Willie Rioli of Port Power celebrates a goal. James Elsby/AFL Photos I Getty Images

ANOTHER ROUND of AFL, another Indigenous player abhorrently abused by racist footy fans. In this case the player was Port Adelaide forward, Willie Rioli, who after the game shared online racist messages he received from fans with the caption ‘smart guys’. Both Collingwood and Port Adelaide condemned the messages with Magpies CEO Craig Kelly describing them as “abhorrent and disgusting”.

“There is no room for racism in our game and we will not tolerate it — not on the field, off the field or online,” Kelly said in a statement. “All of us have a responsibility to call out this behaviour and our Club is committed to playing a role in educating as many members of the wider community as possible.”

The AFL Integrity Unit is investigating the matter and will work with the eSafety commissioner’s office to identify the culprits, The Guardian reported. Fans found guilty of racial vilification face lifetime bans from AFL matches under new rules announced in May. It was a turbulent weekend for Rioli, who was involved in an on-the-ball strike on Collingwood’s Nathan Murphy, for which he received a two match suspension.

Melbourne premiership defender Jake Lever described those posting racist messages on social media as cowards, as he threw his support behind Rioli.

“It’s a coward act hiding behind social media and there is just no place for it in our game,” Lever said.

You wish you could say racism by footy fans was an isolated incident. Instead, it’s a regular Monday morning news story. Earlier this year, Brisbane Lions’ Charlie Cameron, Fremantle’s Michael Walters and Nathan Wilson, and Adelaide’s Izak Rankine, were all racially vilified within a 48-hour period on social media.

That seems to be the pattern here. Fans target an Indigenous player’s social accounts after a game, letting fly with racist slurs. The National Indigenous Times reported back in April that there had been 23 reports of racist abuse towards players across the AFL, VFL and Talent League this season, a figure that’s only grown since.

“This has to stop,” AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan said at the time. It hasn’t.

While it’s true that due to stricter penalties there are less incidences of the direct abuse experienced by Indigenous players of yesteryear, most infamously by Nicky Winmar or, more recently, Adam Goodes. Instead bigots have migrated online, using the cloak of anonymity to pile on. Some players, like Rioli will call it out or even clap back. But you wonder how many more let it go, either not wanting to give their abusers a platform or hesitant to become part of a bigger story and potentially, even more abuse.

The fact that this latest incident involves Collingwood isn’t surprising. It was Collingwood fans who abused Winmar; their former president Eddie Maguire who made racist on-air remarks about Adam Goodes; and the club itself who, after allegations of racism from former player, Héritier Lumumba, commissioned 2021’s “Do Better” report, which found Collingwood had a culture of systemic racism dating back decades.

But in this incidence, Collingwood or, more specifically, their fans’ involvement, is neither here nor there. Abuse by bigots isn’t limited to those who wear black and white, to the AFL or even to sport. Female politicians and public figures face similar levels of online vitriol whenever they dare to raise their heads above the parapet. LGTBQI+ advocates the same. For many it’s the silent, deeply hurtful cost of pursuing a dream or vocation in this country.

Australians frequently laud ourselves on the tall-poppy syndrome — cutting down those seen to rise above their station. That’s often seen as a source of pride — a sort of national accountability system that keeps feet on the ground and egos in check. It works great on Hollywood stars or self-absorbed influencers. But the flip side is that in the social media age that trait may have mutated into something dark, ugly and pernicious. Or, in the case of the continued abuse of Indigenous football players, just plain racist. Forget tall poppies, it’s our more delicate, fledgling flowers that need protecting.


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