There have been more than 27 cases in Australia 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 sociologist Debra Waterhouse-Watson refers to the protection sports players receive against conviction as “narrative immunity”. That is, the story created of the woman who must be blamed.
In my new novel, Siren (part of a PhD examining sexual violence in Australian football), Max, the owner of the apartment and an aging AFL player with injuries and issues, is deeply troubled by what unfolds. He represents the men who are silenced in this sporting world of heroes and TV panels.
In country Victoria, my home town, the ‘girls in the back of cars’ after footy functions became dirty girls. The young men revered. There were stories of bucks’ nights at footy club rooms involving strippers having sex with the groom in front of his mates. In one claim, with the father of the bride watching on.
She had it coming.
Did you see what she was wearing?
What do say to a woman with two black eyes? Nothing, she should have listened the first time (a favourite at my high-school).
Social researchers Peter Mewett and Kim Toffoletti suggest that Australian footballers ‘think that being footballers means that they must derogate women’ and that ‘this performance of masculinity manifests not only in physical actions, but also in the verbal discourse used by footballers to discuss women’. It keeps them as secondary, background figures.
In Anna Krein’s Night Games, author and sports commentator Tony Wilson remembers a regular social event at an AFL club in the 90s, referred to as ‘camel night’, where ‘everyone was to get a hump [have sex]. Each player and club official had to invite two girls who were not your girlfriend or wife… So no one would get in trouble with their missus and tonnes of alcohol were supplied for these girls, who were basically nobody’s responsibility.’
These misogynistic attitudes are nothing new. In A Season with Ron Barassi, sports writer John Powers witnessed a training session with the North Melbourne Football Club on a very warm evening in February 1978, when the temperature reached 38 degrees and players were complaining about the uncomfortable conditions.
There will be no concessions to the heat tonight!’ Barassi told the players defiantly… [‘] don’t whine like a pack of girls about the weather…nobody’s going to get away with being a weak sister and doing it easy tonight!’
Forms of language that derogate women are pervasive in this sporting world. Krein refers to her experience at a pub trivia night in Melbourne where a question was asked about the name of the girl who died of a drug overdose while in a hotel with football legend Gary Ablett.
In response, someone called out ‘Alisha Horan’ and the crowd cheered. While Ablett received a conviction for drug offences and was charged a fine of $1,500. The coroner announced that Ms Horan had ‘become enmeshed in a culture of alcoholism and drug taking with her football hero’ and had been ‘partying out of her league’ (The Age 2003).
Let’s not forget that footy needs women. They make up half of the fan base. They serve up the hotdogs in suburban and country clubs. And for the first time they have their own national league.
But despite this the abuse continues. A woman was punched in the throat by a male fan at an AFL final in 2015. Only days later former AFL footballer and TV personality Billy Brownless referred to a mother and daughter at a social gathering as ‘strippers’.
In 2016 Caroline Wilson was described as an “embarrassment … and even if you were underwater, you’d still be talking” by Sam Newman, responding to a joke on MMM radio about her being drowned. Wilson’s crime was to challenge Eddie McGuire’s position at Collingwood after 20 years.
In 2005, the AFL presented their new ‘Respect and Responsibility’ policy as a ‘commitment to addressing violence against women and to work towards creating safe, supportive and inclusive environments for women and girls across the football industry as well as the broader community’.
But despite this, the problems have not gone away. We need to look at our wider dialogue. The abuse of women in footy culture is bigger than the game itself. It’s about old ideas that need contesting.