Hawthorn racism review to allege that former coaches separated First Nations players from families and demanded a pregnancy termination

Hawthorn racism review to allege that former coaches separated First Nations players from families and demanded a pregnancy termination

An external review commissioned by the Hawthorn Football Club will reveal allegations that key figures at the AFL club demanded the separation of young First Nations players from their partners, and pressured one couple to terminate a pregnancy for the sake of the player’s career.

WARNING: This story contains details of self-harm, pregnancy loss, and intergenerational trauma for Indigenous people

The review document, handed to Hawthorn’s senior management two weeks ago and now with the AFL integrity unit, will allege that club staff involved include four-time premiership coach Alastair Clarkson and former assistant Chris Fagan, now the coach of the Brisbane Lions.

It is believed the review was similar in scope to Collingwood’s ‘Do Better’ review of 2021 and will have similarly dramatic ramifications.

According to the families of three players interviewed by ABC Sport, the incidents at the centre of the review allegedly took place during Clarkson’s time as head coach, a period in which the club won four AFL premierships, including a historic treble between 2013 and 2015. Clarkson recently signed a lucrative five-year deal to coach North Melbourne.

Hawthorn had more than 20 First Nations players in the period of the review. Three families involved told ABC Sport about incidents in which club staff allegedly bullied and removed First Nations players from their homes and relocated them elsewhere, telling them to choose between their careers and their families.

In some cases, coaches allegedly coerced at least two players to remove SIM cards from their phones and insert new ones in attempts to cut them off from their partners and focus them entirely on the club’s pursuit of football success. In each case, the player was a young First Nations draftee in his first five years with the club.

The external review was commissioned by the club and was similar to Collingwood’s ‘Do Better’ review of 2021.(Getty Images: Scott Barbour)

But the gravest accusations relate to the club’s alleged intimidation tactics to separate couples at the earliest stages of pregnancies and parenthood, and the alleged demand that one player should instruct his partner to terminate a pregnancy — actions the families say created multi-generational traumas.

Two of the families affected have recently been provided with mental health assistance from the AFL Players’ Association due to the suicide risks associated with reliving their traumas for the sake of the review, and there is frustration among the families that Hawthorn has only offered them assistance since becoming aware of ABC Sport’s investigation, and that the club has made no public comment on the report’s findings despite being in receipt of the allegations for weeks.

Three families at the centre of the investigation have told ABC Sport about the grief and trauma caused by their experiences.

On account of their complex mental health challenges, and the need to protect their children, their names have been changed.

‘It was so intimidating, confusing’

When Ian was drafted to the Hawthorn Football Club, he had already shouldered the responsibilities of parenthood for some time, developing a strong bond with his partner Amy’s first child, loving it like his own, hoping the couple would soon have another.

Ian’s early days at Hawthorn had been a sad time, too. Unknown to most, Amy had miscarried their first pregnancy, but the couple was cautiously delighted when she soon fell pregnant again.

As Amy recalls Ian’s uncontained joy when the couple reached the 12-week mark and finally felt comfortable sharing the news, it is with a poignant detail from early in the pregnancy: Ian’s sense of wonder that their child was the size of a blueberry.

But she says their contentment turned to despair when Ian left for what should have been a happier day’s work than usual at Hawthorn — the training day during which he would inform teammates of the young family’s good news.

Two men in brown clothes walking down a grandstand.
Clarkson and Fagan during a training session at Waverley Park in 2016.(Getty Images: Robert Cianflone)

Far from sharing his joy, Ian alleges that a group of coaches, including Alastair Clarkson and Chris Fagan, ushered him into an office, where he was urged to have the pregnancy terminated, “get rid” of his partner and move into the home of an assistant coach.

“It was so intimidating, confusing and upsetting,” Ian says.

“Clarkson just leaned over me and demanded that I needed to get rid of my unborn child and my partner. I was then manipulated and convinced to remove my SIM card from my phone, so there was no further contact between my family and me. They told me I’d be living with one of the other coaches from that night onwards.

