People before brand: AFL players call in human rights heavy hitter

The AFL Players Association has taken a radical step to tackle racism, gender discrimination and player welfare. The players’ union has appointed Victoria’s former equal opportunity and human rights commissioner Kristen Hilton as it pushes to create an unprecedented human rights charter for its players.

The AFLPA wants to legally enforce the human rights charter by incorporating it in its next collective bargaining agreement with the AFL. Players’ boss Paul Marsh conceded this week that, even in the recent past, his union had not adequately protected players against bad behaviour, social injustice and club welfare failings.

Former human rights commissioner Kristen Hilton is bringing her expertise to the AFL Players Association.Credit:Wayne Taylor

“If you look over the past 10 years at what took place at Essendon,” said Marsh, “and with Adam Goodes and other racial incidents – Hawthorn, Collingwood and the Adelaide camp – we didn’t have an adequate game plan. We need to put a framework in place. We’ve had a look at our next 10 years, and we see human rights as one of the key platforms as we move forward.”

Those at the centre of the Hawthorn saga have denied racism and wrongdoing.

AFLPA chief executive Paul Marsh.Credit:Getty Images

Hilton said the significant fallout from Adelaide’s 2018 preseason camp might have been avoided had players felt better supported and protected in voicing their concerns. Marsh has previously expressed some frustration that revelations about the camp’s welfare failings aired by Eddie Betts and Josh Jenkins last year were not previously reported to the AFLPA. Both the players’ union and the AFL’s integrity arm came under significant criticism for its lack of action at the time.

Hilton’s appointment comes as the AFL faces landmark class actions on concussion and an independent investigation into horrific historic allegations of racism at Hawthorn. She said she hoped the players and head office could work together amicably to repair damage inflicted on players in the past and better protect them in the future.

Hilton described the game as having “rolled from one incident or scandal to the next.” She headlines a radical restructure of the players’ association, having joined the board chaired by Patrick Dangerfield, and will also chair the AFLPA’s newly created human rights steering committee. The restructure will also see the creation of a second steering committee to oversee health, safety and wellbeing, along with a reshaping of the players’ Indigenous Advisory Board, which will be bolstered by independent experts.

Marsh did not rule out Hilton playing a significant part in the current CBA negotiations, saying the league needed to get its own house in order before taking positions on human rights issues outside the competition.

“Our industry is strong commercially, and the game is in good shape,” Marsh said, “but [if you ask] are we dealing with human rights issues adequately across the competition, then the answer is no.”

The AFL wants to form a united position of support for the Voice to Parliament. It hosts the Sir Doug Nicholls round in honour of First Nations players and a pride round in the AFLW. Should a player take issue with taking part in one of those themed games, Marsh said the existence of a human rights charter would deal with such difficult situations.

Marsh and Hilton, who has also held executive roles at Legal Aid and most recently completed a review into Victoria’s prison system, said the league had too often prioritised its own brand and the competitive edge over people.

“We’ve got to be better at supporting people,” Hilton said. “Too often, there is the fear of recrimination, or even worse, the pressure brought on by an inadequate response.

“We need to constantly reinforce in word and deed that people will be supported. Had this all been in place, then (the) Adelaide (camp) wouldn’t have happened.”

Of the input from the AFL she added: “It requires a deeper thinking, a commitment and a resourcing because, really, until now, (the game) has just rolled from one incident or scandal to the next.”

With the AFL looking to finalise a players’ hardship fund focused on concussion and the players negotiating a raft of issues in the CBA along with the next pay deal, Marsh anticipated some pushback from the league and clubs, who might fear costly legal settlements in the move to remedy missteps and worse from the game’s past.

“I think that’s what people may fear the most,” Marsh said, “the question of what are we opening up from our past … and we looked long and hard about what to call this because in our country ‘human rights’ are seen quite differently from the way they are viewed in the US and some other countries.

“But when I look back over the prickly issues I’ve had to deal with in resolving various conflicts, too often commercial, brand and performance issues have got in the way of prioritising the people involved.

“I’m sure the AFL would say that people are important, and I don’t doubt that, but I’m not sure decisions are made that are always the best for those people.”

“I think that’s what people may fear the most … the question of what are we opening up from our past.”

Hilton previously oversaw the inquiry into Victoria’s fire services – those findings were suppressed by the firefighters’ union – and an investigation into Victorian Police and the manufacturing industry.

Having largely dealt in those cases with issues of sexual harassment and discrimination, both Hilton and Marsh anticipated gender issues, racism and health and safety to underline the key human rights issues facing the game. Hilton said she hoped to develop a close relationship with the league’s integrity unit.

“Hopefully there’s no tension here between the AFL and the AFLPA because this impacts the whole of the AFL,” she said. “Human rights should not involve a competitive edge. The issues at Collingwood, for example, a lot of clubs were facing them.

“In terms of the restorative process, this requires a genuine sense of humility, not defensiveness. It may involve financial compensation, it may involve an apology, or it may simply involve education. It’s not necessarily civil litigation, and it’s not necessarily adversarial.

“It may be a case of [saying] ‘we acknowledge the impact this situation or issue had, not only on you, but the impact it had on your family. We can look at restorative justice that can be healing for both sides’.”

Although he described the game’s failure to adequately protect players in the past as “a whole-of-industry problem”, Marsh said the AFL Players Association would review its own practises before seeking a commitment from the AFL. In the forthcoming CBA, AFL and AFLW players are pushing for up to 32 per cent of the game’s total revenue. Under the current proposal, women would receive up to 15 per cent of the players’ overall wages.

The AFLPA’s 10-member human rights steering committee is expected to meet four to six times a year. It will include two current players and one past player, along with the chair of the Indigenous advisory group. Marsh and AFLPA executive Brett Murphy will also sit on the committee.

The committee has adopted the four key principles of the United Nations – policy, due diligence, effective remedy and ongoing engagement and communication.

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