Rachel Matthews, Siren (Transit Lounge Publishing 2017)
Anna Krien, Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport (Black Inc 2014)
Paul D Carter, Eleven Seasons (Allen & Unwin 2012)
Deb Waterhouse-Watson, Athletes, Sexual Assault and Trial by Media: Narrative Immunity (New York Routledge 2013)
Three years ago, in August 2014, I posted a blog piece titled A Few Thoughts On Winning – Part 1. Essentially, it was my love letter to Australian Rules Football (AFL).
I never got around to writing Part 2. Consider this the sequel: my Dear John letter, how I fell out of love with football.
I’ll start by considering some recent (and relatively recent) books that engage with sexual violence and football culture, then add in my own recent engagement with this issue.
Like Dr Deb Waterhouse-Watson, author of Athletes, Sexual Assault and Trial by Media, I am a fanatical Geelong Cats supporter. Since researching women and football, Waterhouse-Watson no longer attends games, in protest. I am about to join her sitting it out. Deb Waterhouse-Watson notes that more than 27 cases of sexual assault and rape involving 57 footballers and club officials had, as at time of her book’s publication, resulted in zero convictions. In November 2014 St Kilda footballer Stephen Milne pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of indecent assault in exchange for rape charges being dropped, from events that happened 10 years previously, in March 2004, when he was 24 and his victim was 19.
Milne was fined $15,000 and no conviction was recorded. His victim’s impact statement was reported by Wayne Flower in the Herald-Sun newspaper 18 November 2014:
Judge Michael Bourke said the victim spoke of very considerable effects and changes to her life.
“During the time immediately after, but also over the period of 10 years, and of the renewed publicity and proceedings, there has been impact on her work, family and social life,’’ he said.
“She deferred her university course for a year and she continues to have feelings of being withdrawn and isolated. She has felt judged by others, she has been abused, she has felt a sense of injustice.’’
The court heard the woman has difficulties sleeping and suffers from nightmares.
“She has witnessed and felt the impact upon her mother. Media attention has added to many of these things,’’ he said.
Judge Bourke said he had difficulty in assessing the victim impact statement because Milne had pleaded guilty to a lesser charge than was originally alleged.
“The line of causation is not straight forward. Having said that, it is still clear that (the victim) has suffered a good deal arising out of the events of this night of which this offence was a part,’’ he said.
“She did nothing wrong and has not deserved the consequences and effects upon her. Precision is not possible however I must take into account the victim impact caused. I do so bearing in mind that you [Stephen Milne] have pleaded to and will be sentenced for the offence before me.’’
Eleven days earlier, on 7 November 2014, the Herald-Sun ran an article by Wayne Flower and Ashley Argoon in which Milne’s football club captain Nick Riewoldt provided a character reference in court:
“Riewoldt told a judge Milne was a great mate, who could have kept playing footy for some time beyond his retirement in 2013.
But being charged with rape had hampered the veteran forward’s career and denied him job opportunities and endorsements.”
Waterhouse-Watson terms the protection against conviction afforded to sports personalities “narrative immunity”. By “narrative”, she means the story that is told, over and over, that frames these cases: the story, as author Rachel Matthews puts it, “of the woman who must be blamed” (mamamia.com 14 August 2017).
As Matthews put it in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper (24 June 2016), titled Football’s Abuse of Women is Institutional,
“It’s about what we value. And where sheilas do and don’t fit. The symbols of our nationhood. Our sporting greats. And in our Australia’s colonial history, what journalist Francis Adams called the ‘true Bushman’ or ‘the man of the nation’. Such worshipping of masculinity leaves little room for women. It keeps them in the background. And as targets for blame.”
Rachel Matthews wrote her novel Siren initially as part of her PhD in creative writing at Victoria University. To write about sexual violence and the mistreatment of women in Australian Rules Football she researched over a period of four years. The result is a complex, multi-layered exploration of the effects of rape, on the victim, witnesses, family and friends (but not on the perpetrator), and the ethics of rape reporting. Is a witness obliged to bear witness? Is a GP required to report? If the victim confides in a friend, is that friend obliged to tell the victim’s parents, or her own parents, or a teacher, or police?