He felt he had no choice. “He told me to kill my unborn kid.”

In a state of shock and confusion, Ian phoned Amy, by then at work herself, and in a conversation that lasted only seconds, relayed information she could barely fathom.

“I just remember that he could barely get the words out and he seemed to be crying, and he quickly said that we needed to terminate the pregnancy and end the relationship,” Amy says.

“Just like that. I will never forget that phone call or the heartbreak I felt in that moment. I was frozen on the spot, completely numb from what I had just heard Ian say. I had no idea what was happening.

“A few hours earlier we’d been having this incredibly special moment and Ian was so excited to let the club know we were having a baby. Then it was like my whole life just fell apart in a few minutes. It made no sense.”

Amy says worse was to come. With Ian’s phone disconnected and his whereabouts unknown, she had to somehow stay calm for her toddler and her unborn baby and hunt down club staff she barely knew.

She says she contacted Hawthorn’s player development manager, Jason Burt, and asked for a meeting with Ian to understand what was happening. Pointedly, she asked for the meeting to occur at her home so she had an opportunity to talk with Ian away from the club.

She says Hawthorn officials first asked if they could sit in the street outside while Ian met with Amy as they were concerned about Ian’s wellbeing and claimed that Amy’s father was a threat to Ian.

“My Dad was a well respected loving and caring Aboriginal man in the community,” Amy says.

“He was not a threat to Ian at all. They had never met my Dad — they just assumed he was a threat.”

It turned out the club would not be allowing her to meet Ian at all. At a cafe a week later, she says she had to make do with meeting Burt and another Hawthorn staffer, who bluntly repeated the club’s stance on the relationship.

“It felt like Burt talked the entire time,” Amy says.

A man with dark hair in a polo shirt.
Jason Burt was Hawthorn’s player development manager under Alastair Clarkson. The partner of one player alleges Burt told her that the club felt it was better for the player’s career if the couple broke up.(Getty Images)

“For the whole week Jason had repeatedly told me that Ian had made these decisions on his own, but I knew there was more to it. Burt actually confirmed my thoughts when he said Hawthorn had decided it was better for Ian’s footy career if he didn’t become a father. He was already a father!

“I had asked for Ian to be present at this meeting because this was about something that would affect his whole life, not just his footy career but they kept him away. I knew then that the club had something to do with Ian’s phone call to me.

“They didn’t care. They just wanted him to move on from his family and focus on football. Burt said that from then on, I needed to contact him with anything relating to the pregnancy. I felt so alone.

“These people had no idea who he was, who I was, what sort of family we were. They just judged us and broke us apart.”

‘This is a sacred thing, the relationship between a mother and a child’

The months following were bewildering for Amy. She says she contacted Burt to advise of an important ultrasound and was reassured Ian would be there, but he never showed up. Not wanting Ian to miss out on the important stages of the pregnancy, unable to text or call him, she resorted to emailing him images of the baby.

Only at the five-month mark of the pregnancy, by which point Ian’s mental health had noticeably frayed, did the club finally allow Ian’s return to his family. But that too came with conditions: a move away from a suburb the club didn’t approve of to one more in keeping with Hawthorn’s image.

“They just bullied us into moving house and I gave in, because I felt powerless,” Amy says.

“I just wanted to keep my family together and for Ian to live his dream of playing AFL footy. But it meant moving away from family support at a very stressful time. I had gestational diabetes … we were made to move house when I was 37 weeks pregnant. It was a very stressful time and I remember thinking that I should be resting right now, not moving heavy furniture. I had my baby the following week at 38 weeks.”

A wide shot of an old grandstand, with players training in front of it.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags fly high above the old Waverley grandstand as Hawthorn players train.(Getty Images: Dylan Burns)

Three months later, Amy dug in and demanded a return to the neighbourhood where she had support.

“I was suffering with postnatal depression and felt very isolated,” she says.

“I needed my family.”

Even back in the “rough” suburb, there were smaller slights that still rankle. She says she was affronted when Clarkson insisted on visiting one night and offered commentary on the house’s cleanliness.

