Héritier calls for AFL reforms

Published: 12 September 2017

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Collingwood star reflects on racism in retirement

Héritier chats one-on-one with Waleed on The Project tonight
Image © 2017 The Project

He rose to stardom as the mercurial Harry O’Brien, starring for the Collingwood Magpies on the AFL field, where over a decade he was part of a premiership side and an All-Australian player.

But now he’s retired, and living under his birth name, Héritier Lumumba is speaking out about the racism he faced on and off the field, and says the AFL needs to do a lot more to tackle the underlying racism in the game.

“I went through dealing with racism that’s ingrained in society and football,” Héritier told The Project. “The AFL community is a microcosm of Australian society. Some of the things I experienced were unfortunate, they really were. And they were damaging.”

Héritier says that he faced frequent racist jokes during his time as a player, and at Collingwood was called “Chimp” on a daily basis.

Years of internalised pain came to the surface in May 2013 when Collingwood President Eddie McGuire compared Sydney Swans champion Adam Goodes to an ape.

Héritier, then still known as Harry, took to Twitter to criticise McGuire and the systemic racism he saw in Australia, which he described as “a national disgrace”.

He says the President called him but still didn’t understand the offence he’d caused. And Collingwood’s refusal to condemn McGuire underlined the problems in the game.

“They were inactive, they didn’t make any statement and for me that spoke volumes for their ignorance, their incompetence, their fear… to me that is a huge indictment on any organisation if they don’t know how to deal with something as simple as that.”

At the end of that year, having been Harry O’Brien since the age of 9, he reverted to the name he’d been given at birth by his Brazilian mother and Congolese father. And the next year he was traded to Melbourne to play out the last two seasons of his career.

But Héritier claims that the racist culture isn’t just Collingwood’s problem – it’s that he didn’t trust anyone at the AFL to be able to handle his claims appropriately.

“I didn’t feel like I could go to anyone who understood what racism was and what I was going through.”

The AFL has responded to Héritier’s criticisms, with chief executive Gillon McLachlan claiming it is “a leader in the country on racism” last week.

The Collingwood Football Club today provided the following statement to The Project.

“On behalf of Collingwood, interim CEO Peter Murphy said the club is committed to understanding better the experiences of players and racism, on the field or beyond the boundary.

“Collingwood has reached out to Héritier, and we are very keen to listen and learn from his experiences. Constructive discussions on race and cultural understanding are always welcome.

“The club appointed Debby Lovett to the role of Indigenous Programs manager two years ago in part to foster discussions between players, staff, partners, members and fans. Cultural awareness education is now a standard requirement of employment at Collingwood, an initiative Debby and her team oversee.

“The club has been seeking an opportunity not only to talk with Héritier but to share with him the significant work Collingwood is doing to educate all of its people.

“Héritier, as a former player, will always be welcome at Collingwood. We expect that should he return he will discover a club committed to the goal of constant betterment in all that it does.”