In 2006, when I began research into Australian football and sexual assault for my doctoral thesis, I was a footy fan. No, I was an Australian Football League fanatic: a ‘Proud, Passionate and Paid Up’ member of the Hawthorn Football Club, as numerous bumper stickers on my old car attest. At the games, week in, week out, rain, hail or shine, with my dad, my sister and my brother, my mood for days wholly dependent on the outcome of those two short hours on the weekend. When it came to umpiring, although I wasn’t as one-eyed as some supporters, and could on occasion concede that a free kick paid against the Hawks was warranted, more often than not I was yelling about the ‘soft’ decisions that went against ‘us’ and the ‘obvious’ rule-breaking thuggery of the opposition that the umpires ignored. It’s probably a mentality that most fans share, at least to some extent − as you stand up for your best friends or family against anyone else, and believe in them, I believed in and defended my ‘teammates’ against accusations of weakness, softness, unfair play and any number of on-field indiscretions.
When the first highly-publicised cases of sexual assault came to my attention in 2004, I, like many others, took this loyalty a step further: I sided with the accused footballers against all outsiders, namely the women who made rape complaints against them. I recall now with shame the way I dismissed the complaints as false when I heard that, in both cases, the women had initially had consensual sex with one player. My research was in part motivated by that shame, and the desire to fully understand what I was involved with as a football fan. I also sought to explain how a series of seemingly simple newspaper narratives could so easily convince a professed feminist such as myself to dismiss women’s words out of hand.
Examining the media portrayals of cases involving players from both the AFL and National Rugby League, I began to uncover structures within the football leagues − discursive and practical − which protect footballers against being held accountable for sexual assault (see Waterhouse-Watson 2007; 2009; 2010a; 2010b). Football representatives, as well as many journalists and media commentators, construct narratives which portray the complainants as ‘gold diggers’, ‘women scorned’, ‘predatory women’ and/or ‘groupies’; all blame is therefore deflected away from the footballers and onto the women involved. The women are portrayed as vindictive liars. Despite more than twenty cases being reported in the media since 1999, involving at least fifty-six players and officials, not one person involved in elite Australian football has yet been made to stand trial on a charge of sexual assault. The cases are effectively prosecuted through the media and result in acquittal. I further uncovered a broad system of interlocking discourses and narrative patterns that endorse masculine violence, construct women’s and footballers’ bodies, their roles and capacities, and describe a ‘rape culture’ − that is, an environment which condones and facilitates rape.
Although I remained a member of the Hawthorn football club and still enjoyed the game into the 2008 season, my enthusiasm for football waned as my research progressed − a possible consequence of which I was aware before I commenced my PhD studies. It became increasingly difficult to maintain my position as a fan the more I discovered about the ‘rape culture’ inscribed in football and its systematic maintenance through the mainstream media. Fans are ‘part of the team’ and as such they are implicated in its players’ actions off the field as well as on. Just as a fan can say to a rival supporter ‘we thrashed you on Saturday’, supporters of the Canterbury Bulldogs, involved in the most infamous sexual assault case, reported being taunted as rapists themselves during the 2004 police investigation (Brown 2004), as if the fans, too, had been involved in the incident. Female fans in a study by Peter Mewett and Kim Toffoletti (2008) had to develop strategies for reconciling the alleged rapes in order to continue participating in the games as supporters: they blamed the allegations on the actions of Rogue Men, Predatory Women, and uncontrollable male sexuality, as a means of justifying footballers’ behaviour, exonerating the culture of football from blame, and/or dismissing the allegations. To do otherwise would call into question the integrity of their own teams and the game itself, as well as implicating the fans themselves in the alleged rapes. My strategy was to tell myself that all the problems ‘really’ lay with other clubs, but not with ‘my’ team. My Hawthorn would never behave like those other clubs.
