Racism v Sexual assault

Joel Wilkinson of the Gold Coast Suns.

Joel Wilkinson of the Gold Coast Suns.

Last weekend, in another unfortunate reflection of some people’s utter incompatibility with the human race, a Collingwood football ‘fan’ stumbled upon the unique idea of leaning over a fence at the MCG and acting like a complete wanker.

Spurred on by the apparently jarring sight of seeing a dark skinned player on field (WHAT IS THIS DEVIL’S VISION?) the unnamed man called upon the go-to racial taunt of similarly neurological amoebic imbeciles when he crudely impersonated a monkey in the direction of Nigerian-born Joel Wilkinson of the Gold Coast Suns.

 Thankfully, Dale “Daisy” Thomas had his Boy Scout hat on that day and reported the incident, leading to a gentle avalanche of things: the fan’s Collingwood membership has been stripped from him, the AFL and the Government have reiterated their firm position against racism, and approximately eleventy million people have written letters to the Herald Sun gobbling on about how brilliant it is to act like a human being.

 All of this is exactly as it should be. Racism is completely incompatible with a civilized society. We all have a responsibility to stand against it, and to send a clear message about its place in our communities – ie, that it has none. And bloody good on Dale Thomas for setting a clear example of leadership on the matter.


 But I can’t help but feel a tug of cynicism through all of this. Namely, that I wish the AFL and all of those thrilled fans whose hearts have been warmed by the cross-team brotherhood demonstrated by Thomas would take a similar attitude towards the abuse of women off the field. Instead, the AFL pays lip service to the idea of educational initiatives, while the letter writing public – so adamant against racism – often responds to reports of sexual assault with the most predictable of barbs and suspicious naysaying.


In 2009, the AFL began implementing its ‘Respect and Responsibility’ program as a means of addressing the treatment of women within the AFL code. On its website, the AFL reiterates that violence (sexual or otherwise) against women won’t be tolerated within their community, and that the code needs to be a safe and inclusive space for women and girls.


Much has already been written about the manual’s almost comically obvious advice. But what really offends is that it seems to be no more than a cursory gesture towards decency. Because despite the fact it exists, the treatment of women within the code has not markedly improved since its implementation – nor has the attitude of a public that seems more often than not inclined to defend their sporting heroes, if not blatantly excuse them.


Leaving aside the fastidious respect for legal procedure that people suddenly acquire when sexual assault is the subject, can anyone honestly believe that, knowing what we know of sporting communities, ‘brotherhood’ and the larrikinism often associated therein, there has NEVER been an incident in which legality has been shucked aside for a good time? To do so betrays a phenomenal disregard for logic; an unwillingness to entertain for a moment that, despite fervent public support for accused players, there just might be a reason the AFL thought it necessary as late as 2009 to provide their incredibly privileged adult, male staff with the kind of institutionalized training that teaches them, among other things, not to have sex with women who are asleep.


And yet, despite this, you may be surprised to learn that of the roughly 30 sexual assault claims filed in at least as many years, none of them have resulted in a conviction. And of all the cases that have been referred to police, only a handful has led to charges.


Don’t kid yourself that this is because the AFL and its players are all squeaky-clean. In fact, in 2009, a woman known as ‘Kate’ claimed that she had not only been raped by a Carlton player ten years earlier, but that she’d been offered ‘hush money’ by Victoria Police for bungling the investigation of the case. She claims that the police waited two days before visiting the crime scene, failed to get a DNA sample from the accused and that records of his interviews with police ‘disappeared’. The allegations came just two months after former Carlton President John Elliott said “the club had paid hush money to women who claimed they had been assaulted or raped by its players.” In retaliation, the club banned Elliott.


In 2010, former Brighton Sen-Det Scott Gladman made serious allegations against key backers of the St Kilda Football Club and other senior Victoria Police officials when he claimed interference in a rape investigation against two Saints players, Leigh Montagna and Stephen Milne. In his allegations, Gladman stated interview tapes with the two players disappeared from his desk, and the alleged victim’s statement was leaked to the club during the six week investigation. Despite making an official complaint at the time, Sen-Det Gladman’s concerns were ignored. The case died.


So quick are the public to disavow claims of sexual assault that, in their fervent cries of ‘INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY’, they seem entirely comfortable with demonizing the alleged victim as a fraud, a slut and someone who ‘should have known what she was getting herself into’. Or, as Peter ‘Spida’ Everitt tweeted after the Grand Final in 2010, “Girls!! When will you learn! At 3am when you are blind drunk & you decide to go home with a guy ITS NOT FOR A CUP OF MILO! Allegedly.” The AFL alum was responding to a sexual assault charge against two Collingwood players allegedly involved in the pack rape of a woman who’d been delivered to the group via her boyfriend.


It’s a curious stance. Inherent in that oft cited argument is an acceptance that certain kinds of sex are bound to happen when you involve certain kinds of men – in this case, powerful sporting figures. Women should ‘know better’; after all, ‘what did they expect?’ And so the acknowledgement that perhaps not particularly enjoyable, respectful or even consensual sex is going to take place when you’re dealing with men juiced up on a win or a loss is this – that it’s the woman’s responsibility to protect herself from that, and if she fails to do so, the men involved can’t be legally held responsible.


Even if you’re disinclined to believe that the AFL has institutionalized problems with the sexual treatment of women – and assault charges aside, I think we can all agree that pack sex with women as a path to male bonding IS a problem – the problem isn’t limited to sex. When Nathan Bock was found to have physically assaulted his girlfriend outside an Adelaide nightspot in 2009, the judgment was swift and strong: Bock would be given an indefinite suspension, because the AFL and the Crows do not tolerate violence against women.


Except that Bock’s suspension only lasted a week. One match. Evidently, the Crows valued a win against Geelong more than they did sending a decisive message against the assault of a woman. (And when the Gold Coast Suns recruited Bock the following year in a reported $600,000 a year contract, they reiterated that his assault charge wouldn’t stand in the way of his football career.) By way of contrast, in 2011 the Western Bulldogs’ Justin Sherman racially vilified Joel Wilkinson during a game. He received a four match suspension, as did the aforementioned Everitt when he abused Scott Chisholm on-field in 1999.


None of this is to say that the AFL shouldn’t be vigilant about stamping out racism on the field. They should be applauded for taking a strong stand against it. But overt racism – the kind that involves monkey noises and impressions – is rejected by most of society in a way that the ‘unclear’ assault of women isn’t. That women who bring charges of assault against AFL players are forced to endure a parade of slut shaming, derision and outright abuse from the public (not to mention the clubs) indicates that the AFL, in its great position of power, hasn’t gone far enough to demonstrate their commitment to making it a code that’s inclusive for all, not just the men who play it.


I congratulate Dale Thomas for demonstrating that racism has no place in a civilized society, or the community activities that bind them. If only that same stance could be taken against the abuse of women who are peripheral to the code, rather than the overwhelming silence that often enshrouds it.