Australia

Kain’s opponent was found not guilty of racial abuse, but Indigenous footballers want systemic change

Once you get your head around the backstory to the Northern Football Netball League’s (NFNL) round 13 games on July 10, you begin to understand why Bundoora Football Club was never doing anything other than winning its encounter with Northcote Park.

Warning: The following story contains a racial slur

The Bulls led all day and prevailed by 28 points. The most telling detail was glimpsed moments before the first bounce, when star player Kain Proctor walked to the middle of the ground with his teammate and cousin Jai Burns.

Proctor is not Bundoora’s captain. Teammates say he doesn’t need a title. When they fall, he invariably appears with an outstretched hand. His name is their byword for loyalty and brotherhood. So, in Proctor’s line of sight as the coin was tossed, every Bundoora player took a knee and focused his attention on the Gunditjmara man in the number eight guernsey.

It was NAIDOC week, a time of celebration for the NFNL’s many Indigenous players. Proctor’s father Lionel, formerly an AFL player at Richmond, now a fixture of footy in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, coaches the Fitzroy Stars. They’d swelled with pride that week at Ash Barty’s Wimbledon triumph and Patty Mills’s appointment as an Olympic flag-bearer.

But the tears that welled in Kain Proctor’s eyes as the game began were not just for the clubmates who’d rallied around him all week. They were equally an expression of the frustration and anger he’d felt since the previous Saturday, when he says he was racially abused by an opponent from Heidelberg Football Club.

Kain Proctor is not only a top performer in Bundoora’s team, but a valued clubman who teammates say has created a “brotherhood” among senior players.(

Supplied: Nathan William Media

)

“Abo dog” were the words a stunned Proctor says he heard after a contest on the wing, shortly before half-time at Heidelberg’s Warringal Park. Ugly and unfathomable, they’ve been ringing in his ears ever since, despite his opponent’s denial they were spoken. But he doesn’t want them hidden from view.

‘I’m now made out to be a liar’

Seconds after the incident, Proctor’s 21-year-old teammate Bailey Thompson said he too had heard what was said and backed Proctor to the hilt, reporting the incident to an umpire and remonstrating with Proctor’s opponent. The situation might have boiled over but wiser heads prevailed.

Initially, Proctor worried most that his partner and seven-year-old son, standing barely 50 metres away, might have been within earshot: “What if he’d heard it? What is he to expect now? For him to even think about going through that, knowing the hurt that it’s caused me, it’s … You try to shelter kids from that as long as you can.”

At half-time, Bundoora coach Michael Ryan sensed a dramatic change in Proctor’s body language, initially fearing an injury. “He explained what had happened and I was in complete shock,” Ryan says. “But our first priority was Kain’s welfare.”

Child sitting on his dad's shoulder at a march protest
Proctor is a proud Gunditjmara man and says he will always stand up for what he believes in.(

Supplied: Kain Proctor

)

In the weeks since, Bundoora has proved itself a model club. Already revered for his work ethic and physicality, Proctor has been rallied around. But when he and Thompson pulled on their boots the following Saturday, a series of scheduling conflicts meant the matter had not been resolved.

Last Monday, nine days on from the incident, a mediation session attended by Proctor, his alleged abuser and their respective coaches achieved nothing. Two nights later came a two-and-a-half-hour NFNL Tribunal hearing which local Indigenous football figures now view as another example of the league’s tendency to sweep racial abuse under the carpet and protect its image.

The accused was found not guilty. Proctor and the unwavering Thompson — both sent home after giving their testimony, only apprised of the verdict via text messages from their club president and never directly contacted by the league in the time since — feel like they’ve been hung out to dry.

ABC Sport made multiple requests to Heidelberg Football Club and the accused player for comment, but the club declined the opportunity.

Thompson, normally an upbeat character, feels shattered too. “I’m more upset about it than I ever have been about this sort of thing,” Thompson says.

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“Seeing Kain and his dad and his girlfriend at the tribunal, and seeing how down they were about it, it really opened my eyes. I can just picture him feeling like nobody believes him or takes him seriously, which is so belittling.”

The verdict was one thing, the process another. Both Bundoora players felt on trial, intimidated. Proctor says dismissive implications were made about his scorching performances in both the game in question and the following week.

“I was made to feel like it hadn’t affected me,” he says. “I tried to put my head down and ended up playing a really good game of footy. But the way I was questioned at the tribunal, to me, seemed like they were trying to belittle my feelings.”

What surprised even neutral observers of Proctor’s case is how little weight was apparently given to video footage used at the hearing. It showed Proctor and Thompson reacting immediately, unequivocally and with barely concealed anger to what was said.

Thompson says he could be heard yelling, “you can’t f*****g say that”, although audio enhancement performed during the hearing did nothing to clarify the matter. Thompson says it was suggested that he wasn’t even in the vicinity when the comment was made, despite clear footage of his immediate remonstration with the accused.

