The Hawthorn Football Club will likely face legal action over allegations detailed in a damning external review into the club’s treatment of Indigenous footballers, legal experts and footballing insiders say.
If the allegations in the report by former Richmond player Phil Egan prove true, legal experts say, they are serious enough that the club could face claims alleging discrimination, breaches of the Occupational Health and Safety Act and an investigation by the workplace regulator, WorkSafe.
Hawthorn has responded to claims First Nations players were mistreated at the club. Credit:James Boddington
Veteran football manager Peter Jess, who has litigated against the AFL over player concussions, said civil cases were an inevitable outcome given the “plethora” of reported breaches and violation of rights of Indigenous footballers in the report.
“Litigation on several fronts will flow, there’s no question of that; not only the direct participants but their family members, unless there are early interventions to prevent it,” he said.
“In my opinion, the fact that there’s been no action, no pathways for them to seek safe harbour to have this dealt with properly is the biggest failing inside the AFL.”
The report has not yet been released, but the ABC on Wednesday published allegations contained in it, including that the club demanded some First Nations players split from their partners and live separately from their families.
In one incident, a player and his partner were allegedly pressured to terminate a pregnancy to further his career, the ABC reported.
Maurice Blackburn employment law specialist Josh Bornstein said that provided the allegations as reported were true, there were three possible civil claims that could be pursued by the players.
Bornstein said the players could allege discrimination, firstly on the basis that they had been treated in an offensive and callous manner based on their race, and second that they were allegedly discriminated against because of their responsibility as partners and fathers, both of which were protected under the law.
He said the players could also bring a case in a breach of occupational health and safety laws by alleging negligent mistreatment by coaches at the club.
A WorkSafe spokeswoman said the regulator was making inquiries.
Three families spoke to the ABC and alleged they were mistreated at Hawthorn.
The player known as “Ian” was excited to share with his teammates that his partner was 12 weeks pregnant. He told the ABC a group of leadership figures within the club urged him to have the pregnancy terminated and to “get rid” of his partner.
Coaches were also accused of coercing players to remove SIM cards to cut them off from their family members and force them to focus on football, according to the ABC.
Slater and Gordon workers compensation expert Ben Gilley, who frequently advises on workplace bullying cases, said the players had a strong argument that the allegations fit within the legal definition of bullying.
“They’re shocking allegations. If they are proven, then I think they would be at the more serious end of the accusations we see in the workplace,” he said.
Bornstein added that WorkSafe could have reason to consider launching a criminal investigation into the club because of the extreme nature of the allegations, although probes for the infliction of mental harm were less common.
“It’s an open question because those allegations are very extreme and if that conduct has occurred that is very, very harmful to psychological health,” he said.
Sources familiar with the review said key people at Hawthorn, who are alleged in the report to have pressured the Indigenous players, were not approached by the authors about the allegations as their brief was to speak to former Indigenous players about their experiences at the club.
AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan said that “on face value, it is hard to find more serious allegations” and described them as “harrowing”, but added it was important that natural justice was afforded to the former Hawthorn officials named in the claims.
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