In my recent PhD with Victoria University, I researched sexual violence and the mistreatment of women in Australian Rules football. Four years of study highlights how complex and wide-reaching this problem is.
It goes well beyond the recent comments about drowning journalist Caroline Wilson and the subsequent recriminations and apologies.
Football would not function without women. They are integral to the game as supporters and players and have been since its origins at a dusty MCG. The first (undated) women’s football game is recorded as an exhibition match in Melbourne, following World War I. In 1981, the Victorian Women’s Football League was formed. The most recent statistics indicate that nationally over 136,000 women are counted as participants in football, as in Auskick players, coaches or umpires. In 2017 Australia’s first national women’s league will be launched.
Women also serve up soup and sausage rolls in the suburban and country leagues. They run the pie nights and wash the jumpers. And make up half of the AFL fan base.
But the abuse of women in football is ongoing. Its language. Its attitudes. And sexual assault.
Dr Deb Waterhouse-Watson from Monash University has written about this issue. Before researching the role of women in football, she was a one-eyed Geelong supporter. Now she no longer attends games in protest. Waterhouse-Watson reminds of more than 27 cases involving 57 footballers and club officials relating to sexual assault and rape. And still no convictions. In her book, Athletes, Sexual Assault and Trials by Media she terms the protection sports players receive against conviction as “narrative immunity”. That is, the story of the woman who must be blamed.
Did Eddie McGuire last week feel entitled to a corporate narrative immunity? Critics of the misogynistic attitudes within AFL culture often refer to the role of language in shaping these views. Social researchers Peter Mewett and Kim Toffoletti suggest that Australian footballers “think that being footballers means that they must derogate women” and that “[t]his performance of masculinity manifests not only in physical actions, but [also in] the verbal discourse used by footballers to discuss women”.
Caroline Wilson has been demonised for the uproar this week. She is a tough journalist who never wanted any fuss. Her eventual response to the comments on 3MMM that she should be drowned was reluctant. There was no gender card.
Her crime was to question McGuire’s position at Collingwood after 20 years. To question the effectiveness of a powerful media and sporting figure in a sport largely run by men. And in an ageist society where TV and advertising celebrates young women versus the frumpy older lady, she’s up against it. Strong, intelligent and outspoken women should be held underwater or maybe “tied in a chaff bag, taken to sea and dumped”, as Alan Jones suggested for Julia Gillard in 2012. That’s the traditional treatment for witches.
Sam Newman’s support of McGuire and the ease in which he reloaded the misogyny hand-gun, calling Caroline Wilson an “embarrassment … and even if you were underwater, you’d still be talking”, demonstrates that this problem is much bigger than our treasured game, in a country where violence kills a woman every week.
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.