For the past few weeks, the proud Balardong Whadjuk man Leon Davis, who has dressed Collingwood in black and white for 11 years, has been waiting for a call from the club.
He waited for the details of the “Do Better” report on racism in the club, by distinguished professor Larissa Behrendt and professor Lindon Coombes, to be delivered to the Collingwood board. He waited for the report to leak onto the front page of the Herald Sun, and as outrage grew over his findings that there was an entrenched systemic racism at the club.
He waited while Collingwood held a press conference in which then-president Eddie McGuire claimed the club was not “racist or petty” and said, “We are doing something. We called things six years ago … in fact, 22 years ago, when we started this campaign. “
He waited while his former teammate and friend Héritier Lumumba, who had spent a decade being racially vilified at the club and later ostracized for speaking out, continued his strong resistance by shouting rhetoric and pushing for change.
He’s still waiting, even after McGuire’s resignation, not just for a call from the club, but for more information on what’s to come next. Davis says the problem of racism in Collingwood, and in society in general, is much bigger than just one person.
“Everybody is missing the point,” Davis tells Guardian Australia. “Eddie quit, but there is a general feeling that everything is done and dusted.”
“I don’t like Eddie leaving office. The problems have not disappeared. It still continues, and it will continue for a long time until the true story is known and everyone is better informed about us First Nations. We wake up every day with the same problems and the same fight and nothing has changed for us. I’m still very disappointed and quite hurt. “
The events that led to McGuire’s resignation are personal to Davis. Collingwood’s failure to deal with racism, his refusal to acknowledge it or heal the past, has forced Davis to confront his own experiences of racism at the club. The procedures of the last few weeks have resurfaced that trauma. He says he has tainted many of the good memories of playing for a club that he still loves.
During more than 11 years on the field as one of Collingwood’s highest-profile players, Davis says he endured many racist incidents, which were never adequately dealt with by management or the board. They started within a few months of joining the club, when he was still a teenager.
In 1999, Davis was a new recruit for Collingwood. He had been recruited at age 18 from his hometown of Northam in Western Australia, where he had grown up as part of a strong family and community. His parents had instilled in him strength and pride in his identity. He didn’t want to leave them, but the opportunity to play for Collingwood, his mother’s favorite team, was the realization of a dream of playing in the AFL. He was excited, even though the club’s racist past loomed over him.
“My closest friends and some family members began to question it,” says Davis. “They would say, ‘Oh, you know they have a history of racism,’ or ‘They’re a racist club. What are you going there for?
“But I always wanted to play soccer and that was my way of thinking. And you know I had two parents who always raised us well and made sure we knew and had the tools to handle whatever situation we ran into. “
Not only that, Davis already knew intimately about racism, as do First Nations children, growing up in a society based on their elimination. Racism was not just a problem in football, he says: he already knew how to recognize it in the brutality of the police and the educational system. She had known him intimately from the stories of her parents and grandparents.
But he says he wasn’t expecting it at his new workplace, or so soon, and couldn’t have anticipated how it would make him feel.
About six months after arriving in Collingwood, Davis found a player’s profile that he had left in his locker, which had been previously filled out by some of his teammates.
“It was a player profile that we get every year, and you put yourself down a little bit,” he says. Your likes and dislikes and all that. I walked over to my locker and on top of my bag was my player profile that had already been filled out by a handful of players… it was full of many racist stereotypes. Really racist undertones of our people’s stereotypes. It was pretty damning. “
Davis was the only First Nations player there.
“I was not an established player, I was a very young and very excited 18 year old who was jumping out of my skin to play AFL and try to get along with everyone and make friends. I was homesick. I was getting all these warnings from family and friends that Collingwood was a racist club and I anticipated that I was excited and trying to put that aside. And then I go to the club and start training … for that to happen … it took me a lot to stay there ”.
Davis was embarrassed; his first reaction was to flee the locker room.
