Eddie McGuire, Caroline Wilson and violence against women: the AFL must act.

Tonight, the Western Bulldogs are playing Geelong in the White Ribbon match. It is a game designed to raise awareness of domestic violence and violence against women. But at the very time the football world is casting light on the issue, it is allowing dangerous, toxic and violent language toward women to be part of mainstream football conversations.

The most recent incident happened on last Monday’s episode of “The Rub” on Triple M. Prior to the “Big Freeze” at the MCG, they crossed live to Eddie McGuire, who was preparing to take part. The event consisted of a number of high profile figures going down an ice slide and landing in a pool of icy water, all to raise money for the very worthy cause of research into Motor Neurone Disease. The horrifying exchange involves not one but two current AFL Club Presidents (McGuire and James Brayshaw)

But during the cross, McGuire made the following comments (Audio is from Triple M’s The Rub. Clip use covered under fair use provisions):

 

(Transcript)

McGuire: In fact I reckon we should start the campaign for a one-person slide next year. Caroline Wilson. And I’ll put in ten grand straight away- make it twenty. [laugher] And if she stays under, fifty. [louder laugher] [laugher]

What do you reckon guys? Who else is up there? I know you’re in JB?

Brayshaw: No, yep, Straight in

Danny Frawley: I’ll be in amongst it Ed

McGuire: Is Duck there?

Wayne Carey: Yes, I’m here mate.

McGuire: Duck’s in. Danny’s in — already spoken up.

Frawley: Yeah I’m in Ed.

McGuire: I could do an auction here today.

Frawley: I’ll actually jump in and make sure she doesn’t — I’ll hold her under, Ed.

McGuire: I reckon we could charge ten thousand for everyone to stand around the outside and bomb her.

Damien Barrett: I’m on Caro’s side now, Ed. I’m on Caro’s side these days, Ed.

[indecipherable]

McGuire: She’ll burn you like everyone else, mate. She’s like the black widow. She just sucks you in and gets you and you start talking to her and then BANG! She gets you.

Brayshaw: If you ran that auction from down there, I reckon you’d start grabbing some bids out of the seats too. There’d be money piling in everywhere

McGuire: It’s be magnificent. I think we should do that next year. It’s all good for footy.

Brayshaw: Bloody oath!

Bloody oath indeed, though I suspect for entirely different reasons.

The first notable thing about this is, of course, that is is absolutely awful. These are some of the most high-profile men in football joking about hurting one of football’s most prominent women. So much of our discussions about violence against women acknowledge the importance of language and of attitudes in shaping the way men think about women. As the current government campaign says, “violence against women doesn’t just start.” While McGuire and co were undoubtedly joking, the underlying attitude is dangerous: it reenforces the attitudes of those who are willing to take their hatred of women beyond a “bit of banter”.

The image of a woman being held under water against her will while people jump on her body is a horrifying picture of violence. It is nothing less.

And make no mistake, the damage McGuire and co are doing by normalising attitudes of disrespect and violence toward a woman does more harm than a thousand themed matches and white ribbons on uniforms do good.

The other notable thing about this incident is that it happened a week ago, yet has received very little coverage: until yesterday, it seems only to have been covered in a short piece on SportingNews titled “Eddie McGuire’s controversial Caroline Wilson comments“. Then, on yesterday’s episode of the wonderful “Outer Sanctum” podcast, the hosts discussed it, which led to others paying attention for the first time. But to now, that’s it.**

How was this missed? How has violent language against one of the most prominent women in football so accepted? I absolutely count myself as part of the problem here — I’d rather not endure Triple M’s football coverage, so I don’t listen to it. But without attention from people who care, this sort of thing goes on unchecked. By ceding these airwaves to those with these attitudes, we allow them to survive and to thrive.

At some point, enough has to be enough.

If the AFL and its clubs are genuinely committed to doing something about violence against women, they need to respond to this, and not just brush it under the rug. This is absolutely unacceptable. Something must be done.

 

**As an aside, I think this incident shows how important the rise of podcasts, and new voices, is in footy. They can help direct attention to things and start conversations that the mainstream media largely ignores.

*** Edit: Originally this post incorrectly said the incident happened on the Sunday edition of The Rub. It was the Monday edition.

Edit 2: the sound was updated to be hosted on Soundcloud rather than on this site to preserve bandwidth.

The Equalisation Challenge

It’s a classic footy question: would you rather see your team win by 100 in a one-sided contest or lose by one point in a classic match. Ask a coach and 99 times in 100, they’ll take a 100-point win. Ask a league administrator and they’ll take the close match every time.

This is the fundamental tension that exists between football clubs and football leagues: the leagues aim to create a good competition, while the teams want to win. Throughout the sporting world, leagues have experimented with a range of tactics to keep the competition even when while teams have sought to exploit every competitive advantage to build future success. Unfortunately, sometimes this tension becomes too great and the wire snaps.

The current discussions of the equalisation problems in the AFL are fundamentally flawed because they are too narrow in focus. The draft and salary caps have been the main ways the League has used policy to promote equalisation, but that approach ignores some of the fundamental forms of inequality between teams in the game. Addressing inequality will always be a messy business, but to do so effectively, we have to understand that equal does not always look the same.

A Short History of Equalisation

Football administrators have acted on their drive to ensure the competition is as even as possible almost as long as the league has been around. While the very early era of the VFL allowed free player recruitment and movement between teams, it was coupled with low limits on what players could be paid, though under-the-table payments were common. Recognising this, the VFL formally ended its amateur era in 1911. Legal player payments caused an on-field disparity between the wealthy and poor clubs, and so the first attempts at “equalisation” was introduced just four years later.

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While we’re on Goodes…

Can we please stop pretending there’s any debate about whether the booing of Adam Goodes is racist. Let’s acknowledge that it is an treat it as such. The fact it started happening after first he called out the girl for calling him a racist name, then after he received the Australian of the Year award is telling.

There is a long tradition of only accepting people outside of the dominant group (in this case, straight, white men) when they don’t rock the boat at all. As soon as they dare challenge the existing power structures, they are the targets of abuse.

What has happened to Goodes is almost a textbook case of this.

It’s not a discussion. It’s not a debate. It is a reality: the booing of Goodes is racist.

But what if I just think he’s a flog?

A convenient argument, but it doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. There is nothing Goodes does that a thousand white players before him haven’t, yet he alone receives this vitriol. Chris Judd was a known for eye-gouging and the “chicken wing” yet retired a hero to standing ovations. Joel Selwood and Sam Mitchell are both current players with reputations for dirty play who are not in any way abused with anywhere near the frequency of veracity of Goodes. Stephen Milne was a literal rapist and wasn’t booed the way Goodes is.

There is something unique about the action to reaction ratio in the Goodes case that leaves no doubt of the cause.

But I don’t boo other Indigenous players, so I can’t be racist.

Actually, you can. Only booing Indigenous players who don’t stay silent about racism and who draw attention to inequality is racist. It says you’ll only accept non-white people if they stay in their assigned box and don’t dare to express their voice. The fact you treat players who don’t do that with respect doesn’t absolve you of racism toward players who do.

 

I hate to say I told you so…

Another round of football, another racist booing of Adam Goodes.

It’s become so routine now, it’s only a story when someone reacts to it. This week, it was Lewis Jetta replicating Goodes’ war dance.

But the booing itself should be the story. Because it is demonstrating a cancer that is at the heart of the AFL: it tolerates significant discrimination against anyone who isn’t a straight, white man.

Every time I talk about this, people say the same thing: this isn’t an AFL problem, it’s a society problem. Tell me, then, the last time this happened in any other code. Tell me the last time you heard someone at the shops making the kind of disgusting racist comments you so regularly hear at the football. Yes, there is tremendous oppression of Indigenous Australians in a multitude of ways, but this kind of visceral expression of racism in a social space isn’t the norm.

The AFL has cultivated an environment where it’s ok to make people who aren’t straight, white men feel unwelcome.

It does this in a myriad of ways. One way is by minimizing and tolerating racist behavior at games. The fact it took until today for AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan to say anything about the booing is telling. When he did, he suggested the booing was a response to the Goodes war dance, rather than the war dance being a reaction to the abuse. He also suggested debate about the war dance was fair and refused to call the booing racist. Without actually calling out the action for what it is, how can the league meaningfully address it? McLachlan’s statement was just empty words.

But the non-action on Goodes’ booing is merely one of many examples of this fundamental lack of diversity and action in addressing discrimination in the game.

When every senior coach, every CEO, almost every board member and almost every commentator is a white man, there is a subtle message sent to football fans: that the game belongs to white men, and the tolerance of anyone else will be contingent on their actions and person being acceptable to white men.

That is why the response to Goodes is underpinned by racism: it sets a different standard for non-white players than it does for white players. Where was the comparative, season-long booing for Chris Judd after the chicken wing and the eye gouging? Where, for that matter, is the booing of Kieren Jack, who has been known to dive, the “dirty play” Goodes has a reputation for. Sam Mitchell and Joel Selwood’s questionable techniques have received considerable media attention, yet they are not booed with anywhere near the veracity or regularity of Goodes.

It’s the same double-standard that expects women to have perfect voices to be football commentators. It’s the same double standard that means that people genuinely think none of the 18 best people to be a football club CEO could possibly be a woman.

And it’s the same double-standard the resulted in a tirade of sexist abuse when I suggested the AFL could do more to make the game welcoming. Again, the message was clear: football belongs to us, and if you want to be part of it, you accept it as it or we will make clear that you are not welcome.

Football expects anyone who isn’t a white man to prove they belong and are loyal, and will be show no mercy to those who don’t play that game. We are accepted only on their terms.

So yes, AFL, I hate to say I told you so. Genuinely, I do. But by ignoring the appalling marginalisation of anyone who isn’t a white man, you created this environment. McLachlan said: “I just don’t know that [the booing] reflects well on our game.”

You’re right. It doesn’t. But it does reflect the game as it is right now: a game dominated by white men who don’t tolerate dissenting voices.

Football, diversity and why the AFL can do better

Two weeks ago, I got home from the AFL Grand Final, upset after hearing some awful abuse at the game and, after complaining, being told by a security guard there was nothing they could do about it and “everyone does it”. I was disappointed that, in 21st Century Australia, this behaviour can occur and be tolerated in a public place.

Diversity in sport and in Australian Rules Football, the game I most love, is something that matters to me. I’ve written about it a lot: about Fox Footy Channel ignoring women’s round, about the lack of women in senior roles in football, about Anna Krien’s book on football Night Games. I even did a frame-by-frame commentary on the AFL’s official Season 2013 ad —which featured exactly 1.5 seconds of screen time that included women in a minute-long ad, some of which showed the women folding laundry—which was sadly lost to the internet abyss when I upgraded my site.

So naturally, after the Grand Final, I wrote about the experience and about how disappointed I was, both in the lack of response from security and, more broadly, that this diversity problem still exists. I tweeted that I had written it, wondering if maybe one of my friends who had a bigger sport site than my own blog might be interested in running it, something I have done previously. Instead, an editor from the SMH got in touch with me about it. And by 5pm the next day, my piece was up.

While I expected it would certainly provoke some response, the reaction was truly unbelievable. From death threats to incredible messages of support to conspiracy theories that I didn’t actually attend the match and was making it up, the variety of responses astonished me.

I am not a Fairfax journalist and I did not receive payment for my Fairfax piece. I decided years ago that writing about sport professionally was not something with which I felt comfortable. Instead, I write occasionally when I have something to say. Not because I need the money or am trying to build a profile, but because sport is something I both genuinely love and also feel often escapes the critical analysis it deserves and often needs.

There are definitely valid criticisms of my piece. For one, I did not make the connection between the lack of diversity on television and my experience on game day clear enough. I believe it is an important point, but it’s one that didn’t flow naturally from the rest of my argument in the piece and was a distraction from the rest of it.

Also, some people misunderstood my piece as a particular knock on Hawks fans. While the perpetrators that day were Hawks fans, I don’t think it’s a problem unique to Hawthorn or that there is anything inherent about that club that leads to this problem. I regret that I did not make this clearer in my piece.

But perhaps the response that surprised me the most was from the AFL.

A senior representative of the organisation sent me an email mid-way through the week after the Grand Final, which I have published previously here.

I thought this email was grossly unfair for several reasons. First, on a factual matter, the comments about the antisocial behaviour line were frustrating. While I was lucky enough to have reception at the game, something several of my friends didn’t have, rendering the line useless to them. And despite my reception, I was not able to find the number when I needed it. I googled it, but could only find media releases boasting of its existence that didn’t actually feature the number itself. I even tweeted to ask for it, but by the time I got a response, I’d already complained to security and received the “everyone does it” response.

But it was the last two paragraphs of the email from the AFL that bothered me the most:

My only concern with your piece was that I’m not sure it is fair to characterise large groups of AFL spectators as behaving in this way and nor is it fair to hold the AFL responsible for their actions. The AFL, the venue and police can act when made aware of issues but surely the issue of individual attitudes and behaviour is a broader one for Australian society. The AFL obviously does not condone this type of behaviour – in fact we address it as best we can. Unfortunately I suspect you would find similar things happening at other large sporting events. We will continue to combat these incidents and also proactively promote diversity and inclusion through our words and deeds.

I note that the AFL is also now being held responsible for the appalling social media reaction by some to your piece. Again, I think this is a cheap shot which ignores the broader point about the attitudes and behaviour of a vocal minority who believe they can say and do whatever they like if hidden in a crowd or behind a Twitter account.

The fact is, it was a large group behaving this way. It was a large group who behaved that way throughout the game. The AFL might not condone this behaviour, but the fact is it happened at their biggest game of the season and, despite multiple complaints, security did nothing. Passing the buck to the MCG is unacceptable too: it is the AFL that negotiates stadia agreements and, presumably, KPIs around those. Effective security that polices the values the AFL claims to uphold should be part of those negotiations.

But the line “Again, I think this is a cheap shot” regarding the AFL being held responsible for the social media reaction is the bit that bothered me the most. Specifically, that word again. Implying that the earlier paragraphs were in response to a cheap shot too. As in, I had made a cheap shot.

I found that pretty reprehensible.

But I sat on it for a week or so. I was upset by the response, which I found to be dismissive, condescending and passive-aggressive, but I was unsure what to do about it.
The more I thought about it, though, the more I found both the actions of the AFL representative in sending me that email and the overarching message of “it’s not an AFL problem, it’s a social problem” to be concerning.

Because the fact is, the AFL’s diversity problem— and it’s not just an abuse problem, it’s a diversity problem—goes beyond the cries in the crowd. It goes to the Fox Footy Channel and its dearth of female hosts and the total lack of diversity in AFL Chief Executives and the fact there is not a single openly non-straight footballer. While sexism, racism and homophobia are certainly societal problems, they are expressed uniquely – and I daresay even more acutely — within football. The AFL and its clubs lag behind ASX100 corporations in terms of female representation at executive level and in the board room.

All the theme rounds and policy documents in the world cannot make up for the lack of diversity in real positions of authority and influence in football: in the corner office, behind the commentary microphone, on the field and in the coaches’ box.

So the “what more can we do” messaged irked me, and I decided to see about making it public.

After seeking some legal advice regarding the Not For Publication message, I tweet that I had received the email and that it was “not nice”. The following day, I received another email from the AFL contact:

Erin

I have read your Twitter exchanges with interest over the past 24 hours as it relates to your communication with the AFL.

Given what I believe has been a gross misrepresentation of my email to you, I give you permission to release the content in full.

In fact, I request you to make it available to your Twitter followers and to explain my request. I would however ask that you withhold my personal details.

Regards

So I published the email, with minimal commentary. A few hours later, I received this:

Erin

Not wanting to get into an endless back and forth with you, but to emphasise a few things:
1. I marked the original letter as ‘Not for publication’ because I did not want my communication to be perceived as a ‘PR exercise’
2. My point about a ‘cheap shot’ refers to the fact the AFL cannot and should not be held responsible for individual actions in a crowd, just as we cannot be held responsible for the social media reaction you were subjected to. There is only so much we can do. We are not a Government, we are not a police force.
3. My point about people hiding in a crowd or behind a Twitter account was directed only at those people who verbally attacked you either on the day or via social media in response to your article.
4. Security staff at the MCG work for the MCG not the AFL
5. The AFL continues to work with all our venues to ensure there is an adequate and appropriate response to crowd complaints.

It was so disappointing, this whole exercise: the dismissiveness, the defensiveness. Talking among friends after the game, we came up with a number of things that could be effective ways of improving game day experience and preventing similar events happening again. There were some pretty simple things – for example improving the SEO on the anti-social behaviour phone number so it’s easily searchable and having a single number for all grounds that fans are encouraged to program into their phones.

But rather than saying “we understand this is unacceptable, and we’d like to do better”, this is what happened. And this is exactly what I was worried about when I wrote my piece: that while it has made loud noises about diversity, the code remains complacent about real change.

It can do better. It must do better.

I really hope it does better.

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.

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.

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