Focus: And they call it the British disease

First the hooligans, now the players. But not just our own footballers. Jock culture is poisoning world sport. By Kathy Marks and David Randall on the spread of jock culture
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The Independent Online

In the historic town of Littleton, Colorado, there is an organisation like no other in the world. It is dedicated to minimising assaults on women; not just any attacks, not those committed by men in general; but those by members of a single occupation. The organisation's name, you may not be all that surprised to learn, is the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes.

In the historic town of Littleton, Colorado, there is an organisation like no other in the world. It is dedicated to minimising assaults on women; not just any attacks, not those committed by men in general; but those by members of a single occupation. The organisation's name, you may not be all that surprised to learn, is the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes.

Its existence, and a growing body of casework, is proof that, whatever else Premiership footballers have a monopoly of, it is not ugly behaviour. For despite hysterical claims in some quarters in the wake of the Leicester City arrests, there is nothing uniquely menacing about the average off-duty English professional footballer. Whatever happened at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in La Manga - or in the Grosvenor House Hotel, London, last year, or a score of provincial English nightclubs in the past 12 months - the suited, booted and boozed-up footballer at leisure is part of a pattern that extends well beyond any one country or sport.

Star sportsmen have, in the past 20 years or so, acquired a track record for sexual assaults that is as long as it is incessant. In America, the basketball legend Kobe Bryant is one of dozens of sports professionals facing sex charges. Not a week goes by without new allegations surfacing, be they of rape against the Seattle Seahawk Jerramy Stevens, Penn State's Anwar Phillips, or of assault by stars at Notre Dame, Kansas State, Colorado, Wisconsin or the University of Washington. In Canada, where the trial of two hockey players inspired a book about the phenomenon of sportsman rape, a warrant has just been issued for the arrest of the former Calgary Stampeders footballer Lawrence Phillips on sex charges. And in Australia, six players from a top rugby league team, Canterbury Bulldogs, were accused last month of gang-rape.

In America, the phenomenon is tellingly a feature of college football and basketball, strange worlds within worlds where the celebration of aggressive masculinity is accompanied by a system in which the most revered enjoy high rewards, privileges and a licence to misbehave. And these worlds have a view of women that owes little to the gender correctness of popular myth. What begins with panty raids, cutie-pie cheerleaders squeaking as their heroes perform, and the top athletes supposedly taking the prettiest girl to the prom, ends in scandals such as the one at the University of Colorado, where the football squad faces rape allegations from six women and an inquiry into recruitment drives that used sex virtually on tap as bait.

It is "jock culture", the strutting male no longer subject to the usual rules. Wider society - at least the English-speaking part of it - seems to have taken on these skewed values. In Britain, the status accorded top footballers now borders on the religious. Writer Rogan Taylor says: "Watch someone like Wayne Rooney walking the 60 metres from the stadium to the car park. Dozens and dozens of security are holding hundreds and hundreds of fans who are straining to touch the lad's very coat. It's an almost biblical scene."

Hardly surprising then that the objects of such worship might, once they've taken enough expensive drink, believe they are entitled to a certain impunity, or even droit de seigneur. Nowhere is concern about this more acute than in Australia. The rugby league gang-rape case has sparked claims of rampant sexual abuse in élite male team sports and a flurry of soul-searching about the lionisation of men who feel they can flout social norms.

Almost as shocking as the alleged assaults have been the claims by rugby league insiders that players routinely engage in group sex as part of the team bonding process, often with the active encouragement of coaches and managers - and that the alleged gang-rapes are simply an extension of that practice. The culture of arrogance and misogyny exposed by the Bulldogs scandal, say insiders, is the product of Australians' unquestioning adulation of élite sportsmen. Even the Prime Minister, John Howard, played it down, observing: "At a time like this, I stick up for the game, not put the boot in." The players, meanwhile, demonstrated how seriously they are taking the police inquiry by turning up to their interviews in shorts and flip-flops, two hours late. The next day, the national rugby league captain, Darren Lockyer, told guests at a charity lunch: "You know, St George, they won 11 premierships with one Raper, imagine how many Canterbury are going to win." (Johnny Raper was a legend of the St George team.)

Jacquelin Magnay, Australia's only female rugby league writer, knows of two coaches who hired a prostitute for their team to share, in order to foster the bonding process. But Ms Magnay, who writes for The Sydney Morning Herald, says there is a ready supply of female fans - known as "buns" - willing to supply sex to their heroes on demand. The men's ritual is to target a woman in a nightclub and assign one player to chat her up and bring her back to a hotel room for the team to share. "They see women as playthings, and they're not used to women objecting," she says.

What Premiership footballers are also used to is the adulation, sudden, bewildering wealth, and the sense that they operate in an atmosphere where their value to the team can outweigh all but proven criminal acts. Witness the fierce defence that managers mount on behalf of any player's transgressions, however damning the evidence. Hence, the mutual anxiety of most of those quoted on the Leicester case - the club, the Professional Footballers Association chairman, Gordon Taylor, and the city's MP, Keith Vaz - was directed at ensuring the players' rights were observed and that a swift homecoming could be organised. After all, there was relegation to be avoided.

The one exception has been the Football League chairman, Sir Brian Mawhinney, who said yesterday: "There is no doubt that footballers now have much more disposable income than historically they have ever had, and there is a minority of players who can't handle that and get caught up in the cult of celebrity. I am not trying to argue that there isn't a problem that affects the image of football. My guess is that the more of these sorts of incidents that take place, the more pressure there will be on the clubs and more widely to find ways to address it. We can't shy away from that aspect."

In some cases - and La Manga may prove to be one - the adulated sportsman may be victims, too; an unwitting accomplice in some conniving pursuit of attention, publicity or tabloid gold. Further proof that, when it comes to status and rewards, the young male mind really can have too much of an apparently good thing.

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