Sledge furore exposes AFL’s unmet pledge on respect

The AFL’s failure to deliver on its pledge to rewrite its out-dated respect and responsibility policy has once again caught the competition on the hop in the glare of the St Kilda sledging controversy.


Had a new framework been in place to deal with the complexities regarding the game’s treatment of women when Gillon McLachlan said it would then neither his woeful response nor that of the Saints would have been so embarrassingly exposed.

McLachlan promised after the clumsy handling of the Dustin Martin chopsticks affair in December 2015 that the AFL would rewrite and radically reshape the then decade-old policy in order to create a series of appropriate responses to incidents involving harassment, abuse or discrimination.

And yet, despite the strong support of the AFL Commission, the creation of an AFL-led working party and the recruitment of the Australian Sex Discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins to chair the review, nothing happened for more than a year.

When the AFL Women’s kicked off in February no framework had been put in place to protect the game’s eight new teams of players, officials and coaches from unforeseen incidents.

The game’s excuse was that the respect and responsibility policy had become internally a political football, a thicket of different opinions and responses. After much hand-wringing and procrastination the review was handed late last year to the league’s new executive overseeing inclusion and social policy, Tanya Hosch, and ultimately outsourced to Canberra-based consultants.

From all reports the new framework will be ready to present to the AFL Commission in late June. That framework will hopefully put a process in place to deal with the type of filthy on-field abuse inflicted last Saturday upon Carlton captain Marc Murphy and his wife Jessie.

What is beyond doubt is that those rewriting the policy will put in place an independent authority to deal with such an incident – unfortunately coined by St Kilda coach ??lan Richardson as “banter” – along with a series of reporting mechanisms.

No one is suggesting these issues are easy and few appear prepared – to use the AFL’s recent popular idiom – to “call it out”. Hosch, appointed last year as the impressive new face of inclusion at head office, would not comment on the incident which so enraged Murphy and was declared by former Port Adelaide star Kane Cornes, a victim of unconscionable abuse by former Bulldog Will Minson some years ago, “a line in the sand moment” for the game.

Kate Jenkins, a Carlton board member, was careful to generalise in her statement to Fairfax Media, which she stressed she was making in her role as Sex Discrimination Commissioner.

“One of the themes that emerged from my 2016 consultations (on gender equality) was that sexist attitudes and comments can have a significant negative impact on women and can reinforce the deeply embedded – but sometimes invisible – barriers to equality,” she said.

“Our sportspeople have an important role to play in setting an example for young people and making sport inclusive to our whole community.”

All of the above demonstrates yet again how social policy challenges the AFL. The game pledged for this season the creation of a long-overdue responsible gambling policy late last year but that too appears some months away and still none of the relevant authorities and councils have been consulted. You have to sympathise with the conflicting interests faced by Elizabeth Lukin, the AFL executive overseeing that policy but a pledge is a pledge.

It is all very well to argue that the league exists to grow and to run the game – which it does very well – and that football supporters do not want the AFL telling them how to live their lives.

But if that was the case then why did St Kilda CEO Matt Finnis proudly unveil after he took on the job – along with his heavily female-skewed executive team – the club’s strong new values system and revised gender attitudes? And why did McLachlan become a Male Champion of Change?

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