Cut out the middle man

Democracy is predicated on the idea that all votes are equal. Unfortunately, in Australia, that isn’t true.

The problem is that we’ve built a system that ensures a small number of voters have a disproportionate sway over our politics, pushing both major parties in their direction. This Saturday, in the lower house, your vote will be weighted by where you live and how likely your vote is to swing. This election will effectively be decided by a small number of swinging voters in a small number of swinging seats.

This is caused by a unique combination of factors: compulsory voting, compulsory preferencing, closed parties, strict party discipline and single-member electorates.

Compulsory voting
Compulsory voting means that almost all legal voters show up at the polls, and it means that the parties don’t need to appeal to people to make the effort to get out and vote. Voters who aren’t particularly engaged, but generally vote in one direction or the other, don’t need to be spoken to at all. They can be safely counted for their party of choice, regardless of what that party does. By requiring all people to vote, parties no longer need to inspire or motivate their base. This helps keep certain seats safe, and means the members pre-selected in those seats need to do little to actually retain them.

Compulsory preferencing
In Federal elections, in order to cast a valid ballot, you have to number through to the end of your ballot. That means, in most seats, your vote will ultimately flow to either the Liberal Party or the Labor Party They don’t actually have to appeal to you enough to get your no. 1 preference, they just need to be better than the other guys. Again, this pushes the parties toward the small number of voters who will ultimately switch the two around.

Closed parties
As my dear friend Elizabeth puts it, what we call “branch stacking”, Americans call “building the party”. We have a remarkably closed system in which applications for party membership can be denied, and where pre-selection, in most instances, is done by a very small number of people. In safe seats, this has the effect of meaning that the Member only needs to keep a small number of preselectors happy in order to keep their seats. By contrast, other countries use open primary processes that make primary challenges a real concern to members in safe seats, and keeping them more closely engaged with their local community.

Strict party discipline
Strict party discipline, especially within the Labor party, means that members are required to vote along party lines (with the exception of conscience votes). While a Member can advocate for the interests of their constituents in the party room, ultimately, they are required to vote along party lines even if it is against the interest of their constituents. Note: the parties enforce this differently (the Labor party is much worse), but it’s an important element of our democracy for both major parties.

Single member electorates
The final nail in the undemocratic coffin is single member electorates. There is nothing inherently wrong with single-member electorates: in fact, in the United States, with its open primary system and voluntary voting, they work quite well. Unfortunately, when you combine the four elements above with single member electorates, the power of each vote is weirdly distorted. Single member electorates work best when the member has to maintain a close relationship with his/her district and advocates for them in parliament. When constrained by party discipline, the capacity to do this is significantly weakened- member are not able to caucus around issues, only parties.

All of that comes to this: in Australia, unless you are a voter who swings in a seat that swings, politicians don’t need to appeal to you at all. They don’t need to motivate you to get out and vote. They don’t need to worry about losing preselection. And because they’re constrained by party discipline, their capacity to advocate for your interests once they are elected is limited.

And so the policies of both major parties are unduly influenced by some of the least-informed voters in the country.

The way to address this is to get rid of some combination of the above. Personally, I’d do away with strict party discipline, mandatory voting and closed parties. But the party reform stuff needs to come from the parties themselves (and thus, from the people who have a vested interest in the system as it is). And Australians are weirdly devoted to mandatory voting, so that’s unlikely to go away anytime soon.

So, reluctantly, I have come to see multi-member electorates as the most likely way of addressing this imbalance.

Essentially, our existing system elects parties not representatives. Representatives in safe electorates have limited accountability to their constituents, and are far more closely connected to their party. So why not just cut out the middle man, and elect parties directly, but to do so in a way that ensures they are proportionally represented. This minimises the distorting effect of swinging seats, and ensures there is incentive to appeal to the base, as it makes other parties more viable and votes genuinely contestable again.

I love single-member electorates, I really do. I love the way a Member can actively advocate for their community in government. I love the fact Members with similar interests on opposing parties can band together to pass a bill that is in the interest of their constituents.

But that doesn’t happen in Australia. Effectively, we elect parties.

So we may as well just vote for them.


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.

