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Not going to sit well with feminists or footballers: Anna Krien's Night Games

Maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe there is no common truth. The trial is black and white, Sarah and Justin are as one-dimensional as their competing story lines make out. You’ve got the rapist or the liar. A Law and Order version and, by trying to seek out a shade of grey I’m protecting one of them. There is not going to sit well with feminists or footballers, I think, a knot of dread in the pit of my stomach. I prepare myself for the accusations…

Anna Krien, Night Games, 258

Anna Krien’s “Night Games” is many things, but black and white is not one of them. An incredibly impressive work, it delves into issues of gender and power, and the way they manifest in sport.

It’s not an easy book. Split into four sections, it is structured around accounts of the trial of a minor footballer, whom she calls Justin Dyer (protecting his identity, a strange decision since it is widely known),  accused of raping a woman in an incident after the 2010 AFL Grand Final. She starts with the end, with the accused being found not guilty, then jumps back to the beginning. The first section, titled “The Footy Show”, introduces the case, those involved, and delves into the culture of football and its role in the expression of a certain kind of Australian masculinity.

The second section, “The Grey Zone”, deals with rape and consent.  The discussion on rape is, frankly, as nuanced as any I have ever read, but that nuance makes it difficult. It does not deny the scope or severity of rape, but rather confronts the real and complicated issues about consent, and asks questions about the role power has in those dynamics. It goes beyond “no means no” and “yes means yes” to talk about the awkward and real experiences of sex many have. At one point, reflecting on part of the testimony of the accused, she said:

Can you finish me off?

When we heard that line, I and the young female ABC journalist sitting beside me flinched.

During a break, I found her outside the court, watching as the photographers and TV cameramen rallied to get a picture of Justin as he emerged from the building. She pointed him out to her photographer and then stood back. We started chatting and I asked her what she thougth about Justin’s account, in particular the Can you finish me off? line.

“Well, you know…” she said, trailing off.

“Heard it a million times before?”

She laughed. “Not a million times! But yes, definitely heard that one before.”

I nodded “Me too”.

The Crown prosecutor had scoffed at the ridiculousness of Justin’s version of the evening – but it hadn’t sounded that ridiculous at all. In fact, I thought with a shudder, it sounded all too familiar.

Such is Krien’s ability to take a complicated idea and communicate the complication with both perspective and grace. It’s not a dry, academic take, but that does not make it any less intelligent, reasoned or well-researched.

It’s difficult to talk about these issues with sensitivity, empathy and perspective, much less with humility. When Krien says, later in the book, that what she says isn’t going to sit well with feminists or footballers, much of this is why. She places what happened in the context of other, similar events, some more clear cut, some far less so, and she draws no conclusions.

It’s really not an easy book to read.

But it was the third section, titled “The Winmar Moment”, that caused me to stay up into the wee small hours of this morning to finish it. Krien does what nobody (at least, nobody I am aware of) has done before: she draws a connection between sexual assault allegations, a culture of heightened masculinity, and a “culture of servitude” that reduces female participants to playing only supporting roles. She suggests what happens in the boardroom and the media is a result of the same culture the leads to these off-field incidents. She suggests that footy’s culture of a specific kind of performed masculinity excluded and marginalises women in many ways, and that the many manifestations of this are linked.

***

It’s a special kind of feeling when, suddenly, something you’ve been thinking about for a while becomes perfectly clear, and two-third of the way through Krien’s book, I had one such experience.

I’ve never been able to properly articulate why, after years of working towards getting a position in the Communications side of a sport team, I resigned after just two seasons in the job. I couldn’t adequately explain why the experience led to me embracing feminism and calling myself a feminist for the first time. I left sport with little idea of what I wanted next, but certain that my perspective on gender had forever changed. Not long after I resigned, I did a DIY feminist reading course, learnt the basics of gender theory, and the world opened up to me.

But even then, having learnt all about structural sexism and power and patriarchy, I still couldn’t quite put my finger on it. There was no sexist moment in my time there, nothing that was specifically about gender, at least not at the surface. And for the five years since, I’ve thought about it, about why I left, about where that discomfort came from. While the lack of women in leadership positions grated at me, it wasn’t a sufficient explanation.

Then Anna Krien perfectly articulated it.

