‘I’ve got nothing to say sorry for’: Jason Burt responds to Hawthorn allegations
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Jason Burt, one of a trio of ex-Hawthorn officials accused of mistreating First Nations players, is adamant he did not see or hear an incident in which a player is alleged to have been told to encourage his partner to have an abortion.
Burt’s version of events is at odds with the testimony provided by the player known as Ian and his partner, Amy about the abortion allegation, the most serious of those made by First Nations players and their partners in the 2022 Hawthorn cultural safety review.
Former Hawthorn welfare officer Jason Burt this week.Credit: Penny Stephens
“It didn’t happen, that’s the first thing,” said Burt, who served as club welfare manager for most of his time at Hawthorn, from 2006 until 2018.
In the first interview with one of the Hawthorn trio about the AFL’s racism investigation, Burt, who is accused alongside senior AFL coaches Alastair Clarkson and Chris Fagan of mistreatment of First Nations players and partners, said that he had never taken that most grave allegation to heart.
“I’ve never taken it to heart because I know that it didn’t happen,” Burt said in a two-hour interview that took place as the AFL closes in on finalising the drawn-out investigation into historical allegations at Hawthorn.
Burt said he was floored by the ABC story in grand final week last year, which published interviews with some of the players who had participated in Hawthorn’s cultural safety review, including Amy’s allegation that she was pressured to terminate her pregnancy. All three men have strenuously denied all the allegations. Pseudonyms aligning with the ABC report have been used for all players and partners in this story.
“I was so bruised by it all, that I couldn’t really walk down the street. I didn’t feel like walking down the street because I didn’t know who was looking at me going, ‘That’s the racist guy that’s just been named’,” Burt said.
The cultural safety review was sparked by an interview in The Age in April last year with Hawks champion Cyril Rioli and his wife, Shannyn Ah Sam-Rioli, in which they said they were poorly treated during Cyril’s playing career, and in which Shannyn said she was “belittled and humiliated”.
The club commissioned a “welfare check” of past and present Indigenous Hawthorn players, the results of which so alarmed the club that it was handed to the AFL’s integrity unit. Following the ABC story, the AFL appointed an independent panel to investigate.
Burt said he had provided the AFL with a detailed response to the allegations, which were alleged to have occurred between 2010-16, though he has not been interviewed by the panel.
Burt says he was floored by the allegations.Credit: Penny Stephens
Burt revealed his major regret was that he should have gone alone, rather than with Clarkson and Fagan, to the home of Zac when the player was telling his then partner and now wife, Kylie, that he was ending the relationship.
“I think that’s the part that overstepped the mark from being supportive to what could be deemed intimidating. And I get that and that’s what makes me feel uncomfortable,” Burt said.
Zac and Kylie are represented by Dr Judy Courtin and have chosen not to take part in the AFL investigation stating that it lacked independence. Courtin declined to comment on Burt’s version of events.
Burt’s accounts of what was alleged are as follows.
1. The abortion allegation, “Ian and Amy”
Burt said he was named as being in the room by Ian when Clarkson was alleged to encourage the player to tell his pregnant partner Amy to have a termination.
Burt said Ian had informed him that Amy was pregnant not long after Ian had been drafted by the Hawks.
“He said ‘Jase, I’m so happy.’ I said, ‘Congratulations.’ But I did have a challenging conversation with him around, there’s some things he needs to work on to be ready to be a dad and he acknowledged those things.
“It was a turbulent time for Ian.”
Burt provided some context of Ian’s challenges at that time, which included standards and behaviours. Burt acknowledged he had pushed the couple to relocate together to be closer to the club and away from the influence of some friends.
Burt was asked how he could reconcile his version with Ian’s accusation and Amy’s description of the incident, which was based on what her then-partner told her.
“I can’t,” he said.
Burt said he had discussed the pregnancy with Ian but abortion had not been mentioned. “No, no, never. The accusation is that it was said in my presence. It was never said in my presence. It was never said to any player in any type of circumstance, that abortion was an option. No.”
‘The AFL is a brand. For them to say they’re worried about people is false. It’s all about brand.’
Was it canvassed among a series of options? “No, absolutely not.”
Attempts to contact Amy’s legal representative, Michael Bradley, who is overseas and on leave, were unsuccessful.
Clarkson and Fagan have strenuously and repeatedly denied the allegations against them and said they look forward to clearing their names.
In an earlier statement, Clarkson said: “I was not afforded any due process and I refute any allegation of wrongdoing or misconduct and look forward to the opportunity to be heard as part of the AFL external investigation.”
When the investigation was announced, Brisbane Lions chair Andrew Wellington said: “We stand by Chris [Fagan] as he commits himself to be part of the AFL investigation, which gives him procedural fairness, into allegations concerning historical events at the Hawthorn Football Club, where he was a former employee. Chris has categorically denied any wrongdoing.”
The pair’s manager, James Henderson, declined to comment.
2. The break-up visit, “Zac” and “Kylie”
Burt recalled that Zac had been expressing uncertainty about the relationship with Kylie, and Burt said he did not know the couple had just become engaged. “He wasn’t sure he wanted to get this serious with the relationship at this stage.
“He also said, ‘I don’t know where I’m at with my footy.’
“I said to him, ‘Look you’re telling me’ – he was quite upset – ‘is you want this to stop for a period of time?’” Zac agreed, according to Burt.
This version differs from Zac’s account in the ABC story, where Zac said he was told Kylie was holding back his career and he should end the relationship.
Burt agreed to accompany Zac in going to see Kylie to tell her the relationship was over. “At the time, I gave this consideration and thought ‘This is probably edgy’.”
Burt saw Fagan, then acting head of football, who happened to be with Clarkson.
