Indigenous advocates have slammed the AFL’s handling of the Hawthorn probe, and urged the league to become a “cultural leader” by addressing alleged mistreatment across the sporting code.

The AFL’s protracted eight-month investigation into alleged mistreatment of First Nations players at Hawthorn Football Club was terminated late on Tuesday, with no formal interviews, no findings and no charges.

The league’s CEO Gillon McLachlan said no findings were made against former coaches Alastair Clarkson and Chris Fagan, and former staffer Jason Burt, and that First Nations players and families wished to “resolve all differences”. 

Clarkson, Fagan and Burt have continued to strenuously deny allegations of wrongdoing, but Burt on Saturday told The Age that while he would not be apologising to former players and their partners, he admitted he regretted one incident in which, he said, the coaches “overstepped the mark”

On Wednesday, a lawyer representing the six complainants in the investigation confirmed their intention to take their complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission, alleging breaches of the Racial Discrimination Act. The ABC has not seen the terms of any complaint. The Human Rights Commission said it was unable to comment.

On Tuesday, AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan said during his announcement that while the investigation had wound up without charges against any person, it was possible Hawthorn could be charged with bringing the game into disrepute over its handling of the allegations.

The fallout has raised serious questions about how allegations of mistreatment should be handled.

‘They’ve got to step up’

John Evans says the AFL should take a leadership position in addressing allegations of mistreatment of First Nations players.()

Swinburne University pro-vice chancellor of Indigenous engagement John Evans said the allegations raised in the investigation were not relegated to the Hawthorn Football Club, but were systemic “across the whole of the sport”.

“This is a broader issue across the AFL and the sport should now take a leadership position,” Professor Evans said. 

“It’s incumbent on the AFL to be looking for solutions on the treatment of Indigenous players.

“They’ve got to step up and become a cultural citizen and a leader for the sport.

“AFL needs to establish itself as a conducive environment for both Indigenous players and supporters. This is how they can do it. “


The author of Hawthorn’s report, Phil Egan, said other AFL clubs had dealt with similar allegations in a quicker, more professional manner.

Mr Egan said the way Collingwood previously took responsibility for allegations against the club stood as a good example.

“The Collingwood Football Club commissioned a similar report two or three years ago, and although the allegations and the outcomes were a lot different, the way the club handled that, by accepting it standing up-front and owning it and dealing with it in a professional manner, was fantastic.

“The negotiations and the discussions and the structural changes and compensation to the players was done in a very professional and quick manner. That’s one way it could have gone, but sadly it hasn’t gone that way.”

Calls for a secondary inquiry 

Vanessa Turnbull-Roberts says this review is “history repeating itself”. ()

The independent panel commissioned by the AFL, headed by chairman Bernard Quinn KC, was announced in October in response to the findings of a cultural safety review commissioned by Hawthorn, which uncovered allegations of mistreatment of the club’s First Nations players.

Indigenous lawyer and human rights advocate Vanessa Turnbull-Roberts called for a separate inquiry to be held, suggesting the AFL should not have investigated itself.

“What we’re seeing here is the way AFL is investigating the AFL and then the AFL is turning around saying, ‘Well we’re going to drop the investigation altogether,'” she said.

“I think that is complete disrespect to the families.”

She said the timing of this outcome, occurring after the Indigenous Sir Doug Nicholls round and days after the AFL publicly announced its support for the Voice to Parliament, was “extremely disrespectful”.

“This is history repeating itself and I believe this nation has a lot to wake up to.”