quests is truth telling.  Understanding the truth, owning the truth and supporting those in sharing their truths is a key next step for any action,” Jodie Sizer said in the club's public statement.

The club added: “In order for the work of the IC to be conducted with rigour and respect for all who may be involved, Collingwood will not be making further comment until its findings are completed.”

However, Lumumba is less than impressed by the timing. He told The Feed he can’t accept the integrity process has been proposed in good faith.

“Collingwood’s suggestion that it will ‘investigate’ itself after actively denying my story for 6 years is frankly insulting. Senior people in the club have known the truth this whole time and chose a cover-up over transparency,” Lumumba told The Feed.

He’s adamant about not allowing the AFL or the Collingwood football club to disrespect what Black Lives Matter really means.

“You cannot jump onto this movement and post your black squares,” he said.

“If you're really for us then fucking prove it. And it starts with the way that you treated me. And this isn't just something for your corporate image.”

The Feed reached out to Collingwood for comment but aside from the statement released publicly on Monday, they have not responded by the time of publishing.