Recipe: Lime and Lady Grey Tea Biscuits

Back when I was a poor student, there was one luxury I allowed myself: these incredibly lime and lady grey shortbread biscuits sold at the markets at what was then Fox Studios. Sadly, though, the stall disappeared, and for years, I was without these delightful morsels of yumminess.

Then, a few years ago, I went searching. And while I couldn’t find the exact recipe, I found this very similar one, for Orange and Earl Grey Tea biscuits, from Martha Stewart Weddings.

Naturally, I adapted it, and these have been an absolute staple in my kitchen ever since- and are very popular with my friends and family. My favourite thing about this recipe is that the dough needs to be frozen, so I can prepare it earlier, leave it in the freezer, then just slice and bake before friends come around- so you have that gorgeous, freshly-baked smell without any of the mess

Lime and Lady Grey Tea biscuits

2 cups plain flour, plus more for dusting
3 tablespoons finely ground Lady Grey tea leaves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sticks unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup icing sugar
2 tablespoons finely grated lime zest


Mix together flour, tea, and salt in a small bowl and put aside.

Put butter, sugar, and zest in the bowl of an electric mixer. Mix on medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes.

Reduce speed to low; slowly mix in flour mixture until just combined.

Divide dough in half. Turn out each half, roll into a log, then wrap in baking paper. Freeze for at least 1 hour (I usually freeze one for an hour and bake, and save the other one for later).

Preheat oven to 180 degrees. Cut logs into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Space 1 inch apart on a baking-paper lined cookie tray..

Bake until edges turn golden, 8 to 10 minutes. Let cool on tray.

Fair, good, better: improving the AFL's cost-of-living allowance

With alarming predictability, the AFL’s cost-of-living allowance comes up every couple of months, usually during trade week, just before the season starts, and any time a team with the concession does well. As a Swans supporter with a pretty active twitter account, hardly a week goes by without someone making a sly comment, explicitly or implicitly suggesting we bought our premierships.

So this weekend, when Greg Swann suggested the salary cap concession was inappropriate, the usual cycle of arguments started again. Richard Colless replied with the absurd suggestion that such questioning of the manner in which the League is administered should be a fineable offence.

These conversations are absolutely important to have, and even though I disagree with him, I’m glad Swann raised the issue. As football supporters, we should be engaging in the way the game is administered, because it affects the competition.

Unfortunately, we often conflate a number of issues. We talk only about the existence of the cost-of-living allowance in yes-no terms, rather than taking the time to step back and ask other questions.

1.       In principle, is a cost-of-living allowance fair?

Of course, the first should question should be whether or not it is fair, in a competition designed to be as even as possible, to adjust for cost of living. You can agree with this statement without agreeing with the current model: it is about the in-principle fairness of a cost-of-living allowance. It is something that I believe is absolutely fair.

In a regulated market like the AFL, salaries and recruitment are protected from true market pressures. This is by agreement between the League, the clubs and the players, however much some would like to challenge that. Because of this, football’s employment market can’t naturally adjust for cost-of-living the way other employment markets do- to prevent quality candidates from leaving to go less expensive cities, or to attract them from such cities, more expensive cities pay higher wages. AFL clubs cannot replicate this market. The AFL’s regulation of the market, in the interest of fairness, is what makes the cost-of-living allowance necessary.

It’s important to note that the regulation doesn’t start with the cost-of-living allowance; it starts with the cap existing to begin with.  The cap exists to attempt to make the competition fair. The justification for the regulation is fairness.

So by is a cost-of-living concession in the interest of fairness? Given there is a substantial and proven difference in the cost of living between cities, it is. In the same way the cap exists the make the competition more fair, so too does the cost-of-living concession by preventing clubs in more expensive cities from being at a disadvantage in attracting and retaining players because of the cost of living in those cities. It compensates for the lack of market pressure.

It’s also important to note here that the AFL is by no means alone in doing this. Large corporations with standardized salary schemes adjust for cost of living between cities. Again, this is largely because they are not protected from market pressures, and so must do so in order to attract and retain high-quality employees.

2.       Is the current model for the cost-of-living allowance fair?

This is the more interesting question. If you accept that, in a regulated market, concessions must be made in order to account for the lack of market pressure, designing those concessions to mirror that market as closely as possible, without providing an unfair advantage, is both crucial and difficult.

The current system allows the Sydney clubs a flat additional concession on top of the current salary cap. They are under no obligation regarding how they spend it, nor is it adjusted as the market changes.

