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.
- Hawthorn commissioned a review to look into how First Nations players were treated during Alastair Clarkson’s time at the Hawks
- One former player alleges he was urged by coaches to encourage his partner to terminate their pregnancy for the sake of his career
- Other players allege that coaches coerced them to remove SIM cards from their phones and insert new ones to cut them off from their partners
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.
For Zac, this triggered an emotional outpouring. Feeling vulnerable and sobbing in front of his coaches, he says he revealed the childhood traumas that had shaped his reserved, clean-living persona.
To this day, Zac says he feels shame and embarrassment that he had to justify the reasonable and well-intentioned choices he was making.
Zac pushed back against the club’s drastic suggestion, revealing to his bosses that Kylie was seven weeks pregnant. The news appeared to change nothing. He recalls being told: “this is happening.”
Panicked, feeling there was no alternative, he agreed — a decision he says still haunts him.
Kylie still has emails and notes describing what followed: just after 1.10pm that day, a convoy of cars arrived out the front of her and Zac’s home.
She says Zac was led into the living room by Clarkson , Fagan and Burt, the latter moving outside with Kylie’s mum; the couple were still waiting to inform her of the pregnancy.
Kylie can recall asking the men what was going on, explaining how trapped she felt. She says Clarkson abruptly told her it “wouldn’t be a pleasant conversation”, that her and Zac’s relationship was over, that contact between the pair would cease immediately, and that the only thing left was for Zac to collect his belongings.
She recalls Zac’s hollow expression as he stood by. She asked him if this was really something he wanted and got no response. Following Zac into the couple’s bedroom while he tried to gather belongings, Kylie says Clarkson intervened and ordered Zac out of the house empty-handed.
Already filled with a first-time mother’s many worries, Kylie says she felt intimidated, scared and shell-shocked, struggling to comprehend what was occurring. With resignation, Zac says he slumped into the seat of his car and was given a pat on the back by Clarkson. He recalls his former coach saying “great work mate, you’ve done the right thing.”
Next, Hawthorn had Zac change his phone number and relocated him to Burt’s house, where he recalls staring at the ceiling, “wondering what sort of person I had become”.
Zac resolved that he’d do anything in his power to be traded away from the club. But he was also full of fear at what might occur if he didn’t stay away from Kylie, his anxiety hardly eased when Burt reassured him that Kylie was being supported and was doing OK.
Kylie’s ensuing crisis is something the couple still struggle to discuss. More than once she contacted the club to ask after Zac’s wellbeing and got no response. Short on alternatives, she went to a police station and asked if they could carry out a welfare check on Zac, providing the phone numbers of Clarkson, Burt and Fagan. She says the police called them but none answered, and that a message was left with Burt.
In a string of increasingly panicked emails, Kylie sought explanations from Hawthorn officials, or even confirmation that her partner was safe. She was filled with anxiety and stress.
In one of the emails, to the club’s most senior management, Kylie’s torment can be summarised in one line: “Not one person has contacted me and asked if I’m OK or needed help, nobody has checked that the baby is OK.”
The baby, it turned out, was not OK.
A few weeks on from her partner’s shock removal from the home, Kylie miscarried.
“You can’t imagine how lonely and lost I was in that hospital bed,” she says.
“I had no idea where Zac was or what he was thinking. Just weeks earlier we were becoming a family, and now I’m lying here and thinking I don’t even have a reason to live .”
To the club, it appeared, her ordeal was nothing significant.
“I remember how I found out,” Zac says.
“Jason Burt came up to me at training and just mentioned it in a ‘by the way’ kind of comment. He said ‘mate, Kylie had a miscarriage but don’t worry, she’s fine and has good support’.”
At the end of that season, Zac says he left Hawthorn for the betterment of his mental health and wellbeing. The couple pieced their lives back together, eventually experiencing the joy of parenthood. But they say life has never been quite the same.
“It is bad enough that it happened to us, but what upsets me is that it happened to others and there is a possibility it could happen again,” Kylie says.
“I asked for support at the time and it fell on deaf ears. The memory of how normal this behaviour was to them is something that still deeply disturbs me.
“No human being should have to go through this. And people should be held accountable. I have not heard a word from Hawthorn since the last time I emailed them, and their response to that email was that my issues were ‘beyond their scope of expertise and influence ‘.”
‘All of us became extremely distressed’
Being recruited to the Hawthorn Football Club was a dream come true for Liam, but for a teenager whose Aboriginal heritage and family ties were his pillars, a big move from interstate was intimidating too.
Liam had an extra dilemma: his partner Jacqui was heavily pregnant when the Hawks called his name on draft day, a detail Jacqui now believes the club was not aware of.
Within a month of Liam’s arrival at the club, the couple’s first baby arrived and they say their troubles with Hawthorn began. Liam was only briefly excused from his training program and allowed back home for a few days with mother and child.
“Family is very important to an Aboriginal person like myself and I thought they would have let me stay for longer,” Liam says.
His yearning intensified, but it was not until the child was four months old that the club allowed the family to visit Liam in Melbourne. Even as a shy recruit trying to find his way, Liam was shocked by Hawthorn’s apparent coldness.