As one character says, “In the end, it’s up to the girl if she wants to lay charges. These things are messy.”
What I like most about Siren is that it is about the girl. Matthews is determined to challenge the convention that worshipping of masculinity, as she puts it, “leaves little room for women. It keeps them in the background”. She ensures that her narrative foregrounds the woman: Siren starts with Jordi (‘the girl’, ‘the victim’) and ends with Jordi.
Befuddled by our cultural expectations, I was slow to catch on. I kept worrying about when the rape would be reported, when charges would be brought, when the courtroom scenes would commence. But Matthews has a different project. She builds a narrative around Jordi, turning ‘the victim’ into a fully realised character with a history, a family, a family history, a place in the world – and a future, should she survive her experience of rape.
At first I worried Matthews was condescending to Jordi, with her insistence on surrounding Jordi by brand names and cultural references that establish her and her family firmly as that ocker stereotype, ‘bogans’. ‘Battlers’ is the slightly kinder stereotype. But she fleshes out Jordi, and her parents, Petra and Kane, and her siblings, Breanna, Cruise and Ryan, so that each has an emotional reality.
While Siren takes the narrative through to a rape being publicly acknowledged, Anna Krien’s Night Games follows a football-related court case, taking the court proceedings as her starting point for a wide investigation into sexual violence in football – hence the subtitle Sex, Power and Sport.
Anna Krien’s Night Games, unlike Siren, is not a novel. It’s a serious, intelligent inquiry addressing the grey areas of sexual ‘consent’, the ambiguities and anomalies in how rape charges unfold. She doesn’t refer to the young woman involved by her real name, as the young woman declined to participate in any way in Krien’s research for this book. Nor does she use the real name of the young man charged with rape.
The case Anna Krien follows arose out of events on the evening of Collingwood Football Club’s grand final win in 2010. Two young Collingwood players, Dayne Beams and VFL player John McCarthy, were questioned by the Victorian sexual crimes squad about accusations that they had non-consensual sex with a young woman at a party in a South Melbourne townhouse. Beams and McCarthy were supported by their club, which deployed the club’s lawyer, David Galbally QC, to ensure they were not charged.
McCarthy – pick 31 in the 2007 draft – was delisted by Collingwood at the end of the following season but was picked up by Port Adelaide, where he proved popular. His death in an accident in Las Vegas on a post-season trip with teammates in September 2012 resulted in an outpouring of grief across the AFL. In the trade period 2014, Dayne Beams requested a transfer from Collingwood to the Brisbane Lions, where he is currently captain.
Although the Victorian sexual crimes squad investigation began with accusations against Beams and McCarthy, the focus quickly moved to a friend of Beams who had encountered the alleged victim after Beams and McCarthy had sex with her. They’d spoken briefly, had sex in an adjacent alley, then walked together to the nearest main road to hail a taxi, which they had shared, conversing in the cab and exchanging phone numbers, kissing, and agreeing to meet the following day.
The young man, who Krien calls “Justin”, was charged with six counts of rape, one of attempted rape, and one of indecent assault. He played for Richmond’s VFL affiliate, the Coburg Tigers, but as soon as the rape charges were made public the football club board held a meeting, after which Justin was phoned and informed he’d never play another footy game for Coburg Tigers. Instead, Collingwood Football Club offered Justin the services of David Galbally QC as lawyer.
Anna Krien writes
“… with Beams and McCarthy not yet in the clear, the reason for the QC’s presence seemed pretty obvious to an outsider like me. It made sense to control the narrative. [Justin] was a nobody, but what really happened that night and how it revealed itself could affect ‘real’ footballers, not to mention the richest footy club in town.”