Furthermore, other cities that have experiences substantial growth in the cost of living, such as Perth, do not have similar concessions. The ad hoc nature of the concession undermines the valid underlying principle: that adjusting for cost of living is in the interest of fairness. It’s a fair idea, administered in an unfair way.

Rather than accurately replicating the effect of market pressures, the current salary cap is a band-aid, an inadequate solution virtually guaranteed to alienate stakeholders in other clubs.

3.       What is the ideal cost of living concession model?

I’d argue a better model for a cost of living concession in to adopt a competition-wide salary benchmarking program as part of the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. Players should sign contracts with each club based on an equal salary cap- without concession- and then these contracts should be indexed annually to cost of living in the city in which they reside, based on a range of accepted benchmarks.

I understand this is a bit of an odd contractual arrangement- but then, so is the draft and trading. Players would negotiate a guaranteed minimum salary, in the understanding this would be adjusted based on actual market fluctuations.  Players in the cheapest cities in which to reside would getting only their negotiated contract value, which across the club would add up to the standardised salary cap. Players in other cities might get 106%, or 112% or 116% of their negotiated salary, based on the cost of living in the city. These salaries would be paid by the AFL.

In adopting a new approach to the cost of living, you’d ensure everyone, not just the marquee players, is guaranteed to reap the benefit of the concession, and that each club is equally able to access them based on the actual cost-of-living in their city.

I’m sure, though, there are other models that could work. Any ideas?

My life in sport, or how I learnt to think about sport

It took a long time to recognise my love of sport, and longer still to acknowledge it.

The girl on the left won every "event" and refused to share her prizes with the other kids.

The earliest evidence of the author’s life in sport- her 8th birthday cake, an Olympic swimming pool

As it kid, I wasn’t remotely self-conscious about it. I loved Kieren Perkins from the minute I heard him tell his story on an ad during Saturday Morning Disney in the lead-up to the 1992 Olympics. I spent my pocket money on posters of him from Book Club. My 8th birthday party was Olympics themed. When he won his second gold, unexpected, from an outside lane, on my 12th birthday, it felt like it was just for me.

I got a bit older, and we moved to the US. As a teenager, my concept of self was pretentious, even for a teen. I discovered a love of history young, and I’d proudly display classic books on my dresser, bought at a “funky” second-hand bookstore and never read. I struggled through Tess of the D’Urbervilles the summer before 9th grade, and would proudly bring it up in conversation, however tangential the connection. I sewed historical costumes and wrote poetry and went to see foreign films. I was a thinker, dammit, and I had the stuffy bedroom to prove it.

But I also had a secret. Behind the clothes in my walk-in wardrobe hung a poster of Alex Rodriguez. Above that sat a box of newspaper clippings: Mariners scores from the local paper, and news of the Australian cricket team, sent by a loyal friend back home. These things were hidden away so they couldn’t encroach on the neat concept of self I’d created.

Some time around the time we returned to Australia in 2000, I started to face the truth. There were momentary slippings of the veil: when I heard the story of Tadhg Kennelly, and or once again watched my favourite cricketer, Michael Bevan, weave his absolute magic with the bat.  But the watershed moment came during the Sydney Olympics. I’d railed against them as a waste of taxpayer money (Where is this celebration of the Arts?! I’d ranted. What if we invested all that money in education?! I’d raved. I’d even calculated the percentage of Australians of the Year who were athletes, written out the list, and posted it on the fridge in disgust). But, sitting at Olympic park, watching on the big screen and screaming as Ian Thorpe came second to Pieter Van Den Hoogenband, I realized this thing that sport made me feel was incredible. It felt honest. I couldn’t deny it anymore.

And so, with a heavy heart at first, I stopped hiding my love of sport in my wardrobe. On reflection, some of my early efforts were quite funny: that summer, I started a collection of letters titled “Letters to arrogant, overpaid athletes, written during moments of psychological weakness.” The old pretentiousness wasn’t going to die easily. The Australian Open got me through surgery that January, and I added a letter to Sebastian Grosjean to the collection after his five-set capitulation to his best friend Arnaud Clement set me back weeks in my recovery.  While studing Hamlet and Rosecrantz and Guildenstern are dead, we were required to write a feature article on one of the themes of the play, offering another example. I wrote about The Ashes as revenge, got the best mark of my high school career, and knew my path was set.

