Hawthorn great Cyril Rioli has finally spoken publicly about the incident during the 2018 Indigenous round that forced him to walk away from the game forever – and supporters are how calling for club president Jeff Kennett to hand in his resignation because of it.
An incident involving Kennett and Rioli’s wife Shannyn Ah Sam-Rioli at Launceston Airport proved to be the final straw for Rioli, who was already highly critical of the club and its relationship with its Indigenous players.
Shannyn said Kennett had mocked her designer jeans with intentional rips in them, at one point pulling loose change from his pockets so she could pay to have them repaired.
It deeply offended Rioli’s wife and despite apologies from Kennett and a personal letter from the club to Shannyn, Rioli ultimately retired from the Hawks and the AFL.
Hawks president Kennett is under fire for comments he made to Rioli’s wife Shannyn in 2018 that ultimately saw the club legend retire from the Hawks and the AFL
After a series of events in 2018, culminating in those fateful comments from Kennett in Launceston, Rioli quit the game aged just 28.
He and his wife returned to Darwin where they live happily today. They have never spoken about that incident publicly, until now.
Rioli spoke to The Age and finally opened up about the culture and incidents at the Hawks that led to him calling time on a decorated career that included four premierships, selection in three All-Australian teams, a Norm Smith Medal and the AFL Goal of the Year in 2009.
‘I’ve never really spoken about what happened in Tassie, but I think there was a lot of gaslighting at the end of my career by the club,’ he said.
‘But bloody oath it was hard sometimes. Some things that happened to my teammates. The comments by coaches about the blackfellas all sitting together. The white fellas were always welcome to join us. I don’t think they (the club) really had any idea of what it was like for us, in reality.
‘Seeing the way they treated Shan. It was the final straw. It opened my eyes seeing how distraught she was and defending her and seeing how they were to us.’
Of Kennett’s letter, Rioli said: ‘It didn’t really explain anything.’
He added that he won’t have anything to do with Hawthorn while Kennett remains there.
The full statement released by supporter group Hawks for Change in the wake of comments made by Cyril Rioli about the club and Kennett
Prominent supporter group Hawks for Change have consequently released a statement calling for Kennett to resign.
‘Hawks for change is deeply disappointed and concerned by reports that Hawthorn president Jeff Kennett made highly inappropriate remarks which led to distress for Cyril Rioli, his wife and their family which resulted in their subsequent departure from the Hawthorn Football Club,’ the statement read.
‘Jeff Kennett’s disrespect of the Rioli family is the latest shameful example of why he is not fit to serve as president of our beloved football club.
‘Jeff Kennett, through his actions, has again brought the reputation of the Hawthorn Football Club into disrepute.’
Rioli kicks a goal against Richmond in the early rounds of the 2018 season. At that point, nobody knew that it would be the last season Rioli would play in the AFL.
Kennett’s second term as president is set to end in December next year, but there has been debate about him departing earlier, partly because of lobbying from Hawks for Change.
That would allow ex-Australian Super boss Ian Silk to be endorsed as a board member. Now Hawks for Change are calling for Kennett to resign immediately.
‘Thanks to Hawks for Change, Jeff previously agreed to step down by 30 June 2002,’ the statement continued.
‘Hawks for Change now calls on Jeff Kennett to resign immediately and directors of the Hawthorn Football Club must take a stand and seek Jeff’s resignation today.’
Rioli and his wife Shannyn Ah Sam-Rioli now live in Darwin and have and have had nothing to do with the club since the incident at Launceston Airport
The Hawks issued a public apology to Rioli and his family in the wake of his comments.
‘Racism in all shapes and forms is unacceptable,’ the statement said.
‘We are sorry that Cyril and Shannyn experienced these incidents during their time at the club. We are saddened these experiences have left them feeling the way they do.
‘Combating racism and educating everyone both within our own walls and in the community is something we are constantly working on and believe we are getting better at. But there is always more work to be done.
‘We are committed to reconciliation and ensuring our First Nations players are culturally safe and have a voice that is both listened to and acted upon.
‘At Hawthorn, all of our staff and players deserve to be respected. Our doors will always be open to Cyril and Shannyn.’
Cyril Rioli waves to the crowd during his retirement run at the 2018 AFL grand final
The Hawks played a match against the Gold Coast in Darwin in 2021 and Kennett told Daily Mail Australia at the time that he had extended an olive branch and hoped to meet with Rioli over the weekend.
‘Personally, I would love to see him [Rioli],’ Kennett said.
‘I haven’t spoken to Cyril personally, but I hope he intends to come and watch.
‘Past premiership players are always welcome at Hawthorn events.’
Rioli declined the invitation.
Also, Rioli opted not to attend the team’s 2008 premiership 10-year reunion in 2018 as a last-minute withdrawal. He was the only player from the team who did not attend.