The policy was the first of its kind in Australia and one of the first in the world. Its introduction would change the culture of the game and put an end to the belief that "what happens on the field, stays on the field".
Tonight AWAKEN explores the 1995 tipping point that led to this ground breaking document, an incident of racial vilification between Essendon's Michael Long and Collingwood's Damien Monkhorst. It wasn’t the first time the AFL had been forced to acknowledge that it had a problem with racial discrimination. Two years prior in 1993, an image of St Kilda’s Nicky Winmar, his shirt raised, his finger pointing to his chest, standing defiant against the crowd at Victoria Park made national headlines. The commentators went wild, letting out a chorus that called for zero tolerance of racism.
The photo is now an image of legend, but on the surface of the game little changed and the storm died down. While it might not have been immediately obvious, when Nicky drew a line in the sand, he also empowered other players to stand up. One of those players was Michael Long, and it would happen two years later in an ANZAC day clash between the Magpies and the Bombers.
"For every name called, every abuse hurled the impact for Indigenous players was intensified by a legacy of transgenerational trauma"
Historian Professor Colin Tatz tells us on AWAKEN that these moments of racial abuse were more than just cases of name calling people but rather a symptom of a very ugly and very uncomfortable Australian history. A history, that dehumanised First Nations people to the point that it was okay to shoot them, in some areas almost like sport, and to develop government policies that allowed for the widespread removal of their children. Why is this important to remember? Professor Tatz puts it simply, to understand what is happening you first have to understand what has happened.
For every name called, every abuse hurled the impact for Indigenous players was intensified by a legacy of transgenerational trauma. It was this legacy that also gave the players the strength to tell the AFL in no uncertain terms that enough was enough. Michael Long shrugged off the death threats and hate mail that had ensued after news of the vilification incident became public and flanked by game stalwarts Michael McLean, Che Cocatoo-Collins and Gilbert McAdam put forward a list of concerns that needed to be addressed. Among them, the recognition that the AFL was their workplace and no work place should allow racism and a desire that their children should they ever play in the AFL never be subjected to vilification.
The AFL acted and it acted fast. Tony Peek the AFL’s media person and confidante of the Indigenous players was tasked with engaging every club in the need to develop a framework that prohibited racism and opened the pathway to education and reconciliation. Within six weeks the Racial Vilification Policy was put into practice and the AFL would change the way it did business for ever.
Today Michael Long remembers this period with pride. To this day he remains committed to reconciliation and working with the AFL to improve the pathways for young Indigenous players, and often at his side, his friend Damien Monkhorst.