I wasn’t a thinker after all: I was a sport fan. And I was all in for a life in sport.


You can't see it, but I'm actually wearing a dress I made from the French flag. You can, however, see I got the flag wrong in my face-painting. I blame the mirror.

The author with Sebastien Grosjean in 2001, just prior to starting her Sport Studies degree

As soon as I learnt the University of New South Wales has a Sports History program, from a single photocopied pink piece of paper I’d picked up at a University fair, it was the only option. I knew I wouldn’t struggle to get the marks, so I never really considered anything else. I’d go and study Arts/Education, spend a couple of years reading and writing about sport, then do the useful thing and become a teacher. The practicalities were irrelevant, despite the fact it was a 3-hour trip on public transport from home and I couldn’t afford to move out. The first time I stepped foot on the campus was the day I went in to enroll. Sport alone had brought me to UNSW.

A moderately successful first year under my belt, with its sport-free generalist subjects and a year more of fully owning my passion for all things sport, I finally got to enroll in Australian Sport: History and Culture in my first semester of second year. I bought the textbook as soon as I knew what it would be, and had read it cover-to-cover before the first lecture. I was initially disappointed that I didn’t have the lecturer as my tutor, but that would ultimately prove to be more fortuitous than I could have anticipated: the next year, the lecturer would move on, my tutor would remain as the sole sports history teacher at UNSW. He’d become something of a mentor.

I was an enthusiastic student, to say the least. And I made no secret of the fact I loved sport. When I first encountered writers critical of sporting culture generally and of sport administration particularly, my reflex was to defend. Over the course of the semester, I realized I had to approach sport critically in order to be an even passably-decent sports historian. I found some of the writing about gender and sport interesting, and with more than a touch of truth about them. I was still firmly in the camp of optimist, but once seen, it could not be unseen. The seeds were sown, but for the time, I remained a cheerleader.

And it was here I first properly encountered Australian Rules football. I’d been something of a sporting everyman going in to the course- cricket, rugby, tennis and swimming had taken my particular fancy recently, but those were by no means set in stone.  After our study introduced me to the fascinating history of Australian Rules Football, my passing interest in the code, which to that point had mostly been in the career of Tadhg Kennelly, was piqued. I took my younger brother and his friend to see the Swans play the Bombers at the Olympic Stadium. I was bored: it was an uninspiring game. But I went back to Olympic Stadium about two months later, mere days after the rest of my family had moved to China and left me to fend for myself for the first time. When the second-placed Swans lost to the fourth-placed Magpies, I cried without knowing if I was crying for the game or for my family, and my loyalty was won. From now on, it was AFL first.

What I hadn’t anticipated, as a high school student entering university for the first time, was how contentious the study of sport was, how the faculty looked down on it. After external funding dried up in the post-Sydney-Olympics era, the program was being wound down, despite the fact it was a significant moneymaker for a department that always struggled financially. Study abroad students flocked to the courses, bringing with them their high fees, but that fact alone could not save Sport History. In my honours year, the program was gone entirely, and the Law faculty, recognizing an opportunity, introduced a Sport in the Law general education class, and picked up all the Study Abroad cash the History department had decided it would do without.

The academic criticism of sport studies usually focused on the ephemeral nature of sport, and that sport studies wasn’t sufficiently critical. The first criticism is difficult to entertain, given the important place sport has in Australian culture, but there was grain of truth to the second. Some scholars was sports fans first and scholars second. Though far from the majority, these few tarnished the reputation of sport studies. Unfortunately, I was one of them.

My honours thesis was meticulously-researched, a history of interstate attempts to promote Australian Rules football in Sydney before the VFL went national. Meticulously-researched, but suffering from the same lack of criticism and reflection that plagued me throughout my degree. While I continued to play the role of cheerleader, my supervisors, official and defacto, were more than willing to correct me on it, even if I often ignored their advice. My second class, first division was thoroughly deserved, for the work wasn’t what it should have been, even if that pains me now because it limits my future study options. Thesis in hand, I was done, and unsure what was next.