In my opinion Anna Krien’s Night Games should be compulsory reading for anyone involved in the AFL in any capacity, from fans through footballers through club CEOs. The book is not, in my opinion, unfair to the young woman Krien calls “Sarah”. The way I’ve outlined what occurred that night may make it sound as if “Sarah” surely consented to alleyway sex with “Justin”, but the case as it emerged in court was by no means that clear. It’s the lack of clarity, the Rashoman qualities, that are troubling. In exploring the differing perspectives, Krien refers back to other high profile incidents where young women suffered, through sexual abuse, and for speaking out against footballers about that abuse.
When I first starting thinking about how to write this blog, I had in mind that I might list all the cases of sexual and misogynist abuse against women by footballers and football personalities that have occurred in the time I’ve been following the game (17 years – I did not grow up a football fan). But I realised the list is too long. To my knowledge, only one AFL player has faced charges of rape: Andrew Lovett, who was stood down by the club he’d just joined after being accused of raping a female friend of a teammate in December 2009. He was acquitted of rape charges in July 2011.
Where Rachel Matthews’ novel Siren examines the effects of rape prior to its public disclosure, and Krien’s journalistic enterprise Night Games examines how rape charges play out in court, Paul D Carter’s novel Eleven Seasons considers the wider, ripple effect of football rape. Paul D Carter spent nine years writing Eleven Seasons, which won The Australian’s Vogel Literary Award in 2012. The novel is quite slim, and subtle, and melancholy, and I’m glad he took his time writing, and kept the narrative pace gentle, because it’s a gem.
All the sad, lonely, lost characters! Carter’s character Jason Dalton, Jason’s mother, almost all the characters in Rachel Matthews’ Siren. Who knew football was a space of such forlornness?
What’s interesting is how Eleven Seasons explores the damage done to men by football culture, as well as to women. Siren does this too: I talked before about the narrative focus on Jordi, ‘the girl who got raped’ (how reductive); but there’s a dual narrative focus, with much of Siren concerned with the journey undertaken by aging footy star Max Carlisle, who witnesses Jordi’s rape and feels responsible.
Max Carlisle undergoes an emotional progression across the narrative that is Siren, and so does Paul D Carter’s Jason Dalton. Eleven Seasons is a coming of age novel. Recently when asked what book I’d put on a curriculum for teenage boys I unhesitatingly put forward Eleven Seasons. But, like Siren and Night Games, I would hope it reaches a wide readership.
Which brings me to my own stake in this discussion. I grew up in the electorate of Sturt in South Australia, nominally a supporter of the SANFL football club Sturt. My family moved to Melbourne when I was 12, and I didn’t follow VFL in Victoria. I lived in NSW from ages 18 to 30 and did not follow football (NRL) there. I lived in London across my 30s and did not follow soccer. It was only when I moved to Geelong 17 years ago, into a house directly across a narrow back street from Geelong Football Club’s home stadium, that I took an interest in AFL.
I was lucky. The year I first joined as a member of Geelong Football Club, the Geelong Cats began the journey that took them to three premierships across a five-year period. The Cats have finished Top 2 in 8 out of the last 11 Home & Away seasons and have played finals every year bar one since 2007. I have been there, seated by deep forward pocket, screaming my lungs out proudly supporting “my boys”.
When one of our lesser players punched his girlfriend after a drunken night out, I was gratified that the players’ leadership group ensured he was dropped to the VFL team and later delisted. I trusted my club to promote the principles of Respect & Responsibility, the AFL policy devised in 2005 to counter football’s traditional sexism. I have no reason to believe Geelong Football Club does not immerse its recruits in Respect & Responsibility and does not walk the talk. Everything in my experience of Geelong Football Club tells me this club has its heart in the right place.
But it gets harder to ignore all that other stuff I see reported about women being abused by football players, about fans abusing women, about football media personalities indulging their misogynistic instincts. It’s got so that now, on grand final eve, my first thought is not for which team won, but which women out there – unknown, unnamed – were beaten or raped by drunken male fans or players ‘celebrating’.
