Allegations of sexual impropriety, abuse and violence have been an increasingly regular part of Australian football culture over the past 10 years. By pointing this out, I don’t suggest that the incidences are necessarily increasing – although some suggest that is also true – but the reporting of them, both in the criminal-justice and media sense, is certainly on the up.
Much ink, and many bytes, have been devoted to unpicking the causes, implications and meaning of it all. What provokes this association between Australia’s male sporting superstars, whose fame is nonetheless almost entirely parochial (unlike, for example, Australian cricketers, who garner more international attention), and routine sexual intimidation and innuendo at the mildest end, and alleged rape, often gang rape, in more than a few cases? What is it about football in particular, or about this kind of sporting culture, that might promote or at least condone this?
In Night Games, journalist Anna Krien takes on the entire issue through the lens of a particular 2010 rape case in which a very minor local footballer (she dubs him, pseudonymously, “Justin Dyer”) was tried for the rape of “Sarah Wesley”. Spoiler alert: He was acquitted, which Krien deftly shows was fairly inevitable given the slanting of the trial and (shock, horror) the perceived inconsistencies in the alleged victim’s evidence. (Thus making it par for the course for many rape trials, in Australia as elsewhere).
The real meat of the 2010 case, though, wasn’t even Dyer’s alleged conduct, which involved an alleged rape in an alley outside a house at which both Justin and Sarah had been partying with several other people, including several more famous major Australian Rules footballers. Rather, as Krien is at pains to point out, the case revolved like a tiny spaceship around a black hole, caught in the vortex of all that it could not say – the never-charged, never-substantiated, but ferociously-rumoured events that took place inside the house itself. Because inside the house, it was intimated, Sarah had had probably non-consensual sex with several men, including two very (Australian) famous footballers.
Krien uses the Dyer case as both a narrative lynchpin and a jumping-off point for discussing several other notorious footballer rape / abuse cases. Among others, she discusses the Cronulla Sharks case from 2002 which received a lot of daylight from 2009 onwards following an investigative journalism report. She also makes interesting mileage from the strange and muddled-up “St Kilda Schoolgirl” case of 2011, in which 17-year-old Kim Duthie made a range of allegations, many of which she later stated were fabrications, about particular footballers and football managers.
Each case is, of course, different on its merits, but they are all disturbingly similar in their alleged trajectory, all revolving around different kinds of coercion, deceit, pressure, humiliation, and entitlement. Almost all involve a woman or women being, at the very least, tricked – into having sex with a person other than who she thought her partner was, into having sex with more people than she intended or wanted to because they keep presenting themselves in an environment which she cannot easily escape. Some cases involve allegations of restraint. A few involve allegations of non-sexual violence. Almost never do they involve a complainant who was forcibly abducted or even raped by the first partner she is with. They involve women who consented to something – but not to what ended up happening to them.
The analysis that Krien draws from these cases, and the several other incidents she refers to, ultimately blames all this on the toxic effect on young men of being part of a hyper-masculine, emotionally infantile and hero-worshipped hothouse environment. Importantly, Krien points out, this is a culture that not just doesn’t particularly respect women (although it doesn’t); it actively treats women as not-there in any real sense.
From the hostility to women in football management and journalism to the lack of interest until very recently that clubs have shown in attracting or retaining female fans, women are seen as somehow not just irrelevant to football but actually kryptonite to the male pack bonding that is supposed to make a winning team. Women’s role, in this reading, is as a half-person at best, support staff only to the male endeavour that is professional sport. Women can wash the shorts of their sons, turn up to watch the games of their boyfriends, and provide the vehicles for team bonding “group sex” (which Krien states, accurately, lacks any of the mutuality implied by the word “group”, and should more accurately be termed “gang bang”). The completely revolting term “club bun”, used to refer to a woman with whom many teammates have sex in a gang bang exercise, is indicative of this.
Krien’s narrative is well-crafted and compelling, although I felt she often veered uncomfortably close to a “faults on both sides” kind of moral equivocation. In this, the book reminded me of Helen Garner’s controversial and flawed The First Stone, an Australian text about a sexual harassment case in which the feminist author contended frankly that the complainant was being nothing more than a whiner, and gave her sympathies to the harasser. Krien’s task isn’t made easier by the fact that while Justin and his family spoke with her extensively, and are thus humanised in her book, Sarah chose not to, and remains, in many ways, a cipher. And yes, it’s the job of a good investigator to try to tease out the nuances and resonances of a story, and Krien certainly does that. She also does good work with unpacking how courts represent – and misrepresent – victims’ stories, on how the lack of “expected” behaviour in a victim is used aggressively against her, on how consent that is not free is no consent at all. In these, I applaud her; it’s a complex range of themes to tackle, and she doesn’t shy away from it.
Nonetheless, in her insistence on the shades of grey that she sees everywhere, I think she slides dangerously close to making a “rape versus rape-rape” kind of argument, and this is where the book loses me. Yes, footballers are human beings with problems, even the ones who rape people; to suggest that their problems are somehow equal in scale to those upon whom they commit their crimes of hyper-masculinity is both disingenuous and, I think, inaccurate.
Night Games is on the shortlist for this year’s Stella Prize for Australian women’s literature, against some tough competition (two of the most incredible Australian novels of the last decade, Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book and Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, are also listed). I think it is unlikely to win in the company it keeps, but it is a powerful and important social text, and I hope many people read it and think about it.