Victims have no right of appeal

In the week after the incident, Lionel Proctor observed with frustration the changes in Kain’s posture and voice, and the lack of support from the NFNL. “Kain hasn’t had one phone call from the league,” he says. “They haven’t explained anything. They haven’t even called just to check in on him or show any support. He hasn’t heard a thing.”

AFL players in a team huddle during a match
Before his move to Bundoora Football Club, Kain Proctor (centre) played for the Fitzroy Stars alongside his father Lionel (immediately right of Kain).(

Supplied: Kain Proctor

)

Kain reckons the week after was even worse. “My mental state wasn’t the greatest,” he says. Never lacking motivation in his day job as a concreter, he stayed home to work through his feelings. “The longer it went on, the more angry I got, and the more hurt. And to see how much it hurt my family, that hurts me more than it’s hurt me, in a way.”

Asked by ABC Sport why Proctor had received no direct support from the league, NFNL chief executive Peter McDougall said: “Following consultation with the AFL and stakeholders, the players involved in this alleged incident will be offered wellbeing support.”

But there was another major frustration to come.

A clause of the NFNL’s vilification and discrimination policy, last reviewed in December 2019, states:

Proctor duly advised Bundoora he’d like to launch such an appeal. When they tried, a message was relayed from the league back to Proctor: he had no right of appeal. 

AFL player in the action of kicking a ball during a match
When Kain returned for his second stint at Bundoora FC, he was immediately elevated to the club’s leadership group.(

Supplied: Nathan William Media

)

Notwithstanding the clear provision in the league’s own vilification policy, NFNL chief executive Peter McDougall told ABC Sport that “the reported player has the right to an appeal — not the victim”.

In recent days, the problem has been escalated to Tanya Hosch, the AFL’s general manager of inclusion and social policy. Although the NFNL sits outside hers and AFL Victoria’s jurisdiction, pressure for reform is likely, including the addition of an Indigenous tribunal member for cases like Proctor’s.

In a statement to ABC Sport, McDougall said:

“The League acknowledges that when it comes to discrimination and vilification, we are open to evolving our policies and processes to effectively, credibly and efficiently address these matters for the health of everyone who participates across our league and in the spirit and health of the game.”

‘They’ve got to live with the consequences’

It is not normally his style, but Kain Proctor took to Facebook the day after the tribunal hearing and shared a measured account of his experience. “Two weeks ago I was racially vilified while playing footy in the Northern Football Netball League with the person found not guilty in a tribunal hearing only last night,” Proctor wrote.

“This whole situation deeply frustrates and saddens me that this is still happening in not only our local leagues but society and should be dealt with very seriously. There has been no support or anything from the league and I feel this major issue isn’t taken serious enough and someone needs to take a stand on it.

Four AFL players with their hands around one another smiling for a photo in their team uniform
Kain’s cousin Jai Burns (far left) accompanied Kain (second from left) to the coin when Bundoora played Northcote Park during NAIDOC week.(

Supplied: Kain Proctor

)

“So my point of this is to take a stand against racism and make sure the next person doesn’t have to deal with the weight of these types of issues, and the right people are held accountable. This has been a difficult thing to deal with and carry through what was supposed to be a celebration of NAIDOC Week.”

The League’s response was to pass on a message that they’d finally meet with Proctor — only if he deleted the post.

Lionel Proctor reacted with a post of his own, pointing out that the NFNL was expending more energy on creating social media posts for NAIDOC Week than it did on addressing the material impacts of racism experienced by players.

There were other bones of contention. He wrote that the Proctors were told by the league before the tribunal case, “that if the player was found guilty, it would not be published on the NFNL website like every other charge has been since like forever I can remember and the player’s name and racial vilification charge will not be available which is a complete cover-up.”

Headshot of AFL player
Lionel Proctor played 20 games for Richmond between 1998 and 2001 and later became a fixture of the NFNL playing for the Fitzroy Stars.(

Getty: Allsport Australia

)

“This has not only happened to my son lately, there are many other incidents of racism at junior footy and netball as well but again it gets swept under the carpet because it’s all too hard for you and we don’t hear about it.

As a NFNL coach, he risks suspension for his comments. As a concerned father, he says he will not back down. “I expect there to be a phone call to the football club but I couldn’t care less, really,” Lionel says. “If there’s a fine or suspension, I couldn’t care less. This has been an issue in the league for a long time.”

An AFL source told ABC Sport it was NFNL policy not to disclose the details of tribunal cases involving allegations of racial abuse, but that too is likely to be reviewed.

‘I don’t feel it’s culturally or emotionally safe for our young Aboriginal boys’

Housed since the beginning of 2020 in offices at major partner LaTrobe University’s Bundoora campus, the NFNL is a thoroughly modern sporting organisation, boasting myriad sponsors and a Board of Directors well connected to local council.

