This column is generally reserved for the sacred discussion of celebrity folly and its voracious consumers, but this week I wanted to use it as a platform to address something a little different. And considering the godly status we attribute to our athletes in this country, and that at the centre of the debacle I am going to attempt to make some sense of is a well known Australian celebrity, I feel it’s rather fitting.
By now, unless you deliberately avoid all media outlets or have been sleeping for ten days straight, you would have heard about the Four Corners episode that aired on Monday night, Code of Silence, looking at the sex culture in Rugby League. You would have also heard that Matthew Johns has been stood down indefinitely from his role on The Footy Show and suspended from his coaching duties with Melbourne Storm. You probably also would have watched his interview with Tracy Grimshaw on A Current Affair. Shit has hit the fan, and it’s about time.
When I watched Code of Silence, I wasn’t surprised. Disgusted, yes. Surprised, no. And if you were surprised at the culture of misogyny that exists within NRL, then wake up. It’s there, it has been for years, and it has manifested itself in many ugly, reprehensible situations. It has also been enabled and swept under the rug, like a sort of dirty little secret everyone knows but no one talks about. Group sex as a means of bonding has always existed in Rugby League, according to former coach Roy Masters, who stopped short of saying it still does now, although if ‘now’ extends to include the past five years then I think it’s safe to say it does indeed happen now. In fact, many doubt it will ever be phased out, and think attempts to eradicate it are unfair and discriminatory.
On deciding to turn this week’s column over to the whole NRL palaver, I did find myself wondering whether I’d be saying or discussing anything new. A lot has already been said. There are many angles to the entire discussion, and most have been exhausted. The bottom line is the NRL has a big problem with its culture. Disgusting things have been done and said by the athletes it is home to. It is apparently taking measures to right these wrongs and ensure they don’t happen in the future.
But. Something keeps niggling.
In the aftermath of the Four Corners program, and the A Current Affair interview with Matthew Johns, the threads to many discussions taking place have been a little disturbing. Disturbing for what they are, and disturbing in that they seem to represent a greater problem than that confined to the NRL. They seem to be representing greater social norms and values, concepts and perceptions that run so deep as to provide a foundation that allowed for this beast of an NRL problem to develop as it did.
The notion of she wants it (she wants it, she wants it, I’m gonna give it to her) is all pervasive. It doesn’t just exist in the league culture, it exists everywhere. She wore a short skirt, she was asking for it. She shouldn’t have gone home with him, she was asking for it. She was drunk, she was asking for it. The idea of a girl ‘wanting it’ is one of the biggest problems with rape. It singlehandedly removes responsibility from the perpetrator and conditions women to blame themselves for what they ‘let’ happen to them.
Add to that the common idea that women are ‘lucky’ to sleep with a football player, and the terror, as expressed by victims of sexual harassment and assault in Code of Silence, at the concept of going to the police and thus going up against the NRL, the club, the players and the fans, and we have ourselves a huge problem that just won’t go away. The players don’t see a problem with it and the women don’t feel they can speak up about it. And, when they do, as history has shown, nothing comes of it.
The inability to read a situation for what it is – degrading, offensive, traumatic – is perhaps what lies at the root of it all. Football players are sought out by women because they have a high profile, that’s not their fault. No, it’s not their fault, and yes women do seek them out. Yes, women do want to have sex with them. But there is a big leap to be made from a woman wanting to have sex with you, and a woman wanting to have sex with you and ten of your mates. At some point, boys, you have to step back and think, ‘hmmm what’s wrong with this picture?’ Perhaps it would help if you looked at the woman, but don’t worry about it if that humanizes her and makes the situation a little less palatable for you.
NRL has acknowledged they have a problem – they were somewhat forced to in the wake of the 2004 Bulldogs gang rape allegations – and the players now attend How to Treat Women workshops. They also learn the alphabet when they’re not trying to figure out what is wrong with tricking a girl into sleeping with not the one guy she consented to, but the other guy waiting in the other bedroom as well.
It was footage of these workshops, as shown in Code of Silence that was perhaps most effective in conveying the attitudes that are home to this festering sex culture. It was also highly depressing. Firstly, they were shown a video depicting a drunk girl and two football players stumbling into an apartment. She wants to have sex with one player, they go off into a bedroom. He sneaks out and ushers his waiting mate into the bedroom. Later she comes running out, horrified, and exits the room yelling something about only wanting to have sex with him. So, the enthusiastic mentor asked, what’s the problem? A sea of bemused faces greeted that question. Will these players get into trouble? Emphatic nods. Depends how good his lawyer is. Were they doing something wrong? Ooh, there’s a hand. The girl was drunk. She put out first. Right. Enthusiastic mentor pops this on the board with a marker.
The second video depicted homosexual rape, or more accurately, a man waking up after the fact and realizing what has happened. A sea of aghast faces greeted this. No lawyer quips, no confusion over whether or not what had happened was wrong. Oh, there’s a hand. No matter how drunk he is, no bloke deserves to get raped by another bloke. Emphatic nods. Right. Enthusiastic mentor goes to pop this one the board with a marker then turns around and begs them all to see the double standard sitting in the room wearing an elephant suit.
