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Could the Hawthorn review unleash a new reckoning in the AFL?

Alastair Clarkson is surrounded by Hawthorn players during a break in an AFL game
The allegations that some Indigenous players at Hawthorn were forced to separate from their partners will taint the legacy of Alastair Clarkson and the teams he led to greatness. Photograph: Michael Willson/AFL Photos/Getty Images

It was early in the 2010 AFL season and the Hawthorn coach, Alastair Clarkson, was under pressure.

His side had lost six of its first seven games, prompting the club president, the volatile former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett, to send a seething email to members.

“Reputation and goodwill have been totally used up,” Kennett said.

“Everyone is on notice. No excuses accepted.

“The coach has put the players on notice; I have done the same with the coaches, and I expect you, the members, to do the same with me.”

The season finished in an elimination finals exit, yet Clarkson was upbeat.

“I think there’s some blue sky ahead for us,” Clarkson said.

“We learned some pretty valuable lessons over the course of this year.”

From a football perspective, Clarkson was right to be positive – the Hawks would win three of the next five premierships.

But 2010 was the start of what has been called the greatest scandal in AFL history: allegations of horrific treatment of Indigenous players and their partners by Clarkson and other employees at Hawthorn.

According to the claims made during an independent investigation commissioned by the club, players were forced into separating from their partners, and one was told to tell his partner to terminate her pregnancy.

The allegations taint the legacy of Clarkson and the teams he ruthlessly led to greatness.

And they appear set to unleash a reckoning in the AFL unmatched by previous racism scandals, from the booing of Adam Goodes to the abuse of Nicky Winmar.

Clarkson has steadfastly denied the claims – at first in a careful five-paragraph statement released on 21 September, the day the ABC first published the allegations, and then in a more full-throated response on Wednesday, as further claims regarding his behaviour were published.

“The further recent publication of purported extracts from the report means I now have grave concerns that any chance of a fair process and just outcome have been seriously undermined, if not irrevocably corrupted,” Clarkson said in a statement.

“The failure to maintain the confidentiality of the review and further damaging public speculation means I have no option but to express publicly, in the strongest and most emphatic terms possible, that I did not behave in the manner claimed.”

He said he had “always appreciated and respected the unique journeys of First Nations players” in the AFL.

“I have been committed to acknowledging and understanding their many varied experiences and brought all my efforts to ensuring these players are given the opportunity to realise their dreams,” he said.

“But not at any cost, and never at the cost of their families as has been alleged. Any suggestion to the contrary is false and deeply offensive.”

On the eve of the 2013 season – which would end in the Hawks claiming the first of what would be a hat-trick of premierships – the fiancee of a Hawthorn player sent a late-night email to the club’s then president, Andrew Newbold.

“I wouldn’t be contacting you if I felt I had any other choice but I have tried absolutely everything,” she said, according to copies of the email first published by the Herald Sun.

In the email the woman said the club had forced her partner to break off their relationship.

She said that on 13 March the player had a meeting with the then head of coaching and development, Chris Fagan, which involved the player being questioned about his personal life, including his recent engagement.

The day after the meeting, the partner said, the player’s mother was informed Hawthorn intended to remove the player from his house, and from the relationship.

On the afternoon of 15 March, she said her partner, Clarkson, Fagan and former player development manager Jason Burt came to the house. Her mother had arrived soon before to warn her they were coming.

“Allister [sic] began by saying this isn’t going to be a pleasant conversation, my partner was sitting down crying and a complete and utter mess,” the woman said in the email.

“They had explained that my partner needed space to work things out in his own head.

“I asked my partner directly whether this was something he really wanted and never got any response, when I’d asked how much time do you need, what does this actually mean, all I was told is I’d have no contact with him.”

The woman said she had been with her partner for eight years, having started a relationship at 13. They had been due to hold an engagement party with 92 guests only days after the player was moved out of the house.

After he was moved out and she was allegedly unable to contact him, she called the police.

Newbold, who is now an AFL commissioner, sent a response to the woman the following morning, saying he had spoken to people at the club, and would be happy to meet at the club’s headquarters.

According to the email chain included in the report, she said she thought a catchup would be beneficial, but that the club would not be the best place.

She sent further emails seeking a meeting the following day, on 22 March, and again on 25 March, when she said she had been hospitalised because of the stress of the separation and concerns about the health of her baby.

According to the email chain, Newbold responded on the afternoon of 25 March that after speaking with Burt he had decided against a meeting.

“Your issues are really beyond my scope of expertise and influence,” Newbold said in the email .

“I’m sorry but it is not really appropriate that I become involved.”

Newbold has denied sending the emails, telling the Herald Sun he did not have access to his Hawthorn FC email address at the time he was at the club.

“It paints me in a certain light which is not the case,” he said. “It’s not how I deal with people. The other thing is, why would I send an email like that from my iPhone?”

The Newbold email chain is one of several pieces of evidence including text messages, other emails and written transcripts that the author of the internal report, consultant and former AFL player Phil Egan, said were provided to him by five players and partners to support the claims they had made against Hawthorn.

These other pieces of evidence have not been publicly released.

A former assistant coach, who the report said was “complicit” in carrying out the orders of other Hawthorn staff, corroborated some of the allegations, the report said, telling a report researcher: “I knew this day would come.”

The report had been commissioned after former star player Cyril Rioli and his partner made claims in the Age that the club had mistreated them because of their race.

“The magnitude of the experiences tabled by the First Nations players are considered by the research team as tantamount to human rights abuses,” the report said.

Egan made seven recommendations, including that those alleged abuses between 2010 and 2016 be reported to the AFL integrity unit. He did not respond to a request for comment.

It was not within the scope of the report to interview Clarkson or the other former Hawthorn staff named within it, leading them to claim they had not been afforded due process.

Clarkson is now on leave as senior coach of North Melbourne, Fagan is on leave as coach of Brisbane and Burt is on leave from his role at a Melbourne private school. Their responses to the allegations make plain that – despite the recollections of the players and the partners, and the references in the report to other evidence and an assistant coach which support these claims – they are adamant they never occurred.

The proposed AFL investigation into the matter, therefore, will not merely be an exercise in crisis management, it will be expected to either vindicate the players or the coaches.

But the players will not take part in any investigation that is not entirely separate from the AFL.

As a source close to the players noted, Newbold removing himself from the process is not enough; it’s not simply that he is a judge who has to recuse himself from a case, but that it should be heard in an entirely different court.

But the players’ concern about the independence of the investigation is not just related to Newbold. It is because they consider the AFL – despite its standing as the national game with hundreds of thousands of members and a newly inked $4.5bn media rights deal – to have failed on repeated occasions to provide a safe environment for Aboriginal players.

The AFL chief executive, Gillon McLachlan, has flagged he may delay his departure from the role to deal with the fallout.

“The allegations are that serious and people’s livelihoods are at stake,” McLachlan told Fox Footy.

“And there are people who have suffered great trauma who need to be worked through this, and I feel that the responsibility for all this does sit in the remit of this office, ultimately.

“So, there’s certainly fair questions and I don’t have an answer.”

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