Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Cyril Rioli: How His Racism Allegations Shocked Hawthorn and the AFL

Posted on 8 April 2022 by Josh Sim

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Cyril Rioli has given everyone associated with the Hawthorn Football Club so many highlights during his career.

There was the soaring leap over Heath Shaw for a spectacular mark. There’s also the shimmy past the despairing dive of Essendon defenders, bamboozling them with his agility and speed, like a matador escaping a bull’s charge.

It’s a shame he now wants nothing to do with the team.

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Now in retirement after quitting the game in 2018 at just 28 years old, Rioli and his wife Shannyn Ah Sam-Rioli recently detailed their experiences of racist behaviour at the club, which they had not previously disclosed publicly.

It marks the latest instance of discriminatory conduct towards Indigenous Australian players in the sport, following the public abuse suffered by Adam Goodes and Eddie Betts.

The Riolis’ Allegations

In an interview with Caroline Wilson from The Age, one of the oldest incidents they cite goes back to a post-season trip in 2013.

They recalled how an experienced player then asked teammates if the partner of one of his Indigenous teammates, who was present at the time, was “also a b**ng”.

Both Rioli and the Indigenous player in question were hurt by the remark, with the former stating he approached his senior colleagues afterwards, only to be told not to worry about it.

This was one of several ‘racial red-flags’ the couple say took place during his career at Hawthorn. In their view, the club did little to develop their cultural awareness, despite the Riolis’ pleas for expanded Indigenous programs.

In 2018, club president Jeff Kennett apparently commented on the designer ripped jeans worn by Rioli’s wife Shannyn Ah-Sam Rioli, proposing a donation of loose change to sew them up. Kennett has responded by claiming the comments were made in jest.

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She told The Age: “I felt belittled and humiliated. The club kept saying I was overreacting, but they were portraying me as the angry black woman. They said later I had wanted to go home to Darwin for a while. That’s not right.”

Rioli himself called this the ‘final straw’ for his career: “It just hurt so much and it hurt her. I just thought I don’t need to take that shit, so I said, ‘let’s get out of this shit storm’.”

“Junior [Cyril] only ever wanted to finish his career at Hawthorn,” his wife added. “He wanted to retire at 30. But he was retired at 28. I feel guilty. I still cry myself to sleep at night wondering if I made my husband walk away from his career.”

Of his current relationship with the club, Rioli said he wouldn’t want to be there while Kennett remained president. He added: “It’s the only club I wouldn’t put my hand up for right now.”

The Response to the Riolis’

The club quickly responded to the allegations, making a public apology to the Rioli family for the racism they experienced.

In a statement, they said: “Racism in all shapes and forms is unacceptable. We are sorry that Cyril and Shannyn experienced these incidents during their time at the club.

“We are saddened these experiences have left them feeling the way they do. Combating racism and educating everyone both within our own walls and in the community is something we are constantly working on and believe we are getting better at.”

It has recently emerged that the team’s current head coach and Rioli’s former teammate Sam Mitchell has been in touch with him since last December. Texts between the pair have shown that Mitchell has been making efforts to act on Rioli’s concerns with the club’s culture.

Other teammates such as Luke Hodge and Shaun Burgoyne have spoken of their frustration and anger after learning of the Riolis’ experiences. Both have individually clarified that they had no knowledge of the 2013 incident, despite being senior leaders at the time.

Hawthorn fan and managing editor at Beat Media Group James Toney is critical of the club’s treatment of Rioli.

Speaking to the Sports Gazette, he said: “Hawthorn have had their head in the sand about this. It’s been a shameful way to treat one of their greatest ever players.

“They’ve simply not been proactive. The fact they [the Riolis’] didn’t think they could come to the club tells its own story.”

Should Hawthorn President Kennett Resign?

Club president Kennett has also responded to the Riolis’ but has come under increasing pressure to resign.

He served as the club’s president between 2005 and 2011, before returning in 2017 after Richard Garvey’s sudden resignation. He has subsequently been in charge since, despite the club constitution limiting presidents to two three-year terms at maximum.

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In an open letter, he said: “We were all saddened by the story that there had been incidents that had upset both he and his wife.

“We have taken those claims seriously and are conducting further inquiries. I hope that we can work through the hurt he feels and make him feel welcome and safe in the brown and gold family again.”

However, Toney believes this was an inadequate response from the 74-year-old, whose current presidential term is set to end in December.

“Hawthorn needs new leadership. Kennett’s statement was typical [coming from him], ending with a classic non-denial denial almost buried down the bottom [of the letter].

“The best thing he can do now is resign with immediate effect. The club cannot wait for his term to end.”

It’s a sentiment shared by the group Hawks For Change, who referred the Sports Gazette to its published statement.

It states: “Jeff Kennett’s disrespect of the Rioli family is the latest shameful example of why he is not fit to serve as president of our beloved football club.

“He, through his actions, has again brought the reputation of the Hawthorn Football Club into disrepute.

“Hawks For Change now calls on Jeff Kennett to resign immediately and directors of the Hawthorn Football Club must take a stand and seek Jeff’s resignation today.

“For the good of the mighty Hawthorn Football Club Jeff Kennett must go.”

Within the statement, the group additionally point out to Kennett’s past discriminatory comments. Among numerous examples, he has expressed an admiration for the rag dolls known as ‘golliwogs’, widely considered as racist caricatures of black slaves.

He has even named one doll he owns after former Hawthorn forward Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin and has called for its greater presence in Australian society.

A recent report from reporter Tom Browne suggests that Kennett does not intend to step down immediately, seeing out his tenure until the annual general meeting of members in December.

Yet there is certainly a clear argument to make that he cannot be the individual who facilitates a change in the club’s culture, given his own controversial beliefs.

The AFL and Racism

This isn’t the first time that the sport’s Indigenous athletes have faced racism, as shown by the high-profile abuse of Goodes and Betts.

Additionally, an independent investigation last year found that another club in Collingwood had a problem with structural racism. It resulted in their then-president Eddie McGuire resigning immediately afterwards.

Coincidentally, the Riolis’ revelations have emerged in the same week Adelaide forward Taylor Walker makes his return to the AFL, after a six-game ban for making a racist remark.

Former AFL player Mathew Stokes, who hails from the Larrakia community, has written about his anger at the revelations. In a column, he has also implored for greater action to combat the problem.

On this, Toney says: “The bottom line is that racism is an existential crisis for the sport.

“This story isn’t new, it mirrors the treatment of Adam Goodes, Eddie Betts and countless others. Other clubs need to look at themselves and reflect on their own mistakes.

“No wonder Indigenous players don’t feel safe in the AFL.”

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