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Sexist attitudes remain entrenched in modern football

THE arrest of Robert Lui during the NRL finals has reignited claims that the football culture is to blame for sexual assault and violence. SIAN McGROUTHER looks at the issue.

What sparked the debate?
As with previous football seasons, the 2011 National Rugby League and Australian Football League seasons were marked with abuse, sexual assault and violence.

After the unexpected defeat of the West Tigers by the Warriors in the NRL semi-finals, the Tigers engaged in their ritual ‘Mad Monday’ celebrations.

Later that night police arrested Tigers halfback Robert Lui for assaulting girlfriend Taleah Backo. The alleged incident occurred just 12 months after Lui was charged with nine offences relating to the assault of the then pregnant Backo only hours after the Tigers were knocked out of the 2010 NRL finals.

It is an example of the football culture of ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘Mad Monday’ to provide an excuse for sexual assault and violence.

Is the football culture to blame?
There are many positive aspects to the culture of football. The dedication and commitment required to be an elite sportsman, the importance of respect for your opponent and the value of mateship and team work have inspired millions of fans and junior players.

However, the culture of football clubs and other male-dominated environments are particularly unsafe for women. Men are more likely to use violence if they live in cultures that are sexist and disrespectful of women. Add to that macho behaviour, group loyalties, high alcohol and drug use, and the will of the group overrides any dissent.

It’s not that footballers are more likely to be violent towards women, it’s the environment and the prevailing culture that influences them most. Historically, football clubs have been male dominated and women have been unwelcome. This is where the greatest risks arise.

Australian women continue to experience harassment and violence as an everyday reality. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, one in three Australian women will experience physical violence in their adult life and one in five Australian women will experience sexual assault. Yet, the reporting and conviction rate for violence against women remains low.
Former Sydney Swans player Stefan Carey believes the ‘Mad Monday’ tradition brought the boys together and invoked a feeling of camaraderie into the team.

“During my time at the Swans our Mad Monday was a celebration and something we looked forward to,” Carey said. “It was a group of committed footballers having a few pints together to celebrate our hard work and dedication. I was never part of nor did I see any violence or abuse. . . . .”

“I’m not denying that certain attitudes within the football world are not good and I have heard of and read about some very unfavorable stories involving footballers, however footballers in general can not all be put under the same banner. We are responsible for our own actions and I do not believe that abuse and violence is fuelled from the culture of football.”(9 October 2011)

So, while it is clearly not isolated within, or exclusive to, the culture of football, violence perpetrated against women by footballers, particularly sexual violence, has been casting an ever-increasing shadow over professional football in Australia.

Why are footballers above the law?
In May 2009, the ABC’s Four Corners reported an incident in which a 19-year-old girl accompanied two members of one of Australia’s most prominent NRL teams back to a hotel room in New Zealand. As Four Corners reported, one of them started kissing her and, “over the next two hours, at least 12 players and staff came into the room, six of them had sex with her. The others watched.”
While the details were alarming, one of the main points made in the program was that the men’s behaviour was part of a sustained and pervasive pattern in professional football codes.
In 2004, Four Corners also reported on several cases of alleged rape by elite AFL players. Around the same time, the alleged rape of a young woman by a group of elite rugby league players also received a lot of media coverage, though no charges were laid.

Research conducted by the Australian Institute of Criminology in 2008 suggests that, of the reported cases of alleged sexual assault by elite level footballers in Australia since 1998, none have resulted in a conviction.
It is difficult not to gain the impression that the consequences for these men are at best, short-lived.
After the Four Corners report last year Matthew Johns, one of the primary footballers involved in the incident was stood down from both his commitments with a television Network and his coaching role with the Sydney Roosters football club. The team lost the support of five sponsors, including the support of its main sponsor which had provided $700,000 a year and enjoyed a nine-year association with the club. The Senate even passed a motion urging the Federal Government to do more to change the culture in sporting organisations.
And yet, less than a year later, Matthew Johns launched his own self-titled show on a rival television network. It was to be a family friendly entertainment show about rugby league, the code he had supposedly disgraced.
So, while outrage may be immediate, it appears to be transitory as the value of these players quickly seems to outweigh their ‘transgressions,’ or ‘misconduct.’

What can be done to change the culture of football?
Research by Johanna Adriaanse, the chair of the International Working Group on Women in Sport, has shown that presently only 21% of board directors of national sport organisations in Australia are women. Furthermore, 20% of national sport organisations have no female directors at all. Not surprisingly this includes Australian Rugby League and Australian Rugby Union.
Raising the number of women in these positions is critical to changing the attitudes within the culture of football and in turn reducing violence against women.
However, the responsibility of eradicating the culture of violence and assault within the football community does not solely lie with women. It relies on football clubs and codes to do their part in implementing strategies to change the culture that is deeply rooted within the football world.

A year ago, VicHealth and AFL Victoria joined to promote a program on culture change in football. ”Fair Game – Respect Matters” encourages community clubs to assess their own cultures and invites players, coaches and supporters to improve their attitude and behaviour towards women.

The program is being tested across community clubs in Melbourne’s northern region. The plan is that other AFL community clubs in Victoria will participate in years to come.

”Fair Game – Respect Matters” reminds coaches of their profound influence on boys and young men and their ability to promote respectful relationships. It inspires senior players to be positive role models who reject sex without consent and invites club leaders to support girls’ and women’s participation in the sport.

Culture change takes time and is not the sole responsibility of one group or community. It does, however, require men within the football world to take the lead, to insist that this is not part of the future of our football communities.

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