The heroism of Héritier Lumumba

“I arrived at this football club in 2004 as an 18-year-old from Perth with the name Harry O’Brien. And now in 2014, we find ourselves in a very interesting time, not only for this football club but for this whole world. The landscape is changing. And I know that if the Collingwood Football Club is to go to the next level as a football club, it must stand on the right side of history.”

This is how Héritier Lumumba began his final speech as a Collingwood player, at the club’s best and fairest award ceremony in 2014. The venue was packed with his teammates, coaches and club executives, many of them averting their eyes nervously, maybe even guiltily.

This speech is also the final scene in Fair Game, an SBS documentary about Lumumba’s struggle against racism in the AFL, which every football fan should watch.

These days, the AFL promotes itself as progressive and modern. It has rounds dedicated to Indigenous people, multiculturalism, LGBTI pride and so on. This year it launched AFLW, a professional women’s league. It has a dedicated “diversity program”.

But while all of these measures are supportable, they are only skin deep. All of the oppression that exists throughout Australian society is manifest inside the AFL, and is amplified by the boys’ club culture, the corporate structures and the expectation that “the old ways” be tolerated. Speaking out against it tars you as disloyal, precious and/or strange (and probably a little bit gay).

Lumumba has had to fight against racism his whole life. When he moved to Melbourne at age 18 to pursue a footy career, this didn’t change. His brilliance on the field did not stop his teammates calling him “Chimp”. But, as Lumumba discovered, racism is not only embedded in jokes and nicknames. It is also structural. Despite all the celebrations of brilliant Indigenous footballers, why are there no Indigenous coaches? How can Sam Newman get away with black face on The Footy Show? How can Eddie McGuire get away with comparing Adam Goodes to King Kong on live radio?

The reason is that racism remains a core part of Australian society. As Lumumba says, “Australian culture is white culture”.

Lumumba decided early in his career to use the platform footy gave him to speak out against injustice. He tweeted about his support for refugees, he spoke at a UN conference – he even attended Socialist Alternative’s Marxism conference. He became more than a footballer. He was someone with opinions: left wing opinions that put those in power in a bad light. And this was a threat – doubly so because Lumumba is Black.

One of the most racist aspects of sporting culture is not so much the exclusion of Black athletes, but the conditional inclusion – the expectation that they should physically perform but keep their mouths shut. Lumumba broke this rule and he was punished for it with condescension and mockery.

But he stood his ground. He publicly stood in solidarity with Goodes and attacked McGuire – the head of his club and one of the most powerful figures in football. Lumumba said that when he did this he felt like everyone in the football establishment was against him and that McGuire had somehow been turned into the victim.

Ultimately, Lumumba could not change the culture of the Collingwood club because it came from the top. He ended his 10-year career at the club after a confrontation with the new coach, Nathan Buckley, who taunted him for his attempts to educate the players about racism and homophobia.

Fair Game is a story of the worst and best of football. It reveals the embedded culture of racism and machismo. But it’s also the story of a sporting hero. Lumumba was inspired to take up AFL by Michael Long and other Aboriginal football champions. He has undoubtedly made himself an inspiration to generations to come, for many reasons. The final words of the 2014 speech sum up his resilience and defiance:

“One thing that I have learnt in my journey, that I will hold to my heart for the rest of my life, is that I know that I am on the right side of history, and I am so grateful that the Collingwood Football Club has allowed me to find my character, and also to find the true meaning of my name, which is Héritier Lumumba, which means the prince, the one who will have the last laugh and is gifted.”