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Why reinstating Clarkson and Fagan is the right decision

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1st November, 2022
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As Alastair Clarkson prepares to resume his tenure as North Melbourne coach on Wednesday, many might question why it’s happening.

Arguably never has someone started a new role under such intriguing circumstances.

The four-time Hawthorn premiership coach was announced as the new North Melbourne coach in mid-August.

After parting ways with David Noble, the Kangaroos embarked on ‘Operation Clarkson’. And they got their man for the next five years, with his contract tying him to the club until the end of 2027. It was a joyous occasion. A time of triumph for a club that has been struggling for so long.

The Roos, led by President Dr Sonja Hood, were hopping with glee, celebrating the successful coach’s commitment to the club. Even non-North Melbourne fans were happy for the boys from Arden St. After all, they’ve struggled lately and Clarkson is hailed by many as the best AFL coach of the modern era. His appointment was the glimmer of hope the wooden spooners desperately needed.

Alastair Clarkson and Chris Fagan at a Hawthorn training session in 2016.

Alastair Clarkson and Chris Fagan at a Hawthorn training session in 2016. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Then about four weeks later it all went pear-shaped.

Australians woke up on Wednesday 21st September to breaking news by the ABC’s Russell Jackson. It was a damning piece regarding historical treatment of Indigenous players at the Hawthorn Football Club. The article referred to a report done by First Nations consultants claiming poor treatment of Indigenous players and their families.


Former Hawthorn Football Club staff including former coach Clarkson, former assistant Chris Fagan now the Brisbane Lions Coach and former Hawthorn player development manager Jason Burt were incriminated in the ABC report. Burt had left Hawthorn in 2019 and has been the Head of Coaching and Performance Sport at Caulfield Grammar.

Jackson’s report made for difficult reading. It was horrific. Distressing. The allegations levelled against Clarkson, Fagan and Burt are grave and troubling. AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan described them as “harrowing and disturbing.”

All three accused stood down from their respective roles, pending an investigation into the allegations of mistreatment of indigenous athletes, when the report came to light. Taking indefinite leave, they all vehemently denied and refuted any wrongdoing.

Eagerly seeking the opportunity to defend their reputations, they found themselves bound, unable to speak publicly so as to not prejudice the investigation. It’s an interesting case.

They also had to wait patiently for the AFL to set out the terms of reference for the investigation. The AFL finally did that last week.

The ecstasy many North supporters and others in the AFL community felt around the time of Clarkson’s signing turned into disappointment and shock. There was a sense of horror and disbelief.


McLachlan also lamented the situation and promised to ensure it did not occur again. The outgoing leader of the AFL emphasised that improvements needed to be made while stressing the importance of running a thorough investigation.

“We will do whatever we can to ensure the hurt you experienced is not experienced by others,” he told Indigenous players.

“We need to run a proper investigation to get to the bottom of it and this is important.”

Many believed Jackson’s article and were furious with Clarkson and co. Others were unsure what to believe and some questioned whether Jackson had done his due diligence before publishing the article.

They subsequently took to social media to express those thoughts.

Jackson refuted their claims.

The ABC quoted three unidentified Indigenous players in the article. Until this point, they remain unidentified, having been able to maintain their privacy.


These players have accused the Hawthorn trio of extremely cruel treatment. There were many other Indigenous players coached by Clarkson who seemingly had no issues with the master coach. They were not included in Jackson’s article.

A critical piece of investigative journalism is to allow the parties being investigated the right to reply.
For his part, Jackson says he contacted Clarkson, Fagan and Burt. However they have advised they were not contacted and were unaware of the report or that this article would come out.

None of them were interviewed as part of the report and claim they have not had the opportunity to share their side of the story.

Every story has three sides – in this case, the accused, the accusers and the truth which could be somewhere in the middle (or not).

And until they’ve had the opportunity to share their perspective of what took place, it is best judgment is reserved.

Following Brisbane’s approval of Fagan’s return on Tuesday night, North Melbourne’s board met on Wednesday to determine Clarkson’s fate. And they endorsed the four-time premiership coach’s start date.

There had been question marks whether Clarkson would commence his new role with the Kangaroos as planned in early November, following the independent Hawthorn report into its treatment of First Nations players during his time at the club from 2008 to 2016.


The 54-year-old recently returned from Scotland after spending some time with Celtic coach and fellow Aussie Ange Postecoglou. He is vowing to fight the allegations against him and defend his reputation.

The terms of reference for the investigation into allegations of racism were laid out by the AFL last Thursday.

Clarkson spoke about how the allegations have taken a toll on the accused. Determined to clear their names, they are looking forward to sharing their side of the story.

“Fages, myself and Jason have been through a tough time over the past four weeks and [we’re] just pleased that we have been able to identify a platform in which we can reveal some of the truths behind this and then get on with it,” Clarkson told Channel Nine’s sports reporter Ayrton Wooley upon his arrival at the airport on Tuesday.

It was the right decision to reinstate him as coach of North Melbourne and Fagan as the Brisbane Lions’ coach.

Notwithstanding the seriousness of the allegations, and the potential ramifications if found guilty, until proven guilty, they should be afforded the presumption of being innocent.

The seriousness of the allegations levelled against them means that if these things are found to have occurred, then their roles may be untenable. If there is truth to it, one could conclude that they would have failed in their duty of care towards the players.


Up until now, the Indigenous players are yet to confirm they will cooperate with the AFL’s investigation. However, Clarkson said he, Fagan and Burt are willing to do their part.

“Fages, Jason and myself always said right from the get-go we’ll cooperate fully with whatever the AFL put in place.”

An independent investigation into the allegations at Hawthorn will be completed by December 22.

The decision by the clubs to stand them down at the time this news broke was the appropriate action. It was the wise decision at the time, pending details about the investigation.

However, now that the AFL has laid out the terms of its investigation, the clubs cannot continue to hold them back from assuming their duties. There is just too much at stake for the clubs to not have a coach at the helm.

In the meantime, I wonder if Clarkson hasn’t already contacted his old mate Brett Ratten to see if he would like to work with him again. Ratten was an assistant at Hawthorn under Clarkson for six years. Part of the club’s 2013, 2014 and 2015 premiership coaching panel, Ratten left the Hawthorn Football Club at the end of the 2018 season.

Ratten was coaching St Kilda for the past three years. But he and the club parted ways in recent weeks, opening up an opportunity to reunite with his former boss.


The former St Kilda and Carlton coach has a wealth of knowledge and is known for his relationship building with players.

Having worked together in the past during a successful period at Hawthorn, they could replicate that winning formula. And if Clarkson does have to step down as a result of the investigation then the former Blues and Saints coach can comfortably step in.

Just as Brendon Bolton stepped in for five games during Hawthorn’s 2014 campaign when Clarkson was out being treated for Guillain-Barré syndrome. The Hawks won all five games with Bolton at the helm.

While Clarkson, Fagan and Burt are adamant they have done nothing wrong, this could be a smart back-up option.

But in the meantime, they deserve to be afforded the opportunity to defend themselves against these serious allegations.