It was a misleading, twisted narrative during the recent exposition of systematic racism at Collingwood: the accusation that Heritier Lumumba happily went along with his offensive nickname of ‘Chimp’.
That the premiership star turned whistleblower had no problem with it at the time. That he used it for a laugh when it suited him, only to make a big deal of it later.
Those false accusations were a fundamental misunderstanding of what systemic racism is and how it works, according to Craig Foster, the former Socceroos captain turned Adjunct Professor of Sport and Social Responsibility at Torrens University. They constituted “victim-blaming”.
Lumumba, then known as Harry O’Brien, was one man standing against the biggest football club in Australia. He did what he had to do, when marginalised as a young player, and the accusations he later made of systemic racism at Collingwood were vindicated by the ‘Do Better’ report that rocked the club and prompted the resignation of long-time president Eddie McGuire.
“What we often see in these social issues, and racism is a really important one, is that rather than attack, expose and change the fundamental behaviours that are placing many Australians, on a daily basis, in a position where they face discrimination and barriers of all kinds, people question the manner in which the individual has to fight those barriers and has to fight that discrimination,” Foster told Wide World of Sports.
“This type of victim-blaming is just entirely inappropriate. No one can possibly, certainly I can’t possibly understand a young many seeking to build a professional sporting career, like anyone else in the country seeking to build a sustainable career, support their family and their community, to achieve things in the sport or the industry that they love and having to fight against a vast, impenetrable, often invisible, highly-influential and politically-manipulative sporting institution with immense political, commercial and social capital. You’re talking about an individual.
“It’s absolutely unfair to expect a person in that situation to understand how to dismantle that system, to understand how to fight back and give his teammates and the club the tools. If the team and club culture is racist, then it’s ridiculous to expect someone like Heritier in that situation to be, as a young man, effective enough to be able to make change.
“That’s why, by exposing the systemic racism, what we see is all of the civil society organisations coming to his aid. We see brave members of parliament like Lidia Thorpe and we see the journalist Barrie Cassidy, as a life-time Collingwood supporter, bravely speaking out immediately.
“It’s this type of support that our called minority and Indigenous communities require from all of us. That’s why all of us who are sports people and, if you like, are in the racial majority, have a responsibility to speak up and assist those who experience this type of racial discrimination; or any type of discrimination.”
The nickname was first inflicted upon Lumumba in the pre-season of 2005, when he was just 18. Yet even a former teammate, Indigenous player Simon Buckley, made the accusation that Lumumba had concocted his grievances.
“He made the nickname up for himself,” Buckley claimed in a since-deleted social media post.
“He was all for it when he was winning flags and playing well. He would refer to himself as chimp. He all of a sudden 10 years later wants to be a humanitarian.
“He never complained when he was winning flags and getting a kick himself and calling himself that name. Now all of a sudden he’s out of the media and wants to be back in the limelight and get a few bucks. Weak as piss.
“If he wanted to preach about racism, he shoulda called it out at the time and not run with it and calling himself that for a laugh.”
Lumumba denied making up the name or happily accepting it, saying that he was simply trying to fit in. He had to make that denial again when an old Collingwood player profile re-emerged in which he personally gave his nickname as ‘Chimp’; erroneously taken by some as a ‘gotcha’ moment, rather than evidence of his disempowerment.
Lumumba pointed out that the profile proved his nickname was widely known within the club, contrary to claims from senior figures like coach Nathan Buckley.
Foster said that Lumumba had been an Australian figurehead amid a worldwide movement of athletes denouncing racism. He said that the vigour with which Lumumba had prosecuted his case, while bringing him further criticism, had been a trademark of contemporary athlete activists.
“I think we’re seeing a global trend. Black Lives Matter has been a really important movement to bring sport to the table,” Foster said.
“What we’re increasingly seeing is athletes forcing their own sports to act; not just to speak, but to act. Some of the most famous and respected athletes, particularly African-American athletes, in the world have been very forceful to their own sports, in basketball, NFL and others.
“That’s mirrored in the incredibly articulate and courageous and skilled advocacy of Heritier Lumumba recently, who publicly is able to call for substantive action by Collingwood.
“Heritier, and I think many other sportspeople, are no longer willing to accept just empty rhetoric. Sport has plenty of policies, we’re drowning in policies, but implementation, substance and authenticity is quite often lacking.
“Athletes all around the world are contributing to this movement of saying, ‘We’re no longer going to accept that. We will only play for clubs that are authentically upholding human rights. We will only play for organisations that are not contributing to global warming and are committed to net-zero emissions. And we are only going to sign for a club that we believe genuinely, has either or is in the process of eradicating systemic racism’.”
Collingwood’s move towards self-realisation has been of glacial pace, in some key quarters. Buckley admitted only this week that he had previously been “dismissive” of Lumumba’s anguish at racism within the club.
Buckley said that he had properly pondered the nature of systemic racism after Indigenous former Magpies players Leon Davis and Andrew Krakouer had spoken out on their own painful experiences.
“What I now understand is that is a form of systemic racism, the dismissing and denial of experience is not a direct act but in many ways it reinforces the pain and trauma that Heritier felt and that Andrew and Leon have spoken about. It’s feeling like they don’t have a voice and they don’t have somewhere to go and that’s the systemic aspect of it,” Buckley told AFL.com.au.
“When you reflect on that you [think], ‘OK, how can we do this better?’ because you’ve got to be aware and conscious of it, and there’s a lot of listening [to] and learning [from] that needs to take place from the people that have felt for a long time that they don’t have a voice. I feel like we’ve taken pretty good strides as a club.”
Yet for Foster, cleaning up your own backyard is only the beginning. Sport more broadly needs to tackle racism and other key social issues. There must be both words and action, from powerbrokers and athletes alike.
He characterises the current challenge as: “The willingness, or lack thereof, of sport to actually contribute to broad social issues; not just within its own stadium walls. Not just racism within Collingwood, but to speak up on racism publicly.
“Much of this has been driven by two things: commerce and politics.
“Many sports need government funding and are reticent to put that at risk. But what’s more important: a couple of million dollars to a sport or the future of the next generation of sports people?
“Commerce, meaning sponsorship. My question would be, how has sport and in particular sports people allowed sponsors from a broad range of industries – including in the past alcohol, tobacco and others, which now are socially unacceptable – how have we allowed those industries and those commercial organisations to constrain our ability to speak out on important social issues as sporting citizens?
“This paradigm that sports people are not citizens is something that’s being increasingly challenged and I’m thrilled by that.”I call them sporting citizens and what that means is, every citizen has a duty to do everything in our power, use the tools at our disposal, to help build a better society; particularly post-COVID. Athletes are no different. They are citizens.
“They have a different platform, they are in a different industry to most people but they are citizens and they’re human beings, and they have a fundamental obligation to speak out on these issues.”
For a daily dose of the best of the breaking news and exclusive content from Wide World of Sports, subscribe to our newsletter by clicking here!