Six months after the birth of their child, Ian and Amy were shocked to find they were expecting again. She explains the initial excitement she felt and says it “was quickly replaced with fear when I remembered the trauma we had just gone through bringing our previous baby into the world.”

“I spoke to Ian and he became stressed immediately. Not because he wasn’t a capable, beautiful father, but because we both knew what the reaction of the club would be,” Amy says.

“I didn’t want to lose Ian again. I needed him there with me and the kids and I didn’t want to put his footy career at risk. [I felt like] Hawthorn always used that against us.”

She resigned herself to a termination whose heartbreaking legacy now surrounds her in the form of pregnancy-themed artworks and textiles she has created as a means of processing her grief and guilt.

“I remember my mother taking me to the hospital and as I got out of the car she said to me: ‘You don’t have to do this’,” Amy says.

“Before I knew it I was laying in a hospital bed waiting to be taken into the theatre room. The nurses had given me medication to soften my cervix. I remember getting up at one stage and saying to myself ‘Just walk out, just leave’. I began to feel the cramps and thought to myself: ‘It’s too late, they have already given me medication’.

“To this day, I haven’t been able to completely forgive myself. I often wonder what life would have been like if I had just listened to my mother or followed through with walking out of the hospital that day. It’s a decision I have made in my life that I will always regret.”

“This is a sacred thing, the bond between a mother and a child, and Hawthorn wiped their feet all over that.

“Hawthorn says it’s the family club. Yet they tore ours apart.”

Hawthorn logo
Hawthorn has been accused of ‘tearing apart’ the family of one First Nations player.(Getty Images: Michael Dodge)

Ian and Amy’s relationship did not survive such harrowing events, but she is now speaking up for Ian, too.

“They broke his spirit as a proud Aboriginal man,” she says.

“All I ever wanted was to become a AFL footballer,” Ian says.

“I wanted to be a role model and someone my people can look up to.

“But since leaving the club, I have not been the same man. I’ve had to lie for a very long time as I work through anger, frustration, disappointment, sacrificing being with my kids.

“I’ve lost the love of the game. I’ve had suicide attempts. They broke me as a man, as a footballer and as a family man.

“I only wish I had spoken up when this happened as it would have possibly saved others going through it.”

‘Nobody has checked that the baby is OK’

When AFL draft day rolls around these days, Zac notes the over-representation of privileged private school kids and wonders how he even scraped his way into the ‘system’, but among Hawthorn’s influx of First Nations recruits of the Clarkson era, his talent and drive were obvious.

Zac’s AFL dream didn’t come easy.

“Because I’d been drafted against the odds, I felt like I had to do everything right to succeed” he says.

But he could never have predicted the types of obstacles he would have to navigate at Hawthorn, nor that he would eventually feel manipulated into choosing his career over his family.

Together for years by then, Zac and his partner Kylie were happiest unwinding at home, rarely candidates for partying or long drinking sessions. In his early years at Hawthorn, nobody at Hawthorn realised Zac avoided those environments due to childhood triggers, and it was not information Zac was eager to divulge.

Two men in football branded jackets look out of frame while standing on a football ground.
Alastair Clarkson and Chris Fagan together in 2015. The pair worked together as head coach and general manager of football operations during Hawthorn’s most recent premiership years.(Getty Images: Adam Trafford/AFL Media)

He says he always felt under a microscope.

“Clarko said that if I didn’t become more social off the field, it wouldn’t be him who delisted me, it would be the players,” he says.

A few seasons into his career, he believed he was on the right track, developing and progressing as a player. But off field, he was rocked by an unexpected series of events that would alter the course of his life.

Zac says he now recognises the period as a source of trauma he and Kylie may never fully recover from. It has exacerbated their untrusting natures, creeping up on them at unexpected times, limiting them in ways they could never have predicted.

It started when Zac was pulled into a meeting with Clarkson, Fagan and Jason Burt. Zac says he was told that Kylie was holding him back from progressing his career and that he needed to end the relationship to fulfil his potential.

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