Tumbled Pie
On Eddie McGuire, racism and ‘doing better’

Eddie McGuire resigns as president of the Collingwood Football Club. Image source

Why did Eddie McGuire resign as president of the Collingwood Football Club? On the face of it, that’s a question with a simple answer. A report into Collingwood’s racist culture was leaked to the Herald Sun, where it made it front-page news on February 1. At a hastily convened press conference the same day, McGuire declared that it was a “historic and proud day for the Collingwood Football Club”, given that it had decided to take a stand against racism. Public reaction ranged from dismay to condemnation, and for the next week public figures and sponsors piled on to demand his resignation, culminating in an open letter signed by more than 70 political, sporting and Indigenous leaders on February 9. The board met at lunchtime, and McGuire stood down soon afterwards, acknowledging his continued presidency had become untenable.

This brief summary of events, however, doesn’t adequately answer the question. Why had McGuire’s presidency become untenable by February 9? For the first seven years of his club presidency, until 2005, McGuire had co-hosted Channel 9’s The Footy Show alongside its resident enfant terrible, Sam Newman, who in a 1999 episode appeared in blackface when Nicky Winmar cancelled his own appearance. Six years earlier, Winmar had taken perhaps the AFL’s first powerful anti-racist stance when he stood defiantly in front of racially abusive Collingwood fans, lifted his guernsey and pointed to the colour of his skin.

But The Footy Show’s controversies didn’t do much to damage McGuire’s brand. Much more damaging was what McGuire said on his Triple M breakfast radio show in May 2013, after Adam Goodes had been vilified by a teenage Collingwood supporter who called him an “ape”. Discussing the King Kong musical, McGuire suggested Goodes could be used to promote it. “You know, with the ape thing,” he continued after his co-host tried to shut the discussion down.

There were calls, then, for his resignation. McGuire initially responded with defiance. He had a proud track record of promoting equality, he told reporters, and he shouldn’t face any sanctions for what he said was a “slip of the tongue”. Later in the day, he was more conciliatory, saying he’d accept whatever temporary suspensions the AFL, Collingwood, Channel 9 or Triple M wanted to impose. But after Goodes accepted his apology, Collingwood’s board and the AFL’s CEO backed McGuire. “He has made a mistake,” Collingwood’s coach, Nathan Buckley, told reporters. “But I don’t think that compromises the ability for him to do great things in a very positive manner from this point on.” Goodes was named Australian of the Year in January 2014, which gave him a platform to speak publicly about Australia’s continuing failures to address its colonial history. Significant numbers of spectators ritually booed Goodes in response, and he faded out of AFL football entirely the following year.

The Goodes incident provided a template for how these things play out in Australia now. People raised on the adage about sticks, stones and name-calling being painless  – white people, who for reasons bound up in history and hegemony are most likely to occupy positions of authority – apologise and want to move on. People raised knowing the power of words are reminded of the boundaries of “acceptable” behaviour, and swallow their rage.

McGuire’s response to Goodes had a profound effect on one of Collingwood’s star players, the Brazil-born Harry O’Brien, who had moved to Australia with his mother when he was three. Racism couldn’t be tolerated, he said, even from his own club president. Later that year, O’Brien confirmed that the name he’d been known by since he was nine was one that he’d adopted in response to his teachers’ inability to pronounce his real one, Héritier Lumumba. Lumumba left Collingwood for rival club Melbourne at the end of 2014. In a 2017 documentary, Fair Game, Lumumba described Collingwood as “a boys’ club for racist and sexist jokes” and said his teammates called him “chimp”. McGuire and Buckley flatly denied that, but at least seven other players confirmed it. Lumumba, who now lives in Los Angeles, continued to talk publicly about his experiences at Collingwood, where Buckley allegedly chastised him for throwing his president “under the bus”.

In June last year, when the #BlackLivesMatter movement reached a global crescendo following George Floyd’s death under a police officer’s knee in Minneapolis, and when Collingwood’s players “took a knee” to express their unanimous support for that movement, Collingwood’s “integrity committee” convinced the rest of its board – including McGuire – to commission a review into the way it had responded to Lumumba’s interventions. Larissa Behrendt and Lindon Coombes, both professors at the University of Technology Sydney’s Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education & Research, conducted 30 interviews and produced a 35-page report, Do Better. It was the first time an AFL club had commissioned such an inquiry. McGuire and the board, including its only Aboriginal member, Jodie Sizer, saw this as a positive, and Behrendt and Coombes acknowledged it as such. “It needs to be noted and underlined that, in undertaking this review, the Club was unflinching in holding up a mirror to itself,” the report said. “It was a brave first step that few would have the courage to take and shows the seriousness with which the Club takes the issue.”