My ‘love affair’ with football ended suddenly and irrevocably − in the greatest of all football ironies − during 2008, the year when my once-beloved Hawks took out the premiership cup for the first time in seventeen years. The catalyst: my discovery of the details of a 1999 case in which at least two Hawthorn players and a club official allegedly raped a woman in Hawaii (Murphy 2004). I had been (dimly) aware that such a case existed, but, given the findings of my research, I did not have the option of laying blame on Rogue Men or Predatory Women. In maintaining the subject position of fan I was unable to admit the possibility that ‘my’ team could have done anything wrong. But, like Mewett and Toffoletti’s interviewees, I (subconsciously) constructed other explanations for the existence of the case, telling myself that as it had received scant publicity it must not have been very serious, or was completely unsubstantiated. But one day, wearing my Hawthorn membership scarf as I worked, I finally read the articles that gave details of the alleged victim’s police statement and the responses of Hawthorn officials. I was utterly betrayed. What the players and team official allegedly did to the woman was horrific. And there were the same patterns of denial and blame I identified in the other cases, the same thinly veiled accusations of lying even though it is uncertain what possible benefits a Californian woman might have to gain by inventing a story of rape by Australian footballers, in Hawaii, and declining to press charges. The incident did not even become public in Australia until five years after it occurred. And unlike the other cases I investigated, as a member of the team responsible, I was implicated.
I took off my membership scarf. I have not watched another football game. I did not renew my membership in 2009 and will not again. And I cried, a lot, because my ‘teammates’ destroyed the thing that I loved.
The sheer numbers of cases, and the attitudes of the clubs and leagues, have caused internal conflict for many fans, although the majority have not abandoned the sports entirely, as I did, but found alternative strategies for negotiating their fandom. In 2004, a group of rugby league and Australian Rules supporters set up Football Fans Against Sexual Assault, an organisation ‘aimed… at positive action, the sorts of things they’d like to see football codes do to restore the game to an esteemed place in their hearts and minds’. The group, led by rugby league supporter Kath Haines, has had some measure of success, with both major leagues adopting at least some of the recommendations that FFASA put forward in Towards Champions, an open submission. FFASA members clearly see their active work to fight sexual assault from ‘within’ football as a legitimate means of maintaining their fandom, and their successes testify to this. Real fandom is a matter of the heart, not the head, and if the heart wishes to remain loyal to football, the head make the necessary negotiations. It is highly likely that, had I never read about the Hawthorn case, I would be a fan to this day − albeit a somewhat cynical one.
I cannot, and do not wish to make grand pronouncements about how fans should negotiate their position in light of the high rate of alleged sexual assault perpetrated by footballers. It would be unfair, hypocritical, and probably quite untrue for me to suggest that to remain loyal is to condone sexual assault. What I can say, however, is that public opinion matters to the leagues, so large numbers of fans continuing to express their disgust may prompt the AFL and NRL to take greater action to change the culture of the sports, thus challenging the ‘rape culture’. There is certainly something to be said for working for change from within. For myself, I will continue to write about it, and hope to convince at least some people of what needs to be changed in football. But my fan days are over.
Brown, A. (2004). ‘Fan Cuts Loose as His Dogs Run Free’. The Sydney Morning Herald. Sydney, p. 35.
Mewett, P. and K. Toffoletti (2008), ‘Rogue Men and Predatory Women: Female Fans’ Perceptions of Australian Footballers’ Sexual Conduct’, International Review for the Sociology of Sport vol. 43, no. 2, pp. 165-80.
Murphy, P. (2004). I Was Drugged, Says AFL “Gang Rape Victim”‘. The Australian. Sydney, p. 5.
Waterhouse-Watson, D. (2007), ‘All Women Are Sluts: Australian Rules Football and Representations of the Feminine’, Australian Feminist Law Journal vol. 27, pp. 155-62.
Waterhouse-Watson, D. (2009), ‘Playing Defence in a Sexual Assault ‘Trial by Media’: The Male Footballer’s Imaginary Body’, Australian Feminist Law Journal vol. 30, pp. 109-29.
Waterhouse-Watson, D. (2010). ‘Narrative Immunity: Australian Footballers’ Defence in Sexual Assault “Trial by Media”’. Good Sex, Bad Sex, Budapest, Interdisciplinary.Net.
Waterhouse-Watson, D. (in press). ‘Silencing or Validating Traumatic Testimony: Footballers’ Narrative Immunity against Allegations of Sexual Assault’, Trauma, Media, Art: New Perspectives M. Broderick and A. Traverso. Fremantle, Cambridge Scholars.