One semester of prac teaching gave me no doubt that the “education” part of my degree was a mistake, so I’d dropped it about eighteen months earlier. Now, I was just a plain ol’ BA (Hons), with a goal and not much idea of how to get there. When people asked what I wanted to do, I told them I wanted Stephen Brassel’s job- he was then the Media ad PR General Manager at the Sydney Swans. In the meantime, I went full-time in my then part-time job as a nanny, tried to write a beginners guide to Australian sport, and tutored in Australian Sport history at UNSW, which the History department has reluctantly re-added after the financial consequences of its snobbery had become apparent. I encouraged my students to apply a critical approach to thinking about sport, but at the same time waxed lyrical about the virtues of our games.

Looking back now, I’m amazed at how confident and enterprising I was in those days. I told everyone about my ambitions, I wrote emails, letters. And it worked: I was amazed at the number of people willing to help me out. I had a chapter in a book selected to be in a book about Collingwood. I wrote a couple of articles for an Irish newspaper. And then, in a series of wonderful coincidences that started when someone spat on me, I got an offer to write part-time for an online sports media outlet. Covering the Sydney Swans.

That was in March. From there, it snowballed. By May, I was writing for another outlet under a pseudonym. By June, I’d applied for a job in the Swans’ Communications and Marketing department and in July, two weeks before my 23rd birthday, I started in what could only be described as my dream job.

At the time, without any kind of stability or the financial wherewithal to survive life as a freelancer, it seemed entirely to take too long to go from part-time writer to full-time employee. On reflection, it was an absurdly short period of time between the moment I turned in my thesis and the day I started at the Swans. I’d been so focused on getting to this place for so long that I didn’t at all stop to think about whether it was the right place for me, or whether I was equipped to handle it, either practically or mentally.

And the truth is that I wasn’t. I realized pretty early I didn’t belong.  Those two concepts of myself I’d long held in opposition to each other, the thinker and the sport fan, were about to clash in their long-overdue battle. But the simple fact was neither of those part of me fit the job. I was required to write articles about the players, and to interview them, and I was still entirely too star-struck to do so effectively. I never fully got over that. But the job also required me to toe the party line, and to put a positive spin on everything. After years of being trained to think through the implications of sport, however much I’d resisted the training, I now found I couldn’t help it.  The gender issues I’d previously thought about briefly became consuming. I worried about wasting my life on something that didn’t matter. I worried I was being taken advantage of by a system to exploits you for your passion. Plus, I felt like a big ol’ nerd in a posse of cool kids. I didn’t belong.

I lasted 15 months. Then I gave up the job I’d dreamed of for years. Around the same time, my heart was broken by a fellow Swans fan. It was all too much. I decided to put football away.

My life in sport was over.


In my last few months at Swans, I’d started reading a lot about American politics, and became slightly obsessed with it. So, fresh in my new, non-sport job, which paid me almost double what I’d been earning for almost half the work and- bonus- made me feel like I was contributing to something greater, I enrolled in an MA in US Studies on a whim.  I spent the year fully immersed in that world and the new friends I’d made through the program. University felt like home: I was encouraged to think through the complexity of issues. In studying politics, no matter how strongly you feel about a particular philosophy, it’s hard to do well if you’re a cheerleader. I was finally able to exercise the academic discipline that eluded me as an undergraduate sport fan.

I followed the Swans loosely still, but it was my sport sabbatical, my time away.  When September and finals rolled around, despite the fact it was the first time since ’03 that the Swans didn’t play in September, I tentatively dipped my toe back in the water. At the end of the year, I went to DC to intern in US Congress for a couple of months, and happily talked footy to no end with the Victorians on the program. While I was there, I wound up giving a talk at Georgetown’s Centre of Australian and New Zealand Studies on Australian sport history. Like going for a first run after a time off, my muscles slowly limbered, and I found my stride again.

In 2010, with newfound perspective and a heart mostly recovered, I returned to sport wholeheartedly. I started attending Swans games again. I worried it would never feel the same as it did in those heady days of 2005, when the thought of missing a match made me sick to my stomach. And the truth is, it never did. I could never be as consumed and naïve and devoted as I was then.