Among the NFNL’s four “values” pillars are the ideals of inclusivity and transparency, although annual reports available on the NFNL website have had their financial sections removed and the league declined to provide them to ABC Sport. Asked whether the league currently employs any Indigenous staff or board members, the NFNL declined to comment.

Group of AFL players with their hands around one another smiling for a photo in their team uniform
Football is a family affair for the Proctor family, and Kain (far right) and Lionel (third from right) have been key players in the resurgence of the Fitzroy Stars club.(

Supplied: Kain Proctor

)

Those familiar with NFNL machinations say that its 21st-century veneer does not obscure certain outdated features. Indeed, some Indigenous players feel the league’s zeal to become bigger and better is precisely what makes it incapable of stamping out racial abuse.

“It’s not just Kain, there have been a number of incidents. I know it’s happening in our [Fitzroy Stars] juniors and nothing gets done about it.”

“It’s happening in the netball on Friday nights and nothing gets done about that. It should be out there and everyone should be taking a stand. It seems like the league just sweeps it under the carpet.”

If the NFNL is committed to learning from “individuals who have been involved in associated incidents in the past”, such resources will not be hard to find.

Fitzroy Stars veteran Coree Thorpe is a Gunnai, Yorta Yorta, Gunditjmara and Wurundjeri artist and community development worker. Twice this season in the NFNL, he and teammates have been subjected to racial abuse.

Headshot of a man
Fitzroy Stars veteran Coree Thorpe feels compelled to speak out about the lack of progress in the handling of racial vilification in Melbourne’s Northern Football Netball League.(

Supplied: Coree Thorpe

)

“The Fitzroy Stars is a predominantly Aboriginal club. We’ve been back in the league for 10 years now and we’ve been subjected to it over the boundary and on the field. It always falls on deaf ears at the league.

In a recent NFNL junior match, the issue came to a head when a young Aboriginal player was sent off and suspended for five weeks for retaliating to racial abuse. “To be honest, I don’t feel it’s culturally or emotionally safe for our young Aboriginal boys playing in the Northern Football League,” one concerned parent said after the incident. “I hate seeing his love for the game disappear because of abuse and racism.”

Asked whether the league takes such incidents seriously enough, NFNL chief executive Peter McDougall said the league mandates that every club deliver racial vilification and discrimination training to its players.

“However, we appreciate that it takes more than training to address these behaviours and attitudes,” McDougall says. “We will be taking the time to listen to the participants in our league about their experiences and concerns to inform how we can improve our policy and practices going forward.”

‘I’m happy to make a stand’

Melbourne’s fifth lockdown put paid to the NFNL’s round 14 games on Saturday, July 18. The absence of footy left Kain Proctor pondering the impact of the preceding fortnight. He was a key contributor to his club’s last win, but he still hadn’t cleared his mind.

“I’ve tried to move on,” Proctor says, “but if we were playing this week, I’d have the same sort of thing — disappointment and the situation is still there.”

“Whether it’s an Indigenous person or any person of colour — and we’re pretty diverse in the competition — this has sent a message that you can’t be confident. Who is to say the next person isn’t going to just cop it on the chin and deal with it in silence because he doesn’t have any confidence in the competition, that they’re going to back him or her?”

The episode will also test the willingness of principled bystanders like Bailey Thompson to speak up for what they think is fair and just. “How quickly they’ve brushed this aside and not taken it seriously would definitely not make others want to address it,” Thompson says.

AFL players getting into an altercation during a match
Lionel Proctor and Essendon’s Adam Ramanauskas during an AFL encounter in 2000.(

Getty: Hamish Blair

)

“People will feel like they’re not going to be believed. It’s kinda scary that we’re still at that stage.”

What does he think of Proctor? “We’re lucky to have him,” Thompson says. “Taking a knee for him doesn’t seem like a big thing to do, but it felt pretty bloody special to be a part of that. It even gave me a shiver up the spine.”

Bundoora coach Michael Ryan knew Proctor was made of stern stuff, but the willingness of Thompson and his other senior players to back Proctor and the club’s three other Indigenous players has impressed him equally.

“I could not have been prouder of Bailey, the way he’s conducted himself in the last fortnight,” Ryan says. “I’ve never coached a playing group that is closer than this one at Bundoora. We weren’t just going to let it run its course and pretend it didn’t occur.”

Two weeks ago, at the conclusion of the game that caused Kain Proctor weeks of undue discomfort, one important update did appear on the NFNL website. It was the “1” next to Proctor’s name, to signify his status as the best player on the field.

Proctor and the Bundoora teammates who love him focused on a simpler detail that day: In every sense of the word, they’d walked off winners.


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