This year the winning team was Richmond. On the night of the grand final a Richmond football player – gossip suggests a Richmond player who previously played for Geelong – took photos of a young woman wearing nothing but his premiership medal.* According to the young woman, he told her he deleted the pictures. Instead he posted them on social media. The photos have now appeared on the internet and in mass circulation newspapers. It makes no difference that her face isn’t shown, that she’s reduced to breasts. She trusted a sex partner, and that player betrayed her.
Also on the night of this year’s grand final a young mother went missing in the Surf Coast town Aireys Inlet. Last I heard human remains had been uncovered on the beach. Police were asking anyone who found further human remains to contact them. There’s no evidence to suggest that if she was murdered, this murder was a consequence of male football fans drinking alcohol all day. But I read the news updates, and I confess I shudder.*
Before Richmond Football Club won its grand final, its first in 37 years, it had to win through a qualifying final and a preliminary final. In the qualifying final Richmond beat Geelong. I was there, at least for the first half, when the Richmond crowd aggression led me to walk out. The game was over for me before it started though. It was over for me as I walked through the park that surrounds the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the famous MCG where AFL grand finals are played. As I walked towards the stadium, accompanied by three male friends, some male Richmond fans crossed our path yelling “STICK IT UP THE PUSSIES! STICK IT UP THEIR ARSES!”
They pantomimed gestures of sticking it up our pussy arses.
“There goes the Richmond brains trust,” grimaced one of my companions.
I understand idiot fans are ‘normal’ in footy. I understand most fans shrug it off, as my companions did. I understand the “Richmond brains trust” was drunk. I understand it’s unfortunate my team’s name, the Geelong Cats, lends itself to obscene sledging.
I understood that if I made a fuss about it most AFL fans would dismiss me as an uptight old lady, as “soft”, as “weak”, as not a true fan. I posted about it on Facebook, to my Facebook Friends. One of my friends told me I should take it further. He told me I should make an official complaint, to the AFL, the MCG, the Cats, and to Richmond Football Club.
I told him it wasn’t worth my time. He pointed out another Cats fan, a woman named Anne, had been on 3AW talkback radio that morning making similar complaints, to shock-jock Neil Mitchell. He said people were dissing Anne, accusing her of making it up. I said I’d think about it.
That night, the Monday after Friday’s qualifying final, I emailed formal complaints to the AFL, the MCG, the Geelong Cats, the Richmond Tigers, and I emailed 3AW, Foxsports and ABC’s sports flagship Grandstand. I received responses within a day from all bar Grandstand and Richmond, and Richmond’s Integrity Services Manager emailed me a few days later.
What I didn’t realise, until the following weekend, was that the story Foxsports ran about my complaint was posted on Foxsports’ Facebook page, and also on the AFL’s. Hundreds of people had commented on my comments.
Sure enough, I was a “soft cock”, a “pussy”, a “snowflake”, an “old lady”, and many other things besides. Most people derided me for not simply reporting it to Stadium security and letting it rest at that. I decided not to be an anonymous “Elly”. I sat up in bed for several hours that Saturday morning and replied to as many of those commenters as I could, vigorously stating the case for why it was not sufficient (or even productive) to report bad language to MCG security, and why I felt it necessary to cancel my football club membership, even though it was not my football club that had offended.
I received three responses: one a woman who wrote “lmfao” (“laughing my fucking arse off”), one a man who wrote “Good onya” (in Australia, that’s not necessarily an expression of good will), and one a female fellow Cats fan who wished me well. That’s ok. I was not seeking to convert anyone. I was standing up and having my say.
In point of fact I did attend Geelong’s preliminary final, the Friday after the Richmond match. I was thrilled to see “my boys” defy the predictions to claim a magnificent win over the Sydney Swans. If that’s the last footy match I ever attend, it ended on a high note.
I just hope – sincerely hope – no-one went home drunk and abusive, and no woman was the worse for my club’s win.
- UPDATE: ABC News report 16 October 2017
“Victoria Police said her death was not being treated as suspicious, but the investigation remained ongoing.”
- UPDATE: ABC News report 30 October 2017 – the Richmond footballer who has publicly apologized for not deleting a nude photo as promised is not the former Geelong player previously rumored to have been at fault.