“In the process, Clarko said, ‘I’ll come’. Fages said, ‘I’ll come.’ I said. ‘I’m already there’.”
“It wasn’t a pretty discussion and Zac came and delivered the news.”
In the couple’s account, Kylie later had a miscarriage, with Burt delivering that news to Zac.
Burt is clear now that the intervention was “over the top”. “It probably should have been just me in with Zac … I think that would have been far less intimidating.”
3. The partner “shouldn’t come” to Melbourne, “Liam and Jacqui”
Burt said he could not fault the commitment of Liam, a young Indigenous player who had faced enormous challenges growing up.
Liam and Jacqui’s allegation was that the club had discouraged Jacqui, who was pregnant when Liam was drafted, from initially relocating to Melbourne, and that he had failed a test by choosing family over football.
Burt has a different recollection. “I think it was Liam’s diligence to be the best player he can be, I think he twisted … what we were saying to him about how long he could spend home because he wanted to come back and he wanted to train and he wanted to give himself the best platform to be an AFL player.
“Nothing about passing a test.”
Burt said Jacqui moved to Melbourne after the baby was born with the full support of the club.
4. The treatment of Cyril Rioli and Shannyn Ah Sam-Rioli
The Riolis did not feature in the cultural safety review or the ABC story. The couple, however, have since joined the players and partners who made submissions to the AFL-appointed inquiry, via legal firm Arnold Bloch Leibler, which also represents Ian, Liam and Jacqui.
“It’s incredibly sad when I talk about Cyril,” said Burt, who called the champion “a beautiful person”.
“He was such a family oriented, Darwin-oriented person. He was so culturally sensitive, much more than I was aware of.
Cyril Rioli and his wife, Shannyn Ah Sam-Rioli, at the Brownlow.Credit: Getty Images
“I think the grievance was Shannyn felt we weren’t doing enough in the space of cultural awareness.”
Burt added: “I think it’s Shannyn’s grievance with the club. He [Cyril] shares it now. He gave everything to our club.”
Burt summarised Cyril Rioli’s position on how Hawthorn handled Indigenous people thus: “I would say that he would say that we, as senior people at the club, should be doing more to support the Aboriginal people at the club. And I just don’t agree with that. I think we were very proactive. ”
A source close to the players and partners involved in the AFL investigation, who would not me named for confidentiality reasons, said they had invited Burt to participate in mediation, so they could hear his truth and he could hear theirs. “But he wouldn’t do it. He preferred to go to the media.”
The source said a truth and reconciliation model was the path forward.
Burt criticised Hawthorn’s handling of the cultural safety review by Indigenous former Richmond player Phil Egan, saying it expanded from “a welfare check” into one in which player grievances were sought, without input from certain people, including those accused.
“I hate what they’ve become. I hate the direction they’ve taken,” said Burt.
He expressed disappointment in what he saw as the AFL’s tendency to prioritise “brand” over people and wanted his “integrity repaired” by the AFL’s findings.
Burt said he spoke to Gillon McLachlan last week. “He’s been disappointing … The AFL is a brand. For them to say they’re worried about people is false. It’s all about brand.” The AFL was contacted for comment.
Asked whether there might have been cultural insensitivity towards the complainants, Burt said: “It’s more about the way they [players and partners] felt. I don’t think there was any willing intent to be culturally insensitive at our football club, but I have to acknowledge that the way people felt, with what was said, could have been.”
Burt said he had cultural awareness training at the club, starting in 2009.
He explained how the drama impacted his role as head of coaching and sports performance at Caulfield Grammar, where the school principal Ashleigh Martin stood him down at Burt’s suggestion after talking to McLachlan. Burt resumed his job just after Melbourne Cup weekend.
Burt said of Caulfield Grammar’s backing: “Ashleigh Martin’s governance on this has been exceptional, his care for me when really he could have said, ‘This is all too hard.’”
Burt said his first recollection about the saga was when he had been contacted in June or July of last year by Hawthorn’s head of football Rob McCartney, and was asked: “I want you to tell me if you think that there’s Aboriginal or Torres Trait Islander past players that would have a grievance with the club?”
Burt reeled off some names of players who had been delisted, retired or sacked. “It just seemed a bizarre question. I didn’t know why he was asking and I didn’t know who asked him to ask me.”
Phil Egan spoke to the club’s ex-Indigenous liaison officer Leon Egan and also had input from a non-Indigenous development coach for the cultural safety report. Burt questioned why others, with a different perspective, were not interviewed.
“Why was the boundary expanded? They [Hawthorn] could have had the respect to talk to three people that gave so much to that club and at least inform them.”
A senior Hawthorn source, who wanted to remain anonymous for confidentiality reasons, said Phil Egan had attempted contact to all past and present Indigenous players but not all had participated.
A Hawthorn spokesperson said: “The toll this matter has had on so many people is very significant. This is why we want to see the matter resolved as fairly and quickly as possible.”
Phil Egan declined to comment.
Burt said his “overwhelming emotion” was sadness. “I love Hawthorn. Still do. It’s crazy. I still support them. They were a great club. I feel sadness that I can’t step foot into the place again, for any of the reunions, for any of the celebrations we may have. I’m too hurt.”
Burt said he felt sadness, too, for the families.
“I’ll never really understand what an Aboriginal person, a First Nations person, feels. That’s just common sense. I don’t know how things I may have done have been received. And I’m sad for that, and I’m sad for them.
“I can honestly say the people involved in this investigation – and the families, particularly the players – left better people, better men, for being at Hawthorn.”
Burt did not feel he owed anyone an apology. “Right now, I’ve got nothing to say sorry for.”
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