For Jason Mifsud racism in footy during his time in the south-west was far from a rare event.
“Over the years you could nearly guarantee the clubs that you had to brace yourself for by way of being subjected to racism and once again it was predominantly through the supporter base,” he said.
In June 1998 Mr Mifsud was playing for Koroit when he lodged a racial vilification complaint with the Hampden Football Netball League alleging he was racially abused by a North Warrnambool player.
The incident was addressed behind closed doors through mediation.
Mr Mifsud said the league’s policy essentially supported the person and perpetrator but challenged the behaviour.
“For me it wasn’t necessarily about individual retribution or anything in that matter,” he said.
“It’s about creating an inclusive and safe environment regardless of your cultural background. One of the things I really admired about the policy was it dealt with the behaviour of a person… out of respect for him and the procedures I would still hold that as a very strong principal. Other people believe in naming and shaming. I don’t think that corrects behaviour I think it inflames and incites.”
Twenty years later, Mr Mifsud stands by his decision to call out the behaviour.
“I guess you make a judgement call on whether it’s behaviour that you walk past or behaviour you accept,” he said. “I don’t take any solace or satisfaction in being the first person to raise it at the Hampden League level or any level in south-west Victoria but I guess if you believe in a fair and equal society there are moments when your courage is tested to raise these significant conversations.”
According to Mr Mifsud the toll of racism in sport can be scarring for the individuals involved and their families.
“On the sporting field where it’s theoretically equal there’s these moments that cut to your core in relation to a timely reminder that it’s not always equal and football and footballers in this context prepare themselves for the psychological and physical battle of competition,” he said.
“It’s emotionally very challenging, anybody that’s been subjected to ongoing vilification and or racism then the next moment you’re exposed to that it just reminds you of all the other moments you’ve been vilified.
“People tend to dismiss the last incident of not being that serious but if it’s the 100th time it has happened to you in your life or the 200th time it’s the accumulative effect of belittling and demeaning people on basis of their race or, in this case, Aboriginality.”
On April 17, 1993 Mr Mifsud was an 18-year-old boy who’d been drafted from the bush to St Kilda.
On that day the iconic photo was taken of Nicky Winmar standing up to Collingwood supporters at Victoria Park.
“He was sort of the hottest ticket in the competition and on Sunday morning it was the front of The Age and by the Sunday night and Monday.. the conversation was Nicky Winmar is a hero versus Nicky Winmar is a sook,” Mr Mifsud said.
“Having spent countless hours with Nicky subsequent to that (he) left a bit of his own spirit, his own soul on Victoria Park that day and the club didn’t know how to handle it at the time … the country wanted Nicky to be something that he probably didn’t want to be… it was a unique time even the AFL didn’t have the racial and religious vilification policy that came in 1995.”
Mr Mifsud said during his years as a playing coach at the Caramut Football Club he had people tell him that the racial abuse to him and his brother was nothing short of shocking.
On the sporting field where it’s theoretically equal there’s these moments that cut to your core in relation to a timely reminder that it’s not always equal.Jason Mifsud
“I must say it’s largely through the supporter base,” he said.
“I look back at my time at Caramut with unbelievably fond memories and relationships and moments of success, however, it still does make me feel pretty uncomfortable some of the circumstances that my family were subjected to.
“Having cousins in the Warrnambool District league, in the Hampden league and other leagues in south-west Victoria it would not surprise me that its an ongoing issue.”
For East Warrnambool player coach Danny Chatfield, the experience on the field has been largely different to Mr Mifsud.
Mr Chatfield said he hadn’t been racially abused while playing football in the south-west, but it still remained an issue more widely in footy.
“I haven’t copped it,” he said.
“We have a big indigenous base at East Warrnambool.
“For whatever reason I haven’t experienced it at a local level. And I hope my kids don’t have to experience it.
“I think it’s still a problem, it’s not as big as what it might have been 20 years ago.
“Look at what happened to Adam Goodes. There’s still a lot to do and how do we (fix racism in the community)?”
For the past three years Mr Mifsud has been coaching the Fitzroy Stars Football Club in the Northern Football League where he has been shocked at the racism experienced by his predominantly Aboriginal side.
“Trust me it’s alive and kicking,” he said.
“The level of prejudice, even for somebody like me who I thought had seen quite a bit, its been a startling revelation of just a constant either overt racism or subtle racism at all levels.
“It’s the most challenging coaching environment that I’ve been exposed to purely on that basis.”
Since that first racial vilification complaint in 1998, Mr Mifsud has spoken to the former player involved and said he was completely mortified by the incident.
“He was incredibly remorseful and apologetic and I completely accepted his position on that and if I didn’t there were mechanisms to take that further by way of the tribunal,” he said.
Despite the abuse Mr Mifsud said he remained an eternal optimist.
“Despite my own emotional scarrings through those moments of trauma and the trauma I’ve seen inflicted upon other Aboriginal people through ongoing forms of racism.. I think we are in a better place than we were 20 years ago,” he said.
“I look back on my career in south-west Victoria (and) I’ve gained way more from those relationships than I’ve given. I hold those in high regard and have very fond memories and lifelong friendships as a result. The good always out weighs the bad and the bad doesn’t mean it can’t be addressed and shouldn’t be challenged.
“It’s not always popular but it’s inevitably always the right thing to do.”