When I heard Anna Krien was turning her hand to writing a book about the recent AFL sexual assault scandals, I was euphoric. Not because the subject matter is anything to celebrate, but because I knew Krien would do a masterful job. Her previous (and award-winning) book Into the Woods, which explores at the Tasmanian logging debate, remains one of my favourite and touchstone books.
I want to write like Krien when I grow up.
Night Games has just been shortlisted for The Walkley Book award (alongside James Button’s Speechless: A year in my father’s business and Pamela Williams’ Killing Fairfax), and deservedly so. It’s a fine-tooth examination of an issue difficult to grasp and too long overlooked.
I get the sense Night Games was difficult to write, both because the ‘truth’ of sexual assault matters is subjective and nigh on impossible to pin down, and because the foundational ethics, morals, and cultural norms involved are intangible and ever shifting.
While the book touches on a few sex scandals—yep, it’s depressing in and of itself that there is more than one to examine—its focus is on a lesser-known one. ‘Justin was a small fish in big trouble,’ Krien writes. ‘He knew no one. He was twenty-two years old, had recently broken up with his girlfriend of four years and was living out of home for the first time.’
Justin had driven down from Queensland with a mate, hoping to get noticed in the AFL world. Of course, he was hoping to be noticed for his on-field prowess, not an off-field disgrace. Justin was on trial for allegedly assaulting a girl, whom Krien names Sarah, in an alley outside a Collingwood player’s house.
Let’s back up a bit.
Sarah was acquainted with one of the Collingwood players. She went to meet up with him and ended up at a house along with other players, including Justin. Something happened in the bedroom and something later happened in the alley outside. It’s unclear what occurred in either instance, but only one of the incidents was prosecuted: the one in the alley, which involved just Justin.
The initial claims Sarah made against the Collingwood players—plural—assaulting her in the bedroom of the house were eventually dropped. It’s one of the greatest outrages of the book and the turmoil as a whole.
Collingwood is the richest club in town and it closed ranks around its players, sending in a QC to mop up. Which left Justin, a non-Collingwood player and seemingly not the main instigator of whatever transpired that night, outside, fronting court and footing the enormous personal and financial cost.
Most media dropped the story when it was clear the Collingwood players had been extracted from the mess, but Krien pursued the ‘non-story’. Narrative is a huge theme in Night Games, and it works well. This alternative narrative, explored by a writer who doesn’t consider herself a sports writer, allows Krien the space and objectivity to examine some taboos and some cultural shadiness we’d rather not acknowledge.
‘What connection have you got to footy?’ Krien is asked. She’s a woman and a woman without a footballing background. Presumably she’s not qualified to write about this. But this story isn’t about sport, and either way, she’s not trying to carve a career as a sports writer, so she doesn’t need to worry about ruffling feathers and bruising egos.
The justice system strips victims of their stories too. Krien points to a Slate article about one victim who defied a gag order and took to social media to tell it: ‘the criminal justice process can also rob the victim of control over her own narrative. Reporting to official channels often means keeping quiet in social ones.’
The elephant in the room of Sarah and Justin’s court case is that they are not allowed to discuss the story of what went on in the Collingwood player’s bedroom, even though it’s more crucial and insidious than—and without doubt influenced—what went on outside. What really happened in that room is something we’ll never know, something that near drove me mad. Choosing to have sex versus feeling compelled to because others have entered the room, for example, is difficult to explain much less prosecute.
And while we never uncover—or at least face—that aspect, we find out some other, rather unwelcome facts. Most galling, I think, was the realisation that group sex isn’t about the girl being considered attractive. Rather, it’s about the team. The girl is just an object serving a purpose. Krien writes: ‘A footballer does not look at another human when he f&cks a groupie. He’s looking at his glorified reflection—and when he performs, he’s doing it for “the boys”, not her.’
There are also the double standards. One example Krien cites is of Brisbane Broncos players accused of sexual assault in a nightclub. One player filmed it and phoned another player, saying ‘Guess what’s happening inside here?’ The Daily Telegraph’s focus, however, was how one of the players ‘lost his girlfriend Emma Harding’ over the incident, complete with a links to a photo gallery of images of Harding looking attractive.
Another example is that Wayne Carey’s downfall wasn’t the various and well-known indiscretions he had, but the final-straw one, when he transgressed by sleeping with a teammate’s wife in a toilet at a party.
First hearing about Night Games, I thought it would be about Kimberley Duthie, dubbed the St Kilda Schoolgirl. And I kind of wish it were. Krien does briefly mention Duthie in Night Games, and she provides some savvy insight. Duthie, Krien writes, ‘wanted more than to be [the St Kilda players’] sexual plaything. Duthie wanted to be one of them. When she was cut off from the team, this highly competitive teenager had her first inkling of the limitations of her sex—and so she broke the rule that bonds all football players. What happens on the footy trip stays on the footy trip.’
I often wondered—still wonder—where Duthie’s parents were. That they left her to front the media alone returning from a holiday on the Gold Coast still makes me irrationally perplexed and angry. And how complicit were the journalists in helping or harming Duthie? Did they fail in their duty of care? ‘Journalists just couldn’t help it,’ Krien writes. ‘They were addicted to her, and she to them.’ But that’s another blog’