Sunday, December 24, 2017

A Reminder that Black and White aren't the Only Colours

Photo by Getty

I must admit I did a double take when I learnt the news. A part of me groaned inwardly. Was it a smart decision? Do we need the grief? Will people see the ‘frame’ or just the convenient canvas? I could hear the trashy (but clever) memes. And I could see the pain of people I know and care about and the hurt and suffering they felt when it happened to them. 

And yet St Kilda Football Club has appointed Simon Lethlean, former General Manager at the AFL to head up its football department. 

At a time when the public and the media is white hot about sexual harassment and the #metoo movement, it would be easy and negligent to confuse what Lethlean admits he did in having an illicit relationship with a junior staffer and the sordid allegations tumbling forth every week since the Harvey Weinstein scandal. I am not going to reproduce my thoughts on the initial AFL saga when it unfolded but you can read the OpEd I wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald here if you choose. 

An illicit relationship between consenting adults may be morally abhorrent to many but it will never constitute sexual harassment or worse, sexual assault.

The roots of St Kilda Football Club are in the St Kilda shoreline, the fun and the outdated tackiness of Luna Park, our spiritual home at Moorabbin to Mordialloc, the posh suburbs of Brighton and Portsea. It is home to the hipsters and the homeless, the fabled and the fallible, the suave and the second chance. The Club above all else embraces inclusion.

Human fallibility is the reason St Kilda got to interview Lethlean in the first place. Would he have stayed with the AFL for a while if not for this? Of course. Is his CV outstanding? Undoubtedly. Might he make the difference to the Club to bring us closer to that elusive second flag? Quite possibly. But that on its own for me would never have been enough to hire him.

I will never advise an organisation to turn a blind eye to conduct just because someone is a star performer. Too many boards and too many companies have obfuscated, wimped out, rationalised and even condoned below the line behaviour because the perpetrator was the CEO or the darling of the media, or the best rainmaker or someone's drinking buddy or niece. I know it happens. I wrote a book on it.  But St Kilda Football Club is not a "vulture culture", not with Matt Finnis as the CEO or with Peter Summers as its President. And I'm saying that as someone who has had the privilege to get to know them both over the past three years. If Lethlean has learnt from his actions; if others much closer to him than you or I have had the capacity to forgive, might we do the same?

Gillon McLachlan hoped Lethlean would find a home again in football. It's widely publicised they are friends. Yet Gillon, whom I respect a lot, accepted Lethlean's resignation. Because life is not just black and white. It's not as simple as: “You're either with me or against me”; “I'm your friend so I can't be your boss and the custodian of culture.

Finnis has said the Club's brand is now strong enough to withstand the scrutiny and the inevitable questions and pushback. Yet any club is one tweet or one drunken night away from ignominious scandal. He knows it. We know it. St Kilda Footy Club has both brought it on itself in days past and suffered for it through no fault of its own.

Life is complicated. Some decisions are complex. My colours outside work are black and white...and red. And the red is for heart - hearts filled with empathy, compassion, forgiveness and acceptance. With the highest engagement of any AFL club despite our paucity of on field success to date, I trust the Club to have crafted a message that is authentic, balanced, sensitive and honest about the decision to hire a flawed yet competent new Executive. Having just been granted our licence to launch St Kilda's team in the AFL Women's League, the women who play for us and those who follow us with such enduring passion and loyalty deserve nothing less.

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