But I wept openly when we won the 2012 premiership, and I knew them I could still love it, it would just be a different love, a more critical love

While at this point, I had fully embraces my return to being a bystander and fan, I DID hide from my previous colleagues as I indulged my inner fan, and desperately hoped the veteran players didn't remember me

The author with Swans midfielder Josh Kennedy on the night of the 2012 Grand Final


Lately, almost five years after my return to civilian life, I’ve started to feel the pull of writing about sport again. It’s different this time, though. It’s filtered through my experiences of sexism and incompetence in sport culture. It’s informed by disillusionment and misplaced allegiances and the perspective you can only really get by being away.

When the Australian Crime Commission report was released last week, with its revelations that doping is rife in Australian sport, the sport fan in me was sad, while the sport academic in me was unsurprised and felt slightly vindicated. It showed, more than anything has before, how essential a critical approach to sport is. It shows why we need sport studies. It shows why we need to encourage a genuinely analytical approach to Australian sporting culture.

I went back to my thesis recently, with the idea to edit it and maybe make it available as an e-book. Re-reading it, I realized it contains a grain of something really important about sport, power and identity, but I didn’t have the distance at the time to see it for what it was, to see how it fit into a broader picture. My concept of myself as a sport fan had become so consuming that I stopped properly thinking about sport. I have this idea now that I might completely re-write it, to turn it into a broader reflection on sport and power and culture. On why sport fans feel the need to prosthelytize, sharing the truth of their chosen code. On how, like most people with power, sports administrators often act to protect and expand their power, at the expense of those who don’t have it. On why political theory might have something to offer our understanding of sport. It’s just an idea, but it’s one that won’t go away.

So maybe my life in sport isn’t over after all.

New voices needed to solve an old problem

You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before. – Rahm Emmanuel

It appears Andrew Demitriou and the AFL have been listening to the advice of Emmanuel, using today’s Crime Commission announcement as a way to further extend their own power, rather than take the opportunity for reflection. It is a perfect example of why those currently in charge are not the ones we should trust to solve the problem.

In reading the report, one sentence stood out to me:

“This is facilitated by a lack of appropriate levels of due diligence by sporting clubs and sports governing bodies when entering into business arrangements.”

It doesn’t just point to individuals or clubs that use Performance and Image Enhancing drugs. It specifically mentions governing bodies. Any reasonable response to it would involve a serious consideration of the current operations of those governing bodies.

The NRL took that on board: it today announced its approach to the report, that it had engaged an external auditor to audit both the organization itself and each of the clubs. This independent group will provide its findings.

By contrast, the AFL has doubled-down on the very approach to the problem that led us here. Rather than taking a step back and reflecting on whether its current approach is effective or has the potential to be effective, it is simply extending its current approach. Its “Integrity Unit” will be expanded. The very “Integrity Unit” that was founded in 2008, yet somehow didn’t see today’s revelations coming.

Rather than saying: “we are employing independent experts to come in, audit us, our processes, and ALL AFL clubs, and provide and independent report”, the AFL have chosen to do it themselves. The person leading the investigation will, ultimately, be accountable to some of the very same people they’re reporting on. Demetriou and the Commission will not be held to account for presiding over an era of drug cheating- at least, not in the near future.

It’s a process designed to undermine Demetriou’s power and influence as little as possible.

It also further empowers the AFL to look into club employees. It allows them to investigate all off-field staff, the legality of which under Australian workplace law I’m quite intrigued by. But beyond the legality, I’m baffled as to why investigating the trainee who gets paid 20k a year to listen to Members complain about their seats could possibly be considered a good use of resources. It extends the AFL’s already overstretched reach without significant benefit.*

But far more than that, the AFL controlling the investigation ignores the way the AFL is part of the fundamental problem. Doping, homophobia, sexual violence and sexism, betting, match fixing: these are all consequences of the same fundamental culture: a culture that is predominantly white, male, straight, and “blokey”. It is a culture that prizes loyalty over integrity. It certainly isn’t everyone, but it’s many.

During the press conference today, Demetriou announced there would soon be a meeting of all club chairs, CEOs and heads of football departments. To the best of my knowledge, there is not a single person in that group who is not a straight, white male.

What’s that got to do with doping? A surprising amount. It hints at the degree to which the culture is insular, self-selecting,and afraid of those outside a norm, a culture unwilling to seriously consider outside voices.

Today’s report was an indictment on the culture of Australian sport in general, and of the AFL in particular. The same old people won’t fix it. It’s time for someone new.

