Wednesday 12 December 2018

Professional sport separates athletes from the rest of society

The Couch

According to the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC), upskirting in Ireland isn't uncommon, but reports of it are low. Stock picture
According to the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC), upskirting in Ireland isn't uncommon, but reports of it are low. Stock picture

Tommy Conlon

"A little appalled, my friend looked me in the eye. 'Those men had all the power,' she said. 'She was in a strange house, in a bedroom with most of her clothes off, and a bunch of guys she does not know came in expecting to **** her. I mean, did they even prepare themselves for the possibility of her saying no?'"

Anna Krien is an Australian journalist and author. In the passage quoted above she is discussing with her friend a 2010 rape case involving an Australian Rules footballer. The case forms the backbone of her book Night Games: Sex, Power and a Journey into the Dark Heart of Sport. It won the UK's prestigious William Hill sports book of the year award for 2014.

The court case that ended in Belfast last week becomes another file in the bulging portfolio of legal episodes involving women and sportsmen that ranges from America to Australia to Britain and presumably many other countries too. The details differ, the sports differ, but many of the themes are similar: the pack mentality of the athletes, the prodigious amounts of alcohol, the starstruck young women drawn into the gravitational orbit of celebrity sportsmen.

These encounters are as old as fame itself, going back at least to the early years of the 20th century when a baseball titan like Babe Ruth was almost as well known as the silent movie star Rudolph Valentino. There are old arthritic legends of every sport who'd have their share of stories to tell, if they were so inclined. Virtually the entire history of this nocturnal sub-culture will remain consigned to oblivion. The night porters saw what they saw, and all they saw was two ships passing in the night. The gossip that reached the ears of old-school reporters rarely went any further.

Maybe it was a more genteel kind of double standard then. The fame and the money are in a different stratosphere now. It doesn't pay to be discreet now; it certainly doesn't pay as well as a tabloid kiss 'n' tell. And the age of deference is over too. Royals, politicians, entertainers, celebs of every stripe and hue will be stretched on the public rack in the global town square.

The golden rule for those about to succumb to their follies is to not get caught. We would doubt that even a fraction of them are ever caught, despite the savage voyeurism of the 24/7 media machine. Harvey Weinstein got caught, in the end. But the whistleblowers who have been inside the belly of the Hollywood beast insist that Weinstein is only the tip of the iceberg, one strand in a vast labyrinth of iniquity.

The marital infidelities of some vacant Premier League footballer don't amount to a hill of beans by comparison. The sporting universe generally produces a more trivial kind of personal indiscretion.

But as Krien's book demonstrates, this previously sunny realm has taken a darker turn in recent decades. Allegations of sexual crimes are becoming more commonplace. As long established in politics and entertainment and business, money and fame are leading to all sorts of malevolent power games here too.

The problem is perhaps an unforeseen consequence of professionalised sport. To join a professional team culture is to withdraw from the rest of society. It is an abnormal workplace. "Although on the verge of adulthood," writes Krien, "these (sportsmen) are about to enter a state of prolonged adolescence. For most of their peers, the world is set to expand, but for these select few their already insular existence has just contracted. They will be expected to live, eat and train with their team, as if part of a single organism."

Krien quotes a former rugby league pro who spoke on condition of anonymity after a scandal involving a 19-year-old girl and at least ten players. The National Rugby League in Australia issued an edict banning what it called this "degrading" behaviour towards women.

The anonymous player, despite the public outrage, saw this initiative as an infringement of one of his basic privileges. "We already have so many rules; we can't drink on these days; we can't go to those places; now we can't have group sex. About the only thing we can do these days is go to club functions and just hang around other players. That's just isolating us more from the rest of world, and it could lead to even more violent acts."

The team is family; the team is blood; the team is everything. Random women who end up flirting and drinking with them on a night out may find that they have unwittingly joined a sort of secret society, a sacred inner circle, with a very temporary visa. She will in these circumstances, says the former Aussie Rules coach Roy Masters, become "a vehicle for bonding". It isn't about the woman, it is about "the intimacy within the tribe, being 'one of the boys', which is the bonding mechanism".

Time and again the problems with this culture are discussed by Krien with impressive subtlety and rigour. She also allows the question of female responsibility into the conversation. She quotes the high-profile conservative commentator Miranda Devine.

"It is unfair to expect men to bear full responsibility for sexual mores as the boundaries of acceptable behaviour are blurred," writes Devine. "Young women are told they can act and dress any way they please, and it is men, alone, with their supposedly filthy, uncontrollable desires, who must restrain themselves. There is no understanding that female sexual attitudes have always been the most successful regulator of male sexuality."

After a protracted legal investigation and court case, the player accused of the 2010 rape charges was acquitted. The broader issues raised by this and many other cases, writes Krien, remain ongoing and unresolved. "Court, it seems, is not where progress is made," is her melancholy conclusion. "It's just where things end up."


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