Collingwood’s board received Behrendt and Coombes’s report on December 17. Despite its authors’ acknowledgements of the club’s bravery, it was doubtless more excoriating than the board would have hoped. “There is a gap between what Collingwood Football Club says it stands for and what it does,” the report concluded. The club tended to react, often defensively, to media reports of racist incidents, instead of responding to concerns raised from within. “Several” Indigenous fans said they found it “hard to be a Collingwood supporter”.

But nor was the report necessarily a death knell. Its title – Do Better – reflected its authors’ intention that Collingwood’s board might use it as something of a watershed. Could McGuire have survived it? This is now impossible to say. On the one hand, McGuire had been at the helm since 1998. For two decades Collingwood’s racist buck had, in a real sense, stopped with him. But had the board decided to release it with appropriate contrition… who knows? For an as yet unknown reason, the board decided to sit on the report, making it ripe for an uncontrolled leak.

“We have decided as a club that this fight against racism and discrimination is where we want to be,” McGuire explained at the ensuing press conference. “It’s a day of pride.” The messaging was straight out of a Public Relations Disaster Management 101 textbook, and it showed. Elsewhere in that same textbook is the warning that disaster management spin must not be seen to be spin. McGuire was spinning fast, and everyone – everyone – could see it. Even Neil Mitchell. “It was not a proud day,” he told his 3AW listeners. “The club was in disgrace,” but McGuire had “damaged” Collingwood even further with “such brutal and obvious spin”.

Even Waleed Aly has been caught in the shockwaves created by the Do Better report, following his 2017 interview with Lumumba and the scepticism with which he approached Lumumba’s complaints. By asking Lumumba for further and better particulars, Aly was no doubt doing his job as a journalist – just as lawyers are doing their jobs when they cross-examine rape victims in courts.

It’s pointless to speculate as to whether McGuire could have survived his “car crash” press conference had his record on race been clean. He’d already – three days before the club received the Do Better report in December – announced that he’d be stepping down from the club presidency at the end of 2021, a year before his term expired. The previous month, he’d finished his 11-year run on breakfast radio with Triple M. There was speculation in some quarters that he was being drafted into the Australian Labor Party to replace its ineffectual federal leader, Anthony Albanese.

That may be especially difficult to imagine now. However, one of the voices lending support to McGuire after the press conference was Labor’s Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews. “I don’t think running away from challenges is leadership,” Andrews said. “We all of us have to do better … I would have thought, if you commission a report, you front it, and you’ve committed to doing what you can to fix it. That’s a good thing, isn’t it?” McGuire himself pre-empted the pile-on: “People have to get past the idea of tearing down people, tearing down institutions who are prepared to look within themselves to make the hard decisions and make things different.”

But is that what’s happening? Or are McGuire and Andrews really just saying, we’re changing, but at our own pace? Australia’s mainstream culture, of which the AFL is a substantial part, is undergoing a reckoning. McGuire and Buckley and Newman were raised in a culture whose outlook was hegemonically Anglo-Celtic. Assimilation into that culture may have made way for official policies of “multiculturalism” and “self-determination” half a century ago, but for a long time they meant merely that “minority” cultures were recognised by the dominant culture to the extent it was comfortable with them. But hegemonic whiteness doesn’t allow full participation by “minorities”, a state of affairs inconsistent with Australian society’s stated commitment to equality. This was obvious to Winmar, Goodes and Lumumba, as soon as they stopped trying to conform, as it was to earlier activists. Now, for the first time, the mainstream culture in Australia is being forced to drop its exclusive whiteness in favour of a genuinely inclusive equality.

Some lament this development. (Many who do have congregated on Sky News Australia and in News Corp opinion pages.) Others are frustrated by the slow rate of change. One result is “cancel culture”, which is really an expression of frustration at a complete lack of accountability for centuries, when nobody bore responsibility for the systemic exclusion of “minority” races and ethnicities. Aided and abetted by Twitter, cancel culture has reserve armies of cultural guardians ready to pile on, publicly shame and ultimately delete, raze, edit or sack (“bone”, in McGuire’s own parlance) anything that reminds us of this hegemonic whiteness, and anybody who represents it.

The risk, as plenty have pointed out, is that the liberal democratic baby is thrown out with the hegemonic bathwater. If people are reduced to their gaffes, aren’t they – and the rest of us – denied an opportunity to learn and to grow? In our rush to be right, have we lost a deliberative space central to democratic exchange? On the other hand, we might acknowledge that Eddie McGuire – like many of us – has had plenty of opportunities to learn and to grow. If there’s a sense that we’re occasionally over-correcting, we should reflect on just how much change was (and still is) required, if what we’re aiming for is substantive equality.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an honorary research associate at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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