AFL fans back inclusion but growing number criticise ‘woke agenda’

The majority of AFL fans support Pride rounds and the league’s work to stamp racism out of football, but a growing number remain unconvinced that the AFL should be a leading advocate on social issues.

The annual AFL Fans Association survey, revealed exclusively by The Sunday Age, found that 66 per cent of respondents thought the AFL could do more to combat racism in football, as 47 per cent had witnessed racist comments directed at players. The survey found 62 per cent supported an annual Pride round for AFLW, and 59 per cent wanted one during the men’s season.

Bulldogs and St Kilda captains Ellie Blackburn and Hannah Priest mark Pride round.Credit:Getty Images

However, the authors of the report said the qualitative data showed a number of fans were worried about the AFL’s priorities. They wrote that “there is a concern that issues such as a focus on broadcasters, inclusion, gambling, digital ticketing, noise and lights at the game are distracting from the core focus of the game itself”.

The association said further work was needed to be more definitive, but supporter sentiments on inclusion were mixed, with the report stating: “Qualitative comments from fans vary on these matters, with some strongly advocating for more being done whilst others [were] concerned that the game of football and a focus on the fans needs to improve first. There is also concern from the qualitative comments that there is too much emphasis on the ‘woke agenda’ with some fans even questioning why questions on these topics are included in the fan survey.”

AFL Fans Association stakeholder Sheridan Verwey said about one in 10 comments provided by respondents reflected that.

“[Those respondents] are concerned the AFL is distracted and moving further and further away from what is great about the game,” Verwey said.

Responses also showed that most supporters thought other issues were of greater concern to them than inclusion and racism, with that category ranking ninth among 11 AFL-focused categories. Umpiring/rule changes, gambling and scheduling were in the top three.

Of the six categories that clubs should be most concerned about, according to fans, diversity and inclusion ranked last. List management and the retention of players was the fans’ greatest concern when it came to clubs.

Tanya Hosch, the AFL’s general manager for social policy and inclusion, said it was vital every supporter played a positive part in making football a welcoming place, and football must continue to stand up for what was right.

“Football is a place of inclusion and belonging and there is absolutely no place for racism in our game at any level. Ever. Everyone involved in football, including fans, has a role to play in combating racism and vilification in football and the wider community,” Hosch said.

The AFL’s executive general manager of inclusion and social policy, Tanya Hosch.Credit:AFL Photos

“Nobody in our game or in the community deserves to be discriminated and vilified against due to their faith or race and there is simply no excuse for it. We encourage reporting of racist and other forms of abuse at games. When we receive reports, these are investigated and penalties apply to those we can locate as well as training provided to offenders.

“We also take opportunities to promote these messages – most recently the eSafety game last season with promotion of eSafety played at the finals of all men’s and women’s games last season.”

Most of the almost 3000 fans surveyed wanted the AFL to do more to combat racism in the game, with 36 per cent of respondents observing racist comments from one fan to another, 47 per cent witnessing racist comments directed at players and 25 per cent witnessing racist comments to an umpire. There was no date specified on when they may have heard such comments.

Verwey said the qualitative responses relating to fan behaviour were more encouraging, with several respondents saying the environment at games was better than it had been for fans.

“There is a sense that people have noticed an improvement, which is good,” Verwey said.

The independent survey found 69 per cent of respondents agreed that each club should conduct a review of their club’s treatment of Indigenous players. The questions were included on the survey soon after allegations made in Hawthorn’s review into cultural safety for past Indigenous players became public in September last year.

The AFL Players’ Association is nearing completion of a project that will see racist behaviour addressed within a human rights framework, which they believe will provide the industry with a template.

The AFL is yet to determine whether it throws its weight behind a “Yes” vote for the Voice to parliament referendum. The league showed its support for the “Yes” vote ahead of the same-sex marriage plebiscite in 2017.

An AFL spokesperson said the league was still working through the Voice question.

”The AFL is undergoing a consultation process with stakeholders from across the industry regarding the Voice to parliament referendum in 2023. Once that process is completed, the AFL’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Council will make a recommendation to the AFL Commission,” the spokesperson said.

Verwey said it was encouraging to see relatively high numbers supporting Pride round in the AFL because many respondents were in an older demographic.

A Pride game is held between St Kilda and Sydney in the AFL each season. The league is open to a dedicated Pride round in the AFL but wants to work with key stakeholders to ensure any supportive measures are well planned. The AFLW’s Pride round was introduced in 2021

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