The racist trolling of indigenous AFL players - most recently West Coast premiership player Liam Ryan - goes beyond hurt. It destroys.

Ryan was the target of racist comments on a post on the official Channel Seven Instagram account which asked if he should be suspended for a clash in the Eagles loss to the Lions on Saturday night.

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We, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, are confronted with the denigration of our cultures, our history and our sense of who we are as people.

Australia has a long history of choosing how it deals with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and people of colour generally.  Everything from the White Australia policy, the removal from ancestral lands and the debates about section 18C, we have grappled with issues of race and racism for years.

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With the advent of social media, we are confronted with a new frontier that enables people to voice their opinions on anything they see fit.

Studies have found that direct experiences of racism contribute to an array of health outcomes, including psychological distress, depression, smoking, alcohol and substance use

It is not just racism that has been drawn out in the recent weeks but also sexism and misogyny with Carlton forward Tayla Harris receiving blunt personal attacks which she responded to, re-setting the debate on what was acceptable and what was not.

How racism takes it toll on the game's toughest

For many of us, including me, football is cathartic, win or lose. For me the players I have loved to watch over time have been Michael Long, Michael O'Loughlin, Adam Goodes, Andrew McLeod, Eddie Betts, Buddy Franklin and Nicky Winmar. More recently, we've seen strong Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women represented on the AFLW stage, with Danielle Ponter set to play in a Grand Final this weekend.

What players like Goodes and Winmar have also done is given us the chance to reflect on words. Words that cause harm. As Goodes said in the aftermath of being called an ape "I just did not want to be out there anymore". Because he dared to speak out he was booed out of the game.

As we saw, the issue around booing and being called an ape is highly contested. The words are loaded with much meaning. 

Goodes could endure all sorts of physical and mental pain to prepare for the game but relinquished the will to live with the mental anguish of what the words and booing represented to him, and to many of us.  

The untold story of racism

As Aboriginal academic Professor Yin Paradies has shown in his expansive work on societal racism, the issue is significant. In Australia, studies have found that direct experiences of racism contribute to an array of health outcomes, including psychological distress, depression, smoking, alcohol and substance use, suicide risk, poor oral health and the belief that oneself is unhealthy.

This poses another question. How many players have we lost to the game? Players who did not have Goodes' agency or standing. Players who could not see themselves stepping into the breach to be relentlessly mauled over the thing they could not change. To be destroyed because of their skin colour.   

The AFL has identified that racism is an issue and we have been dealing with for some time.

Our anti vilification law – Rule 35 — was first introduced in 1995 after Michael Long's stance. Here Long took the AFL to task saying that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players had had enough of the abuse and if the AFL did not act he was prepared to go to the media and name the players who were repeat offenders. The AFL blinked and Long changed the game for the better. 

As Long said at the time: "Racism denies people the fundamental human right to be judged by their character, by what is inside. That is why it is not easy to experience a lifetime of racial abuse, be constantly reminded of it and yet be expected to ignore it".  

Below: Indigenous greats Che Cockatoo-Collins, Scott Chisholm, Michael Long, Gavin Wanganeen, and Michael O'Loughlin

What's being done

The AFL is about to conduct a review of Rule 35 to incorporate abuse by fans at the game and the social media trolls that have negatively impacted on the players. 

This is important because the ovals and stadia where they play are their workspaces: the MCG, Adelaide Oval, Optus Oval and Marvel Stadium.

But this work also helps people who have very little support in their workplaces across Australia to speak out against racial abuse and prejudice in their place of business. In this way the AFL is leading the conversations to combat this type of abuse.

With the collective power of the AFL, its industry and governments we can now coordinate collectively to take the power away from people who have used their privilege to say something that is abhorrent and ignorant.

The right to be a bigot does not come at the expense of someone who is going about their business, carving out a profession, using their hard-earned skills to provide for their family.

The AFL is the most consumed football code in this country and it enables people from every facet of society to participate in it and enjoy it. Surely that says something about us as Australians and what we value, what we love and what we are not prepared to tolerate.

Tanya Hosch,
General Manager,
Inclusion and Social Policy Australian Football League