Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport

22 / 05 / 2013

Black Inc Books has recently published leading Australian writer Anna Krien‘s highly anticipated book about sex, consent and power. In Night Games, Anna follows the rape trial of an Australian Rules footballer. She also applies a fearless lens to the dark side of footy culture across the Australian codes – the world of Sam Newman, Ricky Nixon, Matty Johns and the Cronulla Sharks. With Anna’s permission, we have included the following excerpt from the book, which begins with an anecdote from Victorian Women’s Trust Executive Director Mary Crooks (the VWT publishes Sheilas). To purchase Night Games in hardcopy or as an e-book, visit Black Inc Books.

‘I suggested that Denis might like to drop around to our home after a Sunday morning training session, have a coffee with us and tell our girls to their face how pathetic their gender was,’ said Mary Crooks, cackling. It was 2005 and Carlton were down by seventy-seven points at half-time when their coach, Denis Pagan, lashed out at his players, calling them a bunch of ‘schoolgirls and sheilas.’

A few days later, the back page of the Herald Sun carried the story. ‘Pagan was alleged to have hurled all the abuse he could at his players for being in this terrible predicament at half-time,’ recalled Crooks, ‘and it seems the worst barb was to suggest they were playing like sheilas and schoolgirls. I had a flash of anger!’

Crooks took to her computer and wrote Pagan a letter. She told him about her work at the Victorian Women’s Trust, in particular overseeing an exhibition to mark 100 years of federation called Ordinary Women, Extraordinary Lives.

‘Hundreds of women,’ said Crooks, ‘from all walks of life, doing the most amazing things – usually unheralded, unremunerated and most certainly not in football’s Halls of Fame.’ She wrote about how women’s unpaid work was devalued and about her and her husband’s two daughters. ‘I wrote that we were intent on bringing them up to feel confident about themselves, filled with positive qualities and, importantly, wanting to be positive contributors to their society.’

Crooks then suggested Pagan come over for morning tea and tell her daughters that this upbringing was all for nothing, given their gender. Within a week, Crooks received a phone call from Pagan. She smiled, recalling the coach trying to make amends. ‘He wriggled, squirmed and said that he sort of, had not really said what the Herald Sun had printed and that maybe he sort of, might have said that girls were not as physically strong as boys.’

‘Poor Denis,’ said Lauraine Diggins, who was at Carlton the same time as Pagan. ‘He was so surprised, he had in no way intended to demean women. Footy was just so separate from the rest of the world. He learnt something that day.’

A couple of days after Pagan’s call, Diggins phoned Crooks and told her that the Women of Carlton – the official female supporters group of the Blues – loved the letter. By the end of the month, Carlton’s club president sent a formal invitation to Crooks asking if she would be interested in becoming one of the female ambassadors for the club. Crooks happily accepted.

 

*

 

In the finer zoos of the world, species of animals are

often added to the mix because they have a calming

effect on the group as a whole. It’s a strange idea but

it does work. You don’t fight the problem – you shift

it by changing the power dynamic of the group.

 

So wrote Damien Foster, a professional mentor, in the Age, in light of the spate of sexual assault allegations against footballers – and slowly but surely the leagues and their clubs have been doing exactly that. Women are taking up jobs once offered only to men, support roles as fitness advisers, podiatrists, dieticians, physiotherapists, trainers, counsellors, public relations managers, sports scientists, umpires and referees.

Many of these appointments come with teething problems. Elaine Canty was appointed to the AFL tribunal in 1996. The tribunal is a curious scene with foldaway chairs, where players turn up in often ill-fitting suits with top-notch QCs or footytragic lawyers working for free for their favourite club, and where the jury might find itself watching a seven-second television grab of a controversial tackle for hours. When her role was announced, Canty was inundated with hate mail. A central objection – most notably from the legendary coach Ron Barassi – was that a woman couldn’t do the job, having never played in the league. And it was true: the lawyer and broadcaster had never played professional football. But nor had the majority of the other members of the panel. This revelation produced an uncomfortable silence – no one had ever thought of asking the question of the tribunal’s male members.

Speaking to the AFL Record in 1999, Canty emphasised why women needed to be represented in the league: ‘It’s an industry, whether we like to think so or not, and it has to be a reflection of women’s place in the general community.’ She added that these changes were not simply about wanting to be virtuous: ‘I think they’ve [the AFL] made a cold-blooded commercial decision that it is in their interests to involve women in the administrative side of football.’

It certainly beats ragging out single mothers, as the league did in its 1994 report, blaming them for the decline in junior participation in the eighties: these over-anxious mothers were said to be steering their children away from footy and into sports they considered less dangerous, such as basketball and soccer.

And it certainly makes up for the 5.7 million hours of unpaid work that 48,000 female volunteers contribute to the game annually. That’s approximately $69 million in free labour, according to the AFL’s calculations in 2003.

‘The future of football is feminine,’ announced the FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) boss Joseph Blatter in 1995 – and Australia’s football codes caught on. The AFL is one of the few male-only sports codes in the world that can boast a large proportion of passionate female supporters. The columnist Chris Kenny did the maths in the Australian:

 

Men still dominate attendances, with Australian

Bureau of Statistics figures from 2010 showing

that 1.7 million males attended Aussie rules games

compared with 1.2 million women. So female

attendances are more than two-thirds the male

number.

Rugby league, by comparison, had a million men

Attending and 600,000 women – something less

than two-thirds. While the fractional differential

is not large, when combined with the overall higher

attendances it shows there are twice as many women

attending Aussie rules as league.

 

In England, less than 15 per cent of those attending Premier League football are women. So you can see why the ‘future is feminine’ – what successful business would alienate half of its clientele?

Cue the NRL’s ‘To the Women in the League. We Salute You’ campaign. Accompanied by the melodic tinkling of a piano, promotional footage shows selfless mothers painting white boundary lines on the oval, pumping up a football, stapling documents, hauling boxes of trophies from their cars, opening the cafeteria and attending to a player’s leg injury.

Over the images a deep gravelly male voice says:

 

This is dedicated to the unsung heroes

who ask for nothing and give everything.

You are the guardian angels, the gatekeepers,

and the champion’s champion, carrying the

weight of thankless tasks with selfless hearts,

you are the wind beneath our winners, the

goddesses of war and peace, the patron saints

of the sideline, the canteen queens who wear a

beanie like a crown, you are the dream makers

[camera flashes to little boy wearing footy jumper]

who understand that greatness is not born, it is

earned and easily squandered. You sculpt lives of

greatness out of grass and dirt and mud, you

don’t seek fame or glory, but know this – our

victories are your victories.

 

Excuse me while I vomit.

Are we changing stereotypes here or simply reinforcing them? With soppy advertisements like this one, it would be easy to keep seeing women as mere service providers. You have the mothers who cheer from the sidelines, drive to and from games and training, cook carbohydrates the night before, volunteer in the canteen and scrub the grass stains out of uniforms; women idolising their ‘boys’ who can do no wrong. Then there’s the female support staff tending to the players’ injuries, massaging their hamstrings, studying their eating habits and micro-managing their media image.

These are the ‘good’ women – or, as Kevin Sheedy and Carolyn Brown wrote in their book, the ‘forgotten heroes.’

Oh, and let’s not forget the WAGs, the tail of the dog. Otherwise known as ‘wives and girlfriends’ of footballers, they are expected not only to take over the reins from Mum, but to look hot too. They are service providers and trophies (and at the other end of the spectrum is the player who wins the wooden spoon for picking up the ‘ugliest chick’). In the Herald Sun: ‘Every sport has them, their stars wouldn’t perform as well without them … Take a look.’ On radio: ‘Triple M makes a calendar of Melbourne’s Hottest WAGs!’

When three Brisbane Broncos players found themselves under investigation for claims of sexual assault at a nightclub, where they said they’d engaged in consensual sexual acts with a woman in a toilet cubicle (one of the men had filmed it on his mobile phone and phoned another player, saying, ‘Guess what’s happening inside here?’), the Daily Telegraph thought it relevant not only to note that one rugby player had ‘lost his girlfriend Emma Harding’ as a result of the incident, but also to link to a photo gallery titled ‘Bronco Stunner Emma Harding.’

And amazingly, Wayne ‘the King’ Carey’s fall from grace in the AFL came not after he grabbed a woman’s breasts on a city street and told her, ‘Why don’t you get a bigger pair of tits?’ Nor was it when it came to light that his North Melbourne club had negotiated a $15,000 settlement with a woman who claimed to have been sexually harassed by Carey and another AFL player. Nor when he provided a character reference in court for the  drug dealer and gangster Jason Moran, who was later murdered in Melbourne’s gang war. No, Carey hit an all-time low in the popularity stakes in 2002 when he shagged teammate and vicecaptain Anthony Stevens’ wife in a bathroom at a party.

Touchingly, the Kangaroo players publicly linked arms around their vice-captain and Carey was shunned. But the issue wasn’t about morality – if it had been, Carey would have been shunned years earlier. It was about propriety and betraying a teammate.

While I understand that employing more female support staff helps chip away at an entrenched and blinkered male society, and that the presence of professional females can help to rehumanise women in the eyes of these young men, it’s the absence of females at the two most powerful ends of football that stands out: at the top and on the oval.

There is gender imbalance and there is power imbalance. And without fixing the latter, the former will continue to stink of servitude.

 

*This is an extract from Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport by Anna Krien, published by Black Inc. RRP $29.99. Also available as an ebook. www.blackincbooks.com

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