Sport at any level is a touchy-feely business. The camaraderie brought by that shared adventure compels otherwise measured individuals to think nothing of a hug or tap on the bum for a job well done. And context is everything. The same embrace two grown men might happily indulge in on the field of play just would not take place in any other walk of life. That is team sport. It has always been thus.
But what might seem acceptable within the sanctum of a sporting collective is not always met with the same approval by those looking in. That Richmond players Nick Vlaustin and Jayden Short meant nothing untoward in their physical pestering of Mabior Chol during recent renditions of the club song is neither here nor there. When viewed through the lens of community expectation, their grabbing of Chol’s genitals and, in the case of Vlaustin, the prodding of his backside, fails the pub test and any other test of decency. Tigers chief executive Brendon Gale was not wrong when he described the incidents as “a bad look”.
Vlaustin and Short have both since apologised for their “stupid action”. The AFL was swift in its condemnation, labelling the deeds “inappropriate, unacceptable and juvenile”. In footy speak, Richmond are owning the situation. “We don’t think it’s overblown,” the club’s coach, Damien Hardwick, said when asked if the saga was much ado about nothing. An internal investigation has satisfied the Tigers that Chol is no worse for wear, physically or mentally. “I have no issue whatsoever with those players, or any of my teammates, but understand that is not the sort of example we should be setting,” Chol said.
So all’s fair in love and sport and we move on? Not quite. Though all parties involved have made the right noises and admitted to a crime of sorts, it is far from a victimless one. That the subject of these physical tauntings was a young man from South Sudan elevates the issue beyond a standard concern of workplace safety. Anybody who knows Vlaustin or Short knows neither is a bigot. But that is precisely the point. For many onlookers, the treatment of Chol by two of his teammates will be ample reminder that the insidious, casual racism that pervades sport in Australia is alive and well. “If this is horseplay, are all players within Richmond expected to tolerate fingers going up their anuses, or is it just the black players?” reporter Hugh Riminton asked Hardwick in a press conference last week that was quickly, and predictably, cut short.
In the week the AFL was celebrating the return of Sudanese player Majak Daw, and by extension the code’s victories in racial cohesion and attitudes towards mental health, this episode has set it back years. The AFL’s botched handling of the vilification that ended Adam Goodes’s career, and his love of the sport, together with repeated instances of discrimination against black players such as Eddie Betts, shows the game still has some way to go to stamp out prejudice. Héritier Lumumba calls it an “overwhelming and relentless culture of racism” and is still seeking answers, and closure, from his anguished time at Collingwood.
1/ My heart goes out to Mabior Chol after watching the post-match, locker room footage; I feel for the young brother.
— Hériter Lumumba (@iamlumumba) August 8, 2020
Though the AFL has made pleasing strides in its approach to racism since the Goodes fiasco, it has dropped the ball here. The “look” of the game, as it so constantly obsesses over, was done no favours by vision gone viral of two white men demeaning a black man. In expressing its disapproval, we were left with the impression the AFL’s only concern was the inappropriateness of the touching and the example it sets to children. There was no lip service, no issue at all with regards to the colour of Chol’s skin. It was a set shot that was out of bounds on the full from the moment it left the boot. “What is it saying about the power balance within that team?” asked Australian netball great, Liz Ellis. “You can’t get away from the fact that in this case it’s a couple of white men doing something to a black man, so it brings in the racial aspect.”
Defenders of Vlaustin and Short will point to their good names, and to boys being boys. Moreover, they are not the only ones to be sprung doing unseemly things in AFL changerooms of late: Dan Butler groping St Kilda teammate Jake Gresham in the nether region and Jack Riewoldt doing much the same to Jayden Short. These instances were white man on white man. But not this, nor the fact Chol has stuck by his teammates despite being visibly repelled by the actions against him, should detract from an opportunity lost for the AFL to satisfactorily address a recurring problem. Nor should it lead to a denial of the racial overtones of a black footballer being debased by two white teammates.
These incidents cannot be tossed in the too-hard basket or written off as the playful misdemeanours of men fooling around in a game that encourages physical contact of the affectionate kind. Neither Vlaustin nor Short is racist. But it is a bad look whichever way you view it.
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