It’s all in Chapter 15 of Night Games. I can’t, in summary, do the chapter justice, but Krien elegantly and eloquently links “celebrations” of women in football that are frequently gendered, double-standards applied to male and female administrators who have never played elite football, unpaid female labor, the way the media talks players’ partners, and the maginalisation of women to minor, supporting roles within football clubs. And then she caps it off with this one, perfect passage:

While I understand that employing more female support staff helps chip away at an entrenched and blinkered male society, and that the presence of professional female can help re-humanise women in the eyes of these young men, it’s the absence of females at the two most powerful ends of  football that stands out: at the top and on the oval.

There is a gender imbalance and there is a power imbalance. And without fixing the latter, the former will continue to stink of servitude.

And there it was. That word. Servitude. I don’t know where it had been, in all my years of thinking about it. Everything about that time felt like servitude. The fit-in-or-fuck-off mentality. Being constantly told to suck it up, that someone would happily fill our place in a heartbeat. The seven-days-a-week of work. It would have all been worth it, if I’d felt valued. But I didn’t. I felt like a servant. There were certainly men with us in those servile ranks, but all of those we were serving were male. And just like that, there was the reason I’d felt so uncomfortable.

***

There are three stories from my time working in sport that come to mind.

The first is the CEO telling us that we’re one club, on and off the field. That one rule should apply for both players and admin staff. That’s how they justified changing our pay periods to be the same as players, and how why it was ok to institute new rules for drinking when we were off duty. But the “one rule” thing didn’t apply to salaries. Or to annual leave (Players got 6 weeks, we got the standard 4). But to me, the biggest insult was when players complained they had to pay to bring their partners to our end-of-year dinner, so were each given a free plus-one. Because it was tough on the players’ partners, them having to work every weekend. Staff? We still had to pay to bring ours.

As though we didn’t work match days too.

***

The second related to the senior coach. I’d worked as a journo for a while, before I went to the club. I’d attended every major press conference, and most minor ones, for a full season. Often it was just me, a writer each from The Australian and the SMH, and the Senior Coach.

Once I took the job at the club, after a couple of months during which I still attended every presser, I had to join some fans for their tour with the coach around the rooms. One by one, he introduced himself to the supporters. “Hello” he said, “I’m X”.

They all smiled and were excited for his attention.

And when he got round the circle to me, a person he’d seen in pretty small groups, day in, day out, throughout the entire season, a person who’d held up a microphone and asked questions at training sessions and recovery sessions and after match conferences, you know what he said?

“Hello. I’m X.”

“I know,” I replied. “I work here.”

I don’t think I have ever felt so small.

***

The final was the reason I ultimately starting looking for other work. During a big Saturday night game- which I, of course, had to work, despite working Monday-Friday, Player Y got a bit angry and took it out on another player. He was suspended. The next day, the one day of the week I had off, I spent 9 hours helping with the damage control. And Player Y was sent off on a week’s vacation to get his head together. Meanwhile, I still had to be at work first thing Monday morning.

***

When you work in sport, all this is par for the course. It’s pretty much what you sign up for. But what I wasn’t expecting was how uncomfortable that made me, playing upstairs/downstairs when upstairs is exclusively male. And it didn’t need to be; executives, senior staff: there were plenty of places for female leadership and participation. But all of those places were filled by men.

It’s funny that, often, when I talk about footy online, I get comments from men like “there’s no place for women in footy: go back to the kitchen” or “make me a sandwich” or one of many variations on the request for head. Not all men, of course, but there’s more than a few. Servitude. Women existing for the pleasure of men. The ultimate way to shut us up isn’t to criticise our ideas or write us off because we barrack for the wrong team or even just call us a dickhead or a bitch and leave it at that: it’s to suggest our place is in servitude.

***

There was another word in that passage that struck me: “re-humanize”. That, too, clarified my feelings of my time on the sidelines. Most of the time, I felt transparent, less than human. It was undoubtedly partially my own fault, allowing myself to be held captive by awe, but the lack of small kindnesses were telling.

Telling, too, is enduring power of the memories of the few small kindnesses I experienced. The one player who bothered to learn my name and use it when he said hello when we were in the lift. The one who, when I interviewed him for a piece I was writing, stood on the step below so we could be eye-to-eye. It’s not a monolith, this culture, and there are great people within it.

But footy’s gender problem is big, because it expects women to be small. Anne Krien’s book is a wonderfully insightful take on it, on its many manifestations, and the way they work together.

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