Later, a football player would give some sage words of advice to the camera. He’d say, all these group sex problems could be avoided if they’d put the girl in a cab afterwards. Cover all that sort of stuff up. You know, it’s not what you do at the time, it’s how you treat her afterwards. You’re right, everything can be solved by popping her in a cab. Someone get this man a beer.
Perhaps when the boys finish their ‘How to Treat Women’ classes and, hopefully, pass their exams, they can take the second year subject, ‘How to develop Common Decency.’ And maybe they can take ‘What is a Woman?’ for extra credit. And in that workshop, perhaps they can look at two issues that seem to lie at the core of their stunted concepts of and attitudes toward women. Consenting to one man isn’t consenting to ten, no matter how close you and your mates are. And her not saying no doesn’t equate to her being a ‘willing participant’. Sometimes, and I’d go so far as to say having a football team queuing up at the foot of a bed in a strange hotel room waiting for you to have sex with them might be one of these occasions, words fail you.
In the aftermath of the Four Corners episode, public attention has turned to Matthew Johns, the loveable rogue TV personality, star of The Footy Show. Johns was involved in the 2002 New Zealand incident and named as one of the men who slept with the girl who has come to be known only as Clare. He has been stood down from his coaching position with Melbourne Storm and Channel 9, home of The Footy Show, has severed ties with him.
A journalist friend of mine who works in television has said her work has received an overwhelming amount of emails about the situation. Many are from women and many are expressing a great deal of sympathy for Johns. ‘Now I hate rape, it’s terrible but … why should he suffer? Why is it coming out now, after all this time? Why should he be singled out? This isn’t fair.’
Here’s why he should be singled out. He chose a career in the public eye, enjoying a multi-million dollar television career. He chose to mould himself into a representative of the sport. Hell, he is, or was, the face of the sport, starring in a million dollar campaign to attract more, presumably aggressive and risk taking, males to the sport. He is a man many, many people look up to – current and prospective players and countless fans. He did a terrible thing which, at the time, was inadequately dealt with. He should face the music, even if it is years after the fact – that’s irrelevant – and the noises we should be hearing from the public should be those of agreement. He should not be commended for acting the way he is, he should be expected to act the way he is. He isn’t doing something gracious, he is doing something that is the least he can do.
I am not going to sit here and join in the ‘good on him’ back patting bullshit. It’s not good on him. It was never good on him. Yes he was one of apparently ten or more men. Is it fair that only he cops the public vitriol? No, it probably isn’t fair. And none of the men involved in the incident have come forward, which speaks volumes. But shit happens. The level of consequence Johns has to face is public because he is a public personality.
He claims she was a willing participant. Oddly, as a woman, I find that hard to believe. I find it hard to believe a nineteen year old was a-ok with group sex with a football team of strange men. In her words, ‘massive big rugby players.’ In her words ‘I didn’t know what to do.’ Fair enough. I don’t think many nineteen year olds would. And, hey, here’s a little newsflash for you. Just because she consented to having sex with you, even you and your buddy – that doesn’t mean you blow the whistle and call the boys in. And even if you didn’t blow the whistle and call the boys in, even if they climbed in through the bathroom window (wait a second, I actually think they did) you should have stopped it. You should have been able to see that something wasn’t right with the situation you were not only witnessing, but partaking in. One girl, one young girl and a room full of rugby league players. What do you think she was feeling? At the very least, vulnerable. At the very least uncertain. At the very least, scared. A willing participant? Or a girl that was too terrified to say no and ask you all to leave. It’s a fine, fine line, apparently.
I wonder if Matthew would ever want his daughter to be in that girl’s position. And if she ever was, and if a man said to him after the fact, she was a willing participant, would he believe him?
Trish Johns, his wife, who had to throw up after the interview with A Current Affair, said his greatest crime was actually being unfaithful to his wife.
No, his greatest crime was ever thinking, at the age of thirty, that what happened in that hotel room in 2002 was okay. Or perhaps his greatest crime wasn’t thinking at all. Not being able to see a situation for what it was – degrading, dehumanizing and, for one young girl, beyond what she could psychologically cope with. That was his greatest crime.
When Matthew Johns made his preemptive apology last week, before Code of Silence aired, he was clapped on the back by co-presenter and former player Fatty Vautin, who then said, ‘okay mate, on with the show.’
Perhaps not this time.
Girls and guys, there is so, so much more to this discussion. I have been talking endlessly with people about it for the past few days and some extraordinary insights have been made, not just into the League culture, but into the broader culture it stems from.
There is so much I wasn’t able to cram into this column. Why does league have this problem ostensibly more than any other sport? How has this deplorable culture been left to fester in a sport we throw money at, shower with adoration? Alcohol was mentioned a lot in Code of Silence, as was the term ‘risk-taking male’. Is it purely the bad mix of aggressive men and alcohol?
The only way we can start to change problems like these, is to understand them. Where they come from and why. And the only way we can do that is through open discussion. I am handing the floor over …