*Full disclosure, the author was once a lowly-paid employee of an AFL club for 18 months between 2007 and 2008. Beyond hellos in the lift, getting generic quotes for articles, and frequent conversations about whether Barack Obama or Hilary Clinton should win the Democratic nomination with one particular member of staff, her interaction with the football department was limited.

The exclusionary language of inclusion

I have this horrible, sinking feeling that much of the work that was done to encourage tolerance has backfired. Instead of actually encouraging inclusiveness, the language of tolerance is now used by many as an excuse to never reconsider their opinions. Language designed to encourage inclusiveness has become a way to justify exclusion.

I’m glad that we’ve developed a more relativistic discourse. I’m glad that there isn’t a single source truth out there that can’t be challenged, a single authority that determines right from wrong. Pluralism is useful. A world in which ideas are being challenged is a great thing- as long as they’re actually being challenged.

Because here’s the thing: truth still exists. Some things are simply true, and no number of different perspectives will change that. It’s a cliche to say this at this point, but two plus two is four. If you accept that, you start from the position that there are some things that are true. Relativism doesn’t render logic false or useless. If X, then Y. Actions have consequences.

Unfortunately, too often, the phrases “it’s just my opinion” or “it’s my view that…” are used as cover for “I don’t need to critically engage in this” or “my view should be free from criticism” or “I am not responsible for the consequences of my what I say and think” . It’s absurd, because even though something might be an opinion, facts still inform it and, in some cases, show it to be false. It could be my opinion that two plus two is five. It would also be wrong. Opinions do not exist in a vacuum, even if some like to treat them that way.

If you tell a joke, and it offends someone, that joke IS offensive. You told the joke. A person is offended by the joke. That makes it offensive. Now you might say “well, it is offensive, but that’s an offense I’m willing to make.” Fine. That’s your choice. But it’s still offensive. The offensive nature of the joke is a reality, not an opinion, because someone was offended by the joke.*

The world IS getting warmer. It’s a fact. Now your opinion might be that it’s not, or that people are overreacting, or that there’s an international conspiracy to trick us into believing something. That’s fine. It is your right to have your opinion. But the facts don’t support it. It is objectively true that the world is getting warmer.

Free speech does not mean consequence-free speech**. But everything we do, and everything we say, has consequences. You can have an opinion, but that opinion isn’t sacrosanct. An opinion isn’t a precious object, to be put behind glass, preserved for all to see. It’s meant to be taken into the world, and pushed around a little bit and tested to see if it can survive. If it doesn’t, a new, stronger one will take its place.

If we hold our opinions to be so precious that we daren’t challenge them, we miss out on the opportunity to be really empathetic, to try to understand someone else’s experience, and to broader our own horizons just a little bit.

*Edited to add: Which is, incidentally, why I’m against the “cause offense” clause in the new anti-discrimination legislation. Causing offense is generally not a good thing, but it is entirely too difficult to police. And, frankly, some people are offended by things that I think it should be ok to say, which is why coming to terms with the idea that “this caused offense, but I’m willing to cause it in order to make my point” is important: it deals with the reality of the situation, rather than pleading ignorant.

**Instead, it means legal-consequence-free speech which is, in my opinion, a good thing.


Rethinking TV Award Ceremonies

After watching the Golden Globes last night, Jonathan and I discussed our general discomfort with the award categories, so we brainstormed for a bit to come up with our ideal TV award design. Here are our suggestions:

  1. Get rid of the arbitrary drama/comedy distinction. Increasingly, it’s more difficult to say what’s what (see: Season 2 of Louis). Instead, have short form (30 minutes or less) and long form (more than 30 minutes) categories, plus a category for longer, one-off events, such as movies or mini-series.
  2. Get rid of the gendered actor/actress distinction. Have best performer in a lead role and supporting role for each of the different time categories.
  3. As abolishing the gendered split would mean there are far fewer awards, instead introduce two different streams- best performance in an episode and best performance in a series. Voting for the series would be done by a small panel who watch all the required episodes. Actors would submit a selection of three consecutive episodes for consideration.

