Eddie McGuire is too frequently bringing shame and embarrassment to Collingwood | Paul Daley

Casual, unintended discrimination has the very same impact as the intentional

Eddie McGuire could tell you that successful football clubs, like most enduring political parties, stand on history, myth and memory – handed down supporter to supporter, father to daughter, mother to son, decade after decade, even century after century.

He could tell you about those thumping wins and the dogged, brutal, not so damned pretty ones, that are revered and celebrated and relived around his Collingwood Football Club. Just as he can recount those losses and seasons, sometimes end on end on end, that were so deflating as to seem existential but weren’t because every flag is built on a thousand disappointments. Newer clubs don’t always understand that.

Like so many of the older clubs Collingwood is a hero factory. It thrives on the fusion of history and evocation of generations of legendary players and family dynasties, with its (mixed) on-field and (resounding) corporate success of recent decades.

But there are the off-field heroes and legends too. Like patron John Wren, a “chequered” personality who grew from the Johnston Street slums into a millionaire on the back of SP bookmaking profits, always handy with a tenner for the best player and with anonymous food parcels for the club’s struggling families during the depression. Catholic Archbishop Daniel Mannix was sometimes seen with Wren at matches – and even training – at the Magpies’ old ground, Victoria Park. The sinner and the saint.

Collingwood, grown from the ashes of the Britannia club in 1892 in what was then the worst part of Melbourne, engenders – and demands – loyalty, notwithstanding that its tribalism and historical sentimentality is today no less compromised by the vagaries of the draft and sponsorship as any other club.

Jock McHale, a player for 17 years and a coach (including a playing-coach) for a phenomenal 37 years, epitomises that loyalty and commitment.

McGuire, club president (Collingwood has had just 12 in almost 130 years) for two decades understands the potency of personal legacy around an institution that values it enormously. McGuire is the president who wrenched the club from its beloved Vic Park and transformed it (in a corporate sense at least) into AFL’s Manchester United, has helped give the fans a premiership out of six heart-breaking attempts – all the while managing to enshrine the precious club history inside the new behemoth and its headquarters closer to the city at the state of the art Holden Centre.

Today’s player group is its hottest in years. Off-field, the rat-pack-ery that has tended to define too much Magpies after-dark behaviour, is largely gone. The team comprises the most decent young men to wear the black and white in years.

Of course there’s a “but”. And here it is. But Eddie is too frequently being mentioned publicly in association with the club in a way that is bringing shame and embarrassment to (I’d hope) most supporters.

Last Friday night’s episode where he criticised the coin toss ahead of the Swans-Adelaide match (Cynthia Banham, a disabled air accident survivor and Swans Number One ticketholder did the honours) appalled so many people across so many clubs, including Collingwood, and the AFL which invests enormously (with obviously mixed results) in promoting diversity and tolerance.

Cynthia can speak for herself. Her silence in the face of the meltdown that followed McGuire’s implied criticism (he said he did not see the footage of her coin toss and offered a prompt though qualified apology, and another, less so, later) only illustrates her dignity and courage.

Her friends (she has many in media, including myself) used their voices to condemn the Collingwood president, pondering how McGuire - who, given all of his self-made successes cannot be dismissed merely as some accidental dumb-arse - could brain fade, yet again, with such proficiently in front of an open mic.

It was a terrible thing to say. The uncharacteristic swiftness of his mea culpa (which included sin-binning himself from Saturday football commentary on Fox) tells you just how much.

What was he thinking? The coin toss is invariably performed by a punter associated with a charity. Why criticise it in the first place?

McGuire is known, among other things, for his charity work away from the cameras and open mics.

Regardless, what he said last Friday night was immensely painful for people with disabilities (advocates have roundly condemned him on that basis and their objections can’t and shouldn’t be dismissed by McGuire’s defenders who’d seek to downplay the incident).

But amid all of the hot angry social media takes from embarrassed and angry Collingwood supporters who otherwise admire McGuire, the incident set his enemies in the AFL and around the club chattering.

Two less ambiguous incidents – his racist 2013 likening of Indigenous Swans legend Adam Goodes to King Kong and his 2016 allusion to drowning football writer Caroline Wilson – had already brought acute embarrassment to the AFL and shame, according to many, to the Collingwood name.

Some will put it down to Eddie being spread too thinly across too many places: the club presidency; morning FM radio; a TV quiz show, numerous football commentary gigs – and family. His energy is notorious. But plenty wonder if, now in his mid-50s, lack of down-time is catching up.

In the end it’s something of a moot point: casual, unintended discrimination on the basis of gender, skin colour or physical capacity has the very same impact as the intentional. It’s unclear if he gets that. If he did, surely it wouldn’t have happened three times.

That is why many influential Collingwood supporters are fearfully pondering the obvious: when will the AFL, their beloved club and the most significant player group in years next be made to recoil at a repellent comment that is automatically associated with the Magpies? And what, then, of McGuire’s long-term legacy?

If some football clubs really are like political parties (Collingwood, it’s said, has historically resembled something of a hybrid of the Victorian Labor Right and Tammany Hall) patronage comes at a price. It also lacks permanence.

The big question underscoring political leadership is, of course, knowing when to go.

It was Paul Keating, himself a Collingwood ticketholder for a short time, who said prime ministers were Araldited to the chair – if you wanted them gone you had to blast them out.

It may not be too much of a stretch of the metaphor to suggest that club presidencies can be a bit the same.

And as in politics, the end can disproportionately determine posterity’s memory.

  • Paul Daley is a Guardian Australia columnist


Paul Daley

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