Comedian and TV personality Peter Helliar has apologised to former Collingwood defender Heritier Lumumba for questioning his claims of racism within the club.
The AFL star is suing the Magpies over allegations he was subjected to a culture of ‘racist jokes’, including being nicknamed ‘Chimp’ by teammates, during his 10-year stint with the club between 2005-2014.
After retiring from the sport five years ago, the 2010 premiership player came forward with his claims, which led to Collingwood carrying out an internal investigation into racism.
A scathing report made public on Monday found the club’s attempts to deal with allegations of racism were either ‘ineffective’ or ‘exacerbated’ the situation.
In 2017, Lumumba appeared on the Project to discuss his experiences of racism in AFL during an exclusive interview with Waleed Aly.
The Project panellist Peter Helliar (pictured) has apologised to former Collingwood defender Heritier Lumumba for questioning his claims of racism within the club
But his claims were called into doubt by Peter Helliar during a discussion with other panellists after the interview aired.
‘Heritier has the opportunity to become a really strong, significant voice in the battle against racism with the AFL and Australian sport,’ Helliar said.
‘My only thing — it would be really helpful if we heard more detail, specifically with the nickname.
‘We can’t find anyone who would speak to us who knew of that nickname over a playing career of ten years.’
‘Even if you have to name names, take us into your experience. Paint the picture so we understand it more. Because if you don’t do that, then it just sounds like you’re smearing an entire club.’
Helliar’s comments were slammed at the time for ‘undermining’ Lumumba’s claims, with Australian comedian Aamer Rahman among the critics.
Rahman accused Helliar of ‘covering for bullies’ and said his words as ‘cowardly, desperate and dishonest’.
Lumumba (pictured) is suing the Magpies over allegations he was subjected to a culture of ‘racist jokes’
Amid the Collingwood fallout, Helliar has issued an apology to Lumumba, describing the report as ‘heartbreaking’.
‘I am truly, unequivocally sorry Lumumba. I should have believed you. I will do better.
‘I urge all fans and members to demand better from Collingwood’.
Later that day, Lumumba revealed The Project had invited him back for an interviewed but he turned it down due to his experience with the show four years ago.
The report also found the club responds to racism claims through the prism of protecting the club’s brand and reputation, rather than addressing the issues directly and instigating meaningful change.
During a Collingwood press conference on Monday, president Eddie McGuire, 56, denied there was any ‘systemic racism’, and said that on his watch they ‘built a fantastic club’.
‘We’re not a mean-spirited club, we’re not a racist club. I hope this provokes conversation tonight in every household, in all of your workplaces,’ he said.
‘We have decided as a club that this fight against racism and discrimination is where we want to be. We make mistakes. We learn, we strive to get better.
‘We commissioned this report not to pay lip services to a worldwide tragedy, but to lay the foundations for our game, our people and our community.’
Helliar said he is ‘truly sorry’ for not believing Lumumba after a damning report found a culture of ‘systemic racism’ within Collingwood
‘It was not systemic racism, as such, we just didn’t have the processes to deal with it that we do now. I don’t think there’s any shame or disappointment here… this is a day of pride,’ he said.
McGuire has since admitted he ‘got it wrong’ in his response and said he had used the term ‘under the pressure of the day’ – but he was wrong to do so.
‘Over the course of an hour, we answered every question but in my opening I got it wrong. I said it was a proud day for Collingwood and I shouldn’t have,’ he said.
‘I did not mean we were proud of past incidents of racism and the hurt it caused.
‘It’s been interpreted widely that way and I regret that deeply.’
McGuire, who is in his final year as president after 23 years in the top role, said the club was determined to ‘make the future balanced and inclusive for all people’.
He said the club would seek to acknowledge its failings and to learn from them.
‘I’m sorry that my error has acted as a distraction from the importance of the finding of racism and the work that lies ahead,’ he said.
Collingwood Magpies president Eddie McGuire (pictured) said he had ‘got it wrong’ in calling the release of a report into racism at the AFL club a ‘proud day’
‘(We are) apologetic, we are humbled, and we are also galvanised to dismantle any structures of systematic racism.’
Lumumba said Collingwood’s failure to address issues had a ‘severe impact’ on his well being.
‘It affected me in a myriad of ways, whether it was physically, mentally and spiritually,’ he said.
‘Just dealing with the stresses of being an AFL footballer is enough. There’s enough stress you have to deal with playing a game that requires so much of you physically.
‘Not only was I dealing with the stress of being an AFL footballer, but that was exacerbated when the club that I thought really supported me and loved me was contributing to that stress by inflicting more pain and punishing me for simply raising genuine issues.’
Heritier Lumumba (left) is suing the Magpies over claims he was subjected to racial abuse while playing with the team