“I was the stranger of the group. In the room I felt very small … I went home and my younger brother saw the profile. He wasn’t sure how to react. I was a little undecided about what to do with it and confused. Do I take it out and take the boat out and get people in trouble, or will it prevent me from playing soccer? Will staying there and living my dream put me in danger? All these things were going through my mind.
“I just took it home, went home and told my brother and he said, ‘This is bullshit. He got angry and that is a normal reaction for me and my two brothers whenever we faced those things growing up.
“When my parents found out, we were packing that night. I had nothing to say. Mom and Dad said, ‘We’ve been through this shit our whole lives. We’re not going to put up with it, that’s for sure. ‘
But Davis wanted to play soccer, it was his lifelong dream. So instead, they called a meeting.
“It was fixed up to a point, but it sure wasn’t dealt with in the right way. Back then, it’s similar now, people didn’t have the tools to deal with these problems. “
Davis says there were no repercussions for the players involved, but he suffered the consequences. He felt ostracized and alone.
“It was the aftermath that probably affected me the most,” he says. “Because then I became an outcast and not the crowd and found my way on my own, those kinds of things that were really difficult. It didn’t last forever, but it was somewhat difficult.
“It is a football club mentality. They’re all on a team and they’re supposed to have everyone’s backing. Then [incident] changed dramatically, where it was difficult to be there.
“And then a lot of things happened and I didn’t tell my mom or dad because I felt like it would cause the same repercussions for me. I wasn’t in the group like I used to be … sitting around the table with the guys and involved … months after that, because I was the one who had gone to the club and cheated on them.
“It was really difficult for me to be there, not just when I was 18, but as a First Nations man, where there was no understanding of what was going on.”
Those early experiences of not feeling understood, of not believing that the club had handled him correctly, influenced Davis’s tactics against racism.
When it happened again, Davis would either take care of it personally or try to educate people himself. He says he developed a reputation at the club for not defending her. Like his friend Lumumba, who endured 10 years of racist nicknames, Davis employed survival tactics.
“I will not go out to hit Collingwood or get people in trouble. I go out to say that this happened, this is what keeps happening. And we want something better. We want our children to have it better. We don’t want our children to have to go through the nonsense that we and our ancestors did.
“I can fully relate to Héritier and what he did to survive because you go into survival mode. And I did it. I felt that I was facing a great power of several people, an industry, a nation. Many times when racist incidents have occurred, that is what it is. We are facing a nation. “
That is why Davis is speaking now. When he heard McGuire at the press conference say this was “22 years ago,” he thought, “Well, that was me. That incident with me happened exactly at that moment. “
It’s also the reason why Davis has been waiting for a call from Collingwood, just as he waited for over a decade while playing at Collingwood for these issues to be corrected. The report is a vindication for him and all the other players who endured racism within their walls, but it is a broader story of racism in Australia.
“It is the same with our history and the history of Australia. What has happened to our people in the settlement that has not been addressed, that has not been rectified. We have not had our cultural cure. On a smaller scale with Collingwood, that has not been rectified.
“Until you fix what happened in the past and fix this environment of systemic racism, this ignorance, this white privilege, I don’t think it will change. With revision, you can’t put things in their place if you can’t deal with the past. “
Now, when Davis returns to the club, it is what dominates his memories. His response to the report has only added to that, leaving him “disappointed, hurt and discouraged.”
“It has been exhausting dealing with the pain and frustration not only for me, but also the way it has impacted my family, friends and community. I think the club’s response came from systemic racism imposed from the country’s leadership and white privilege.
“When Aboriginal people see missed opportunities to show empathy and ownership, it opens up the transgenerational traumatic wounds that we endure.”
Until things change at the club, he says he would not want the same life for his children. He has three sons and two daughters.
“One of my sons may want to play soccer, but unless there is a drastic change, I would not subject them to go there without the right things.
“So I want to speak now: tell my story, put things in their place for the future not only for my children, but for all those who aspire to play football.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism