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Collingwood’s darkest day sums up a horror off-season

Cameras clicked away; a frenzy of shutters uncorked following minutes of nervous chatter. As the photos were taken and the noise filtered through the room, Eddie McGuire shuffled his way to a long rectangular table. Settled on the table in front of a brown-panelled wall that refused any suggestion of a black and white sponsorship banner, McGuire’s forehead glistened with a sheen of sweat. In many decades of handling pressure and controversy, this was one of McGuire’s toughest challenges yet.

“This is a proud and historic day for the Collingwood Football Club,” he boldly declared.

As he drew breath and launched into a lengthy spiel about how great his club was for being found to be systematically racist, hearts around Australia sunk. Just as Collingwood seemed to have sharply dropped to a quiet trough, the mine continued to collapse. Instead of calming the storm of the ‘Do Better’ report, Eddie McGuire had reached into the clouds and brought down a whole new cyclone.

It was a press conference that summed up a horror off-season, as well as the backwards attitude that Australian sport still struggles to shrug off.

At the forefront of this issue is the Collingwood Football Club. It started on just another day at Victoria Park in 1993. Back then, it was the hostile heartland of working-class Collingwood, and the nightmare of every travelling VFL/ AFL player. But when Nicky Winmar lifted his St Kilda up to the heavens to defy the baying crowd, Collingwood’s home supporters went from being quietly discriminatory to officially racist to Indigenous Australians.  In response to the controversy, Collingwood President Allan McAlister told Winmar and his Indigenous teammate Gilbert McAdam that they would be treated with respect “as long as they conducted themselves like white people on and off the field”. It was the first instance of Collingwood blatantly refusing to take ownership for their own issues. It set them on a path that culminated in yesterday’s naïve stance that they were ahead of the trend for being forced into administering a report that found them guilty of discrimination.

The trend continued just four years before McGuire took office. In the inaugural Anzac Day clash between Collingwood and Essendon, Bombers star Michael Long accused Pies’ ruckman Damien Monkhorst of a racial slur during the game. It should have marred a spectacular drawn game. Instead, it fizzled into an AFL-organised mediation session that left Long bitterly disappointed.

As McGuire took over the presidency of Collingwood, all controversies were placed on the backburner as the Pies renewed themselves both on and off the field. Like all sports, on-field success has the ability to mask any off-field misdemeanours. It would take until 2013 for racism to overtly display itself in a black and white jumper.

McGuire sweating his way through yesterday’s press conference (ABC)

In this case, it came in the form of a 13-year-old girl in the bowels of the MCG’s Great Southern Stand, taunting Adam Goodes in the final moments of a one-sided defeat to the Swans. In the same year, McGuire racially vilified Goodes on radio. Press conferences ended in apologies and pledges to improve. All fragments of wrongdoing were swept under the lumpy black and white rug.

But February 1, 2021 will remain one of the darker days in Australian football and its ongoing battle with racism; racism that has been deeply woven into the sport’s fabric due to the historical timeframe it evolved in. Collingwood’s theme song clearly states “all barrackers should” be shouting, and the VFL/ AFL has grown in popularity off the back of its passionate supporters actively involving themselves in the game. It took until 2013’s incidents for the league to begin realising how out of touch their approach was. Even then, Goodes received no formal apology for his years of crippling treatment until documentaries exposed the injustice just last year. Yesterday was a massive slap to the face of the Australian community; a reminder that lessons are yet to sink in. When one of the AFL’s biggest clubs grin and joke their way through serious allegations of racism, it’s gut-wrenching to realise there’s a long way to go before equality can be considered in Australia’s game.

Yesterday’s press conference also doubles up as a crescendo to a Collingwood off-season marred with off-field issues. The handling of Adam Treloar, Tom Phillips and Jaidyn Stephenson’s departures created a whirlwind in itself; rumours surrounding harsh criticisms thrown down phone lines and sexist excuses used to explain their rash trading failed to cover up the root of Collingwood’s recruiting woes – money.

Money. The same reason why Collingwood told Adam Treloar they traded him due to the uncertain circumstances surrounding his wife Kim Ravaillion’s Suncorp Super Netball League contract post-pregnancy. An excuse offered to cover up their poor salary cap management; an excuse to save their own skin instead of treating a loyal player with the dignity he and his family deserved. It’s the same reason why McGuire sweated his way through a 45-minute press conference where he used the word ‘proud’ more than he did the word ‘sorry’. It’s also the same reason why no sponsors’ banners adorned the blank wooden wall behind him as he spoke, and it was why McGuire overlooked apologising to the millions of people he hurt with his remarks and instead dropped his sponsors into fumbling excuses for his club’s “systemic racism”. It’s why Collingwood lauded themselves as “brave” for trying to cover up the Do Better report’s findings, instead of accepting the blame and reforming their own crisis. This response immediately shows they refuse to take the findings of the report seriously; just hours after the public heard of the suggestions needed to solve their culture problems, the club already put a strike through multiple.

The problem is, Eddie McGuire forged a legacy as Collingwood’s saviour in the early 2000s due to his financial success governing over the Pies. As he reigned, the Pies went from struggling to fund themselves to joining Richmond and West Coast in the upper echelon of clubs in terms of off-field profits. But 20 years later, his money-first mentality has created a club culture that prefers vilifying others instead of admitting their own salary cap breaches. It’s the same club that fronts up to a press conference and labels a day where they were found to be systematically racist as “proud and historic”. It’s a culture that constantly looks to improve by going forward because they refuse to turn back and acknowledge their lack of progression. It’s a culture that has stagnated in a backwards time to a place where they refuse to accept they are a racist club, despite being forced into commissioning a thorough investigation that proved their intrinsic racism.

The Collingwood Football Club is far from a perfect institution. Too much has happened in its winding past to just shrug off and not address. The black and white legacy may never be a haven for historical justice, but by looking back and addressing all wrongdoings, that is when they can then switch their eyes back to the future and improve every single day. Until they do that, any remarks on pride mean nothing.

2021 is the biggest year in the history of the Collingwood Football Club. Following two major controversies to end 2020 and welcome in the new year, an AFL powerhouse must grapple with their own identity. The moral fibre of Collingwood’s inner walls now come into question. For the first time in their long history, Collingwood’s off-field performances now mean more than their on-field efforts.  

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