“They didn’t hide from it,” Liam says.
“They just said that my partner and kid would be a distraction that I didn’t need at the start of my career.”
Soon after, Liam informed the club that his mother and Jacqui, baby in tow, would be relocating to Melbourne to support him. He says the upset that followed was not just from Hawthorn’s move to stop the family’s reunion, but the sneering tone with which it was delivered.
“The club suggested that my family were the sort of people who couldn’t afford to rent a house in Melbourne,” Liam says.
“They were judging us.”
The couple says Hawthorn’s compromise was to allow a 10-day stay that temporarily eased Liam’s heartache but eventually led to a demoralising incident that would colour his entire time at the club.
“When the time came to go home, none of us wanted to be apart again,” Jacqui says.
“We got to the airport to leave and all of us became extremely distressed.”
Too upset to part ways, the family drove back to their accommodation and immediately fielded panicked calls from the club.
“They basically said ‘Get on the plane and go home immediately’,” Jacqui says.
Two days later, they did.
In the aftermath, Liam says he was ushered into a meeting room at Hawthorn and berated by club officials, who told him he’d “failed a test” by choosing his family over football and needed to be more “cut throat” about his career.
By then, Jacqui says, the damage was done, but for Liam’s second season she left the safety net of her family and moved to Melbourne.
“We got our own house, and together we were fine,” Jacqui says.
“But as far as the club went, it was like we were always walking on egg shells. We thought they’d be after us again if we put a foot wrong. We were only babies, really. We were 18, 19 years old. It was so uncomfortable.”
In a flash, Liam’s AFL career was done, heralding a far more difficult era for the family. She says the club tried to balk its duty to relocate the family back to its home state, suggesting the couple should handle the $10,000 burden themselves.
“It was demoralising,” Jacqui says.
“When we found out he was delisted, I knew we had to get out quickly because Liam was just in a horrible way.”
Jacqui says Hawthorn cannot be blamed for the traumas Liam carried before he arrived at the club. But she says the way he was isolated from his family and culture, punished for showing them love and quickly discarded by Hawthorn triggered a mental health crisis Liam has not recovered from.
“Liam spiralled so quickly after we left,” Jacqui says.
“Five suicide attempts. I was in a constant fight or flight mode, 24/7, worrying about him all the time. When his mental health decline was at its peak, we’d spend hours looking for him. Every phone call, text message or knock on the door would be an instant panic, that we’d be told he’s gone.”
Other than gratitude for the assistance of the AFLPA, which has tried to address Liam’s debilitating mental health problems, she says her prevailing feeling now is of being alone.
- Do you have more details about this story or other stories related to it? Contact the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org
“I was just left to deal with all of this stuff on my own, as a partner and mother who was trying to cope myself,” Jacqui says. “Hawthorn was nowhere to be seen.”
“That club just didn’t know how to help a young Aboriginal man.”
‘Their wellbeing remains our priority’
ABC Sport put detailed questions about the allegations in this story to Clarkson, Fagan and Burt but at time of publication none had responded.
The Hawthorn Football Club did not respond to detailed questions provided by ABC Sport, but has issued a statement.
“Earlier this year the Hawthorn Football Club engaged external First Nations consultants to liaise with current and former First Nations players and staff to learn more about their experience at the club,” the statement began.
“This important work has raised disturbing historical allegations that require further investigation. Upon learning of these allegations, the club immediately engaged AFL Integrity as is appropriate.
“The club will continue to provide support to those who have participated in this process, and their wellbeing remains our priority.
“While the process indicated the current environment at the club is culturally safe, it also recommended that some of the club’s current First Nations training and development programs should continue to be strengthened.
“The club places the best interests and welfare of our players and staff as our number one priority.
“Given the matters raised are confidential, the club will not provide any further comment at this time.”
The AFL said it was taking the allegations ‘very seriously’.
“The AFL takes extremely seriously all matters where people report experiencing harm, discrimination or mistreatment in our industry,” it said in a statement.
“The experiences outlined in the document are extremely serious and require further and full examination.
“The AFL is finalising a process to investigate the allegations and has sought further details of those who shared their experiences in order to progress its investigation.”
READ THE AFL’S FULL STATEMENT:
“The AFL is committed to providing a safe, welcoming and culturally appropriate environment for all players and staff throughout the industry, ensuring that physical, mental and emotional welfare is a key priority for all in our sport.
“The AFL takes extremely seriously all matters where people report experiencing harm, discrimination or mistreatment in our industry. We recently received a document from the Hawthorn Football Club outlining very serious allegations gathered during the recently completed review by an external consultant who interviewed current and former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players.
“The experiences outlined in the document are extremely serious and require further and full examination.
“The AFL is finalising a process to investigate the allegations and has sought further details of those who shared their experiences in order to progress its investigation.
“The AFL is committed to ensuring all who shared their experiences are fully supported through this process. The AFL will liaise with the parties to ensure appropriate support and cultural safety are in place in accordance with the wishes of those involved.
“We are committed to the welfare of all involved. Once we have spoken to those who have shared their experiences, we will be able to provide an update on the next steps in the investigation.”
Source: AFL NEWS ABC