Former Hawthorn Hawks captain Luke Hodge, AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan responds to Cyril Rioli racism story

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“Can I finally say on this matter: we all want Cyril back with us at Hawthorn. I hope that we can work through the hurt he feels and make him feel welcome and safe in the brown and gold family again.”

Kennett’s letter, the first half of which was about the positive on-field signs from the Hawks in the first three rounds of the season, was published on the same day that former Hawthorn captain Luke Hodge questioned whether his team did enough to support Indigenous players in the past.

And AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan also said on Wednesday that he had spoken to people around the club and internally at the league on the Rioli matter.

Cyril Rioli and Luke Hodge after the 2015 premiership win.Credit:james boddington

“There are ongoing conversations. I guess the priority is the cultural safety of the players past and present, and obviously, there are lots of conversations going on now,” McLachlan said.

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Asked if the Hawks needed to commit to a process similar to Collingwood’s Do Better report, McLachlan said: “I think they are working through the issue and they’ll reach their own conclusions on that, but what the priority is, is the cultural safety of the Indigenous players at the club now and the recent past.”

Hodge told SEN on Wednesday that he had not been able to speak to Rioli since the article was published on Saturday.

Hodge had moved to the Brisbane Lions when Kennett made the comment about the jeans Shannyn Rioli was wearing.

“It’s only been the last couple of years with the understanding of things like RU OK? Day – the amount of times we have said to players, ‘Are you OK?’ – but it’s only when you dive a bit deeper and ask pointed questions that you get the right answer and understand their feelings,” Hodge said.

“So you sit back and say, did we ask pointed enough questions and see how Cyril and the other Indigenous players were feeling? Maybe we didn’t ask those pointed questions and it doesn’t sit comfortably with you.

“What we have found out over the years is that you don’t just assume that you are showing the right support to people. You have to ask detailed questions, you can’t just say ‘how are ya mate?’ People just shrug it off. You need to show you care and dig a little deeper.”

Hodge said that he didn’t know about the racist comment made on a footy trip in 2013 until he read the article and he clarified that a senior player had attempted to mediate the issue at the time. He said it was never taken to the leadership group which would meet weekly and discuss issues around the club and team.

“I spoke to the players in the leadership group and players outside the leadership group and found out there was an incident away on a trip at the end of the year and there was a comment made and a player heard it and was very hurt by the how,” Hodge said.

“There was a senior player there, and he got the two players together and spoke through it. There was an apology made and accepted, and they went on with the rest of the trip.

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“I asked the senior player, should that have come back to us [the leadership group] and he said that in his mind it was resolved. The three players involved in the discussion resolved it, there was an apology, and it was accepted.

“I spoke to all three players, and it’s not about what is said, but it is how it is taken, and I spoke to the Indigenous player who heard that and was hurt by the comment. It was a heartfelt apology and he knew the person and knew that he meant it.

“It was resolved then, and they’ve been mates since and gone on.

“You don’t want to diminish what the article was about. The article was about Cyril and Shannyn and even though Cyril had so many great times at the Hawthorn Football Club, there were times he didn’t feel supported and as a senior player, as a teammate, and all teammates are the same – every person on your list you should support and help where you can.”

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Hodge said he had spoken with journalist Caroline Wilson to share that the leadership group had never heard about the 2013 incident, said he wanted to speak with Rioli when Rioli was ready, and hoped that Rioli would join his former teammates at future celebrations of their premierships together.

“I tried to reach out to Cyril,” Hodge said.

“When I left Hawthorn and went to Brisbane we had text messages back and forth and when he finished at Hawthorn I sent him a message about putting his family first, and I initially thought [he retired] because his dad had been through a bit of a tough time.

“I can’t personally feel how Cyril is because I don’t know. None of us do. All we can try to support him and send messages. I know a lot of the boys have tried to touch base with him and he has probably been inundated with messages.

“As Sam Mitchell said the other day, you can’t push someone into this. You need to sit back and give him time. All we can do as former teammates is let him know we are there for a chat if he needs to and this may take a lot of time.

“I’m the same as every football fan who wants to see Cyril back in the AFL. I’m the same as every Hawthorn supporter who wants to see Cyril back at Hawthorn.”

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