Among the provincial Australian Rules Football clubs one book is becoming required reading. Rather than a training manual or a tactical playbook, it is an investigative report into one of the darkest recesses of the game.
Following a string of sexual-abuse allegations about players from the Australia Football League and the National Rugby League over the past decade, journalist Anna Krien set out to explore an issue that has ramifications for sport on both sides of the globe. Night Games: Sex, Power and a Journey into the Dark Heart of Sport, part courtroom thriller and part dissection of sexism in sport, is on the shortlist for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year, with the winner announced today.
“Community football clubs in Australia have engaged, although not the professional ones,” Krien tells The Independent. “Forward-thinking coaches have read it and got their boys to read it.”
She feels more players should read it and it should be handed out among football clubs here. It is particularly pertinent given the controversy over convicted rapist and former Sheffield United player Ched Evans attempting to return to the game. “You’re not just doing a job, you’re representing a mindset and you’re a role model,” she says of Evans. “If convicted and he has shown no remorse or understanding then he can’t go back to play,” she adds. Evans was convicted of rape but maintains his innocence. Last month an inquiry was launched by the Criminal Cases Review Commission.
Night Games centres on a case involving two star AFL players from Collingwood, one of the league’s biggest clubs. They won the 2010 Grand Final and with Melbourne “still cloaked in black and white crepe paper… the rumour of a pack rape [in a townhouse] by celebrating footballers began to surface”. Charges against the players were dropped. Instead a hanger-on and local league player becomes the focus for an incident that happened in an outside alley.
Krien says: “I’m interested in human stories, wherever there was an element of surprise. I’m always interested in something that makes me rejig my moral compass.”
In the case at the heart of the book she “could see the young girls’ naivety and lack of street smarts. What I connected with all the cases was the girls’ surprise when they realised they weren’t seen as equals. It took them a long time to realise how far down the ladder they were. That’s an awful realisation”.
She probes deeper and lifts the lid on a jock culture that shows a staggering contempt for women. “Treating women like shit shades into a culture of abuse, which in turn can shade into rape,” the book says.
In the past decade, the Australian media has reported more than 50 elite players and staff have been caught up in cases of sexual assault. “It’s really prominent here, the jock culture,” Krien says. “It’s a really ugly consequence of sport and the camaraderie. I like [Aussie Rules] football and it wasn’t something that I wanted to go and attack.”
The underbelly of sport’s relation between the sexes is laid bare, from the culture of gangbanging to the treatment of women who work at clubs or report on the sport. Often the so-called night games are seen as “high jinx or jokes” she says. “The sense of humour is out of whack. They don’t have their feet on the ground anymore. These boys aren’t given the opportunity to have a proper relationship with women. They don’t experience friendship and equality in the same way as most teenagers. It’s sad. They lose perspective. There’s no empathy with women.”
The book also explores the “grey zone” about the “gulf of uncertainty between consent and rape”. Krien writes: “In part the confusion rests with us. And it’s not necessarily because we’re all misogynists. Unlike most crimes, to apply the label of rape in some instances can be subjective.
Krien sees hope. “Now institutions are changing, not because they want to but because they have to,” she says. “Many are nostalgic for the ‘good old days’. And gangbanging was part of that. There wasn’t the scrutiny.”
Yet not all. One player, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told a newspaper after the book’s publication, that it was discrimination to stop players having group sex, another called it “team-bonding”.
“They call it group sex, but it’s the furthest thing from that,” Krien adds. “This is not a French film, there’s no subtitles. It’s a gangbang, this is not mutual admiration. It’s about humiliating one person.”
Krien has received abuse from fans of the sport as well as feminists over her exploration of the “grey zone” of rape, but adds: “It was great when I started getting emails from clubs who have given their boys the book and a lot of mothers have given it to their teenage boys. I don’t care what a university professor in a stuffy office thinks; that’s not where the gangbanging is happening.”
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