Essendon legend Michael Long still making his Long Walk against racism:

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Michael Long will address an economic and cultural development summit in Broadmeadows next week

Frank McGuire and Michael - Global Learning Centre Broadmeadows

It is 1995 and Michael Long stands alone in the gym at Windy Hill, the home of the Essendon Football Club, repeating mindless biceps curls and staring into a mirror. Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy ushers me into the grimy sanctuary, suggesting his star break his silence concerning the racial slur uttered against him in the dying minutes of a pulsating drawn match, abuse drowned out by the roar of almost 95,000 fans at the AFL’s inaugural Anzac Day contest meant to commemorate mateship.

Long played footy as if he was dancing along his own song line on the MCG surface, finding time, space and eloquence amid the chaos of a grand final to win a Norm Smith medal as the best afield in a premiership victory. But in the immediate aftermath of the match against Collingwood, he maintained the players’ code of silence. Days later in the gym he still refuses to avert his gaze.

They don’t care what colour their dog is, or their car, but when it comes to people it’s a different issue. Why should it be? Why can’t we live together as one?Michael Long

Confiding to my television crew from the ABC’s 7.30 Report that we will either secure an exclusive interview or Michael Long will end up with biceps the size of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s, I asked them to set up in Essendon’s trophy room and wait.

Long reluctantly concedes to discuss the controversy. His initial on-camera responses prove as evasive as his on-field sidesteps. After 20 minutes he has revealed little. Frustrated, I ask him to set aside everyone else’s commentary and bluntly put the critical question: “What does it mean to you to be called ‘a black bastard?’.”

“It’s degrading a person for not only who they are but for their colour as well,” Long responds. Then he gives an answer carrying the burden of history and the power of a universal truth: “We’re just the same, we bleed the same. But people have an opinion on people they don’t know. They don’t care what colour their dog is, or their car, but when it comes to people it’s a different issue. Why should it be? Why can’t we live together as one?”

Long uttered these words 20 years ago. Speaking up changed AFL culture against on-field abuse. Dual Brownlow medallist Adam Goodes called out crowd abuse. Hopefully this will end abuse from beyond the boundary.

It may also lead to greater understanding of the history of Australia’s black-white relations. The past is never dead, as William Faulkner noted, it’s not even past. The mothers of Michael Long and Adam Goodes belong to the stolen generations, taken from their families as children.

Grief-stricken, Long phoned me the day he began what became known as the Long Walk, his journey on foot from Melbourne to Canberra, seeking a meeting with then-prime minister John Howard to try to include Indigenous voices in solutions to systemic disadvantage.

“There are too many deaths,” Long said, voice quiet with rage. “I’ve been to too many funerals for my family and my friends.” His offer from the heart was made more than a decade ago.

Last year’s Australian of the Year Adam Goodes has been criticised for being dismayed at the lack of response to John Pilger’s film Utopia, highlighting that the world’s worst rate of the eye disease trachoma is among Indigenous Australians; that suicide rates in Aboriginal communities are increasing; and Indigenous Australians are likely to be imprisoned at 10 times the rate of black people under South African apartheid. Australia’s Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was almost 25 years ago.

The British Parliament passed the Australian constitution as part of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act in 1900 and it took effect on January 1, 1901. Recognition for Indigenous Australians in our constitution remains a struggle.

Sport connects the disconnected and education is the pathway to a better life, especially for those who come from the end of the line. Michael Long has accepted my invitation to address an economic and cultural development summit in Broadmeadows next week aimed at establishing brighter futures for generations to come by investing in the attributes that largely determine where we all end up in life: attitude, education and opportunity, rather than simply building bigger police stations, grander court houses and more prisons.

A learning and leadership centre named in Long’s honour recently opened in Darwin to help uncover the successors to football stars such as Long and Cyril Rioli. The AFL, Essendon and Collingwood football clubs will add their clout to the summit because footy has played an important role in social progress. It should not be diminished by flashpoint controversies.

The last time Long visited the learning centre in Broadmeadows, encouraging children to further their educations, he could barely stand because of his football injuries. He thanked me for the loan of a couch. I thanked him for an Essendon premiership and his knee. The Long Walk continues. Slowly. Courageously.

Frank McGuire is Victoria’s parliamentary secretary for medical research and Labor MP for Broadmeadows. His 1995 report on racial abuse in the AFL was nominated for a United Nations Media Peace Prize.
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