So, the awards night would look like this (Obviously the names need some work):

  • Best short form television series
  • Best long form television series
  • Best featured television program
  • Best featured performance in a short form television episode
  • Best featured performance in a short form television season
  • Best featured performance in a long form television episode
  • Best featured performance in a long form television season
  • Best featured performance in a featured television program
  • Best supporting performance in a short form television episode
  • Best supporting performance in a short form television season
  • Best supporting performance in a long form television episode
  • Best supporting performance in a long form television season
  • Best supporting performance in a featured television program

This solves a bunch of problems in the current award system. It solves the good-submission-episode problem (where one good episode wins you an award over performers who have been much better consistently), the arbitrary divisions of comedy/drama and of male/female.

My only real concern would be that dramatic performances are given a weight that comedic performances aren’t, and there’s a strong possibility they’d dominate but, frankly, that already happens- performances that don’t come close to being comedic get nominated- and win- in comedy categories simply because the show is fewer than 30 minutes.

On footy media…

There are so many things that are great about footy. The game itself is unparalleled: it’s elegant and tough at the same time, and a game can turn in a moment. The atmosphere at games is incredible. And club membership is diverse: looking around at games, there are men and women, children and grandparents, people of all races and from all over the world.  You usually can’t actually see the diversity of sexuality, but it’s there too.

But you’d never guess that from footy media. Footy media is primarily white, straight and male.  It’s focused on the players and coaches.  It spends little time talking about the many people in clubs big and small who make our game great.

This is a particular hobby horse of mine, I admit it. One of the things that first drew me, a native New South Welshman, to the game was the early participation of women.  I read Rob Hess’ chapter on “Women and Australian rules football in colonial Melbourne” and was captivated that women had always been passionate supporters of the game.

I write and talk about this a lot. For example, “Football, Feminism and You” was my attempt to explain why I think diversity in football media is important. Last year I wrote about how Fox Footy ignored Women’s Round, instead labeling the week “Christmas in July”.  Women’s Round is a truly great opportunity to recognize some of those who work off-field for the game yet, beyond an interview with Chelsea Roffey, Fox Footy did nothing to commemorate it.

I believe it does a tremendous disservice to the incredible men and women who give up so much for the game to focus solely on players.

And I’ve tweeted at many journalists about this lack of diversity. I’m not trolling: I genuinely want to bring attention to this issue and talk about it, because I think it’s important. Just yesterday, I tweeted at Backpage Lead that their home page had photos of 27 people, all of them men. To their credit, they replied and admitted that was a problem.

One of the people I’ve tweeted at is Mark Robinson from the Herald Sun. It wasn’t one or twice either- it must be at least a dozen times over the last year, as recently as this week, including my question about Fox Footy ignoring Women’s Round.   So today, when he tweeted:

“people believe its players and coaches who make up footy clubs when in fact it’s people like essendon’s Bruce Heymanson. RIP”

I was, I’ll openly admit, a little frustrated, so replied

@Robbo_heraldsun So I trust you’ll have fewer players and coaches, and more people like him on AFL360 this year…

And then all hell broke loose.  Robinson posted:

@erinrileyau even at a time of death u try to be a smart arse. pull your head in. A great man dies & you want to pick a fight. no class

And then proceeded to retweet every nasty thing that people said in reply.

It’s important to note that Robinson was the one who first used the occasion of Heymanson’s death to make a point. He didn’t just tweet “RIP Bruce Heymanson”. It was he who chose to use the occasion to talk about what people think football clubs are. I simply wanted to call him out on the fact that, as a prominent member of the footy media, he was complicit in that, that he has the power to change it.

Furthermore, I fully expected to be ignored. There was precedent for that as he’d always ignored me in the past.

Rather than engage with the substance of my critique- that by hosting a show that is all about players and coaches, he’s perpetuating the idea that it is they alone that make up footy clubs- Robinson chose to be rude, to call me classless, and then to echo the insults hurtled toward me, many of which suggested I was seeking attention.

I understand why some people may consider the timing of my comment disrespectful, but I can assure you, that’s not the way it was intended. I genuinely want people like Mr Heymanson to receive more attention, to be talked to and about in life as well as death. I want the football media to represent footy for all it is: a diverse, interesting, exciting and passionate world in which men and women spend years working quietly behind the scenes to help make the game great. That was my motivation for my tweet, nothing else.

As for Robinson’s motivation in choosing this, of all my tweets, to retweet? Well, only he can answer that.

And what do you think the chances are, after all the vile things he retweeted today, of him retweeting the link to this?

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