Once the pride of Australian Olympic sports, the Hockeyroos are sadly divided among themselves, Hockey Australia president Mel Woosnam said on Friday as she spoke for the first time after a torrid week of escalating claims about a longstanding toxic culture within the women's branch of the sport.
Woosnam said several players had come forward after a clear-the-air meeting between the Hockeyroos and four HA board members in Perth on Tuesday.
The Hockeyroos made headlines earlier this week over claims of a “destructive” culture. Credit:Photosport NZ
"Two were completely inconsolable, in tears," she said. "They told us about bullying and victimisation that's occurring within the group. They were also very apologetic about the behaviour of their teammates.
"Initial allegations indicated there was possible bullying from staff and management towards players. In the last week, it's evident there's significant bullying between players.
"It's obvious that there is a divide within this group. A number of athletes and families have reached out to HA in recent times and conveyed their support. They're keen for us to tell our side of the story, which has been difficult while there's been negative media attention."
The Hockeyroos' woes can be traced back to the 2016 Rio Olympic Games where they finished sixth, their worst Olympics result. Subsequently, coach Adam Commens' contract wasn't renewed and he was replaced by Paul Gaudoin. After further unrest became public in 2018, a new coaching set-up was installed, adding support for Gaudoin and more ancillary staff.
But more bad blood came to light this week when former captain Georgina Morgan and reigning goalkeeper of the year Rachael Lynch were dropped from the squad for next year’s Tokyo Olympics, catalysing a flood of claims from current and former players about dysfunction in the sport and the threat of a strike.
Choosing not to argue through the media, HA called a meeting with players. "Some fairly confronting issues were raised during the meeting," Woosnam said. "But we did agree to draw a line in the sand. We can't change the past. All we can do is learn from it. We agreed to focus on the future and work together to try and achieve a resolution.
"I honestly felt some optimism and positivity when we left the room. So it was extremely disappointing that within three hours, in the media it was misconstrued and distorted to be all about sponsorship.
"We simply said that recent events and media coverage is damaging to our sport. Reputationally, it's having a significant impact. That's fact. That's not a threat. I'm not blaming the athletes."
Woosnam denied players had been coerced to sign athletes' agreements, saying they were merely employment contracts. "It's due process. They're necessary in order to trigger the base payments from the AIS," she said. "It's a procedural matter, as simple as that."
On Thursday, HA announced an independent inquiry into the Hockeyroos program to be conducted by the AIS's Richard Redman and Ernst and Young partner Adam Carrel. It will be done in two parts. Interviews with current players and staff will be completed by next Friday, and Woosnam said that if the consultants recommend immediate action, it will be taken.
A final report is expected by February. Woosnam said its key findings and recommendations would be made public, but not the full report. She said it would be "inappropriate" to expose what may be sensitive individual submissions.
"We really want to get to the bottom of this," she said. "It's really disappointing that some current and former players have chosen to play this out in the media and circumvent due process, but we are committed to the inquiry as our point of reference into what's going on in the program."
Woosnam said the circumstantial evidence was that the program was not irredeemably flawed. "This team can't have progressed from No. 6 following Rio to No. 2 in the world without positive influences and outcomes in the program," she said.
Toni Cumpston is high performance director for both the women's team and the men's team, the Kookaburras, who are regarded as a model of professionalism. "Our staff sit across both programs," Woosnman said. "How is it that between the two programs, we have these completely different cultural aspects and behavioural issues in one program and not the other? This is what we need to get to the bottom of."
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