"[T]here seemed to be so many of these sexual assault allegations being made, but nothing ever coming of it, just being swept under the carpet and... rugby league writers basically considering it was, 'Oh it happened outside the game', so we're not really interested in it", award-winning sports writer Jacqueline Magnay told ABC Radio National's Australia Talk Back program in March.
A month earlier, Magnay broke what she herself called the "culture of silence" about the prevalence of sexual abuse by footballers with an article in the Sydney Morning Herald on the hospitalisation of a 20-year-old women as a result of serial rape at a Coffs Harbour resort.
In her 1998 book Crossing the Line, Laura Robinson explained how the sexual abuse of women by male footy "stars" is an integral part of a system that promotes hypermasculinity — a type of masculinity privileging physical strength and aggression. This is the extreme end result of socially constructed gender roles.
Robinson graphically depicted the "hazing" — humiliating initiation rituals that kill off any so-called feminine tendencies (like respect and compassion for others), combined with the identity-building bonding sessions like "gang-bangs" of the local "slags".
These rituals are either organised or condoned by football club officials as the best way to induct men into an elite fraternity which promotes and maintains a culture of physical and verbal brutality. This is believed to produce the victories the club needs to make money in a sports market where athletes are bought and sold like pieces of fine precision machinery.
The March 3 Four Corners program on ABC TV revealed that in the past 20 years not one of the cases of alleged rape by players in the Australian Football League (AFL) or the National Rugby League (NRL) has led to a successful prosecution due to the near impossibility of the women proving "beyond reasonable doubt" that an attack occurred.
A "boys will be boys" view of sexuality has prevailed which refuses to hold perpetrators responsible for their behaviour while blaming the victim. The establishment media promotes the normalising of sexual assault by calling into question a woman's right to defend herself and seek redress through the legal system. This feeds into the backlash myth that women's rights have gone too far.
Surely it was all just a "bit of fun" that got a "little out of hand"? Not serious enough to send them to prison, to destroy their (or the game's or the sponsors') reputations. And especially not for that kind of woman.
The line is that assault survivors are just promiscuous women who selfishly want to ruin talented men's careers and families. However, as women have bravely kept coming forward with their stories of assault, footballers showed determined persistence in their violent and arrogant behaviour. It has become difficult to continue to cast these cultural superheroes as being crucified.
Incredibly, 22-year-old St George Illawarra Dragons "star" Mark Gasnier left a sexually abusive message on the voice mail of a woman's mobile phone during a team bonding session early on March 19. Instead of condemning this illegal behaviour, the March 21 Illawarra Mercury's coverage on the incident focused on the "stupidity" of Gasnier and other "footy fools" in acting so "silly" in the current "climate". If only they were cleverer sexual predators, they might have easily got away with it!
In fact, they have gotten away with it, facing only fines and suspensions — not legal prosecution.
In a comment piece by four football "greats" in the March 21 Illawarra Mercury, not one raised the problem of systemic misogyny in football culture, which portray women's place as either sexual outlets or washing dirty socks.
At the Dragons versus Bulldogs NRL game in Wollongong on March 15, an organisation called Campaign to End Violence in Sport leafleted fans encouraging them to get more involved in the day-to-day activities of their clubs. The response was overwhelmingly positive.
Another group, called Footy Fans Against Sexual Assault, has set up an online petition and asks members of football clubs, unions and other organisations to encourage their members to sign the petition. The group has developed a list of proposals for the AFL and NRL and aims to launch a media campaign to pressure all football codes to actively work to end the tolerance for sexual violence and club cover-ups.
However, as the Footy Fans Against Sexual Assault recognises, "sexual violence against women within football codes reflects a larger problem within the community". Efforts to break through the prevailing culture of silence will help smash the idea that these are once-off aberrations, rather than the result of a more general sexist culture.
What is needed is for all fans of human dignity to get involved in the struggle for women's liberation — and not just cheer on from the sidelines.
& Nicole Hilder
From Green Left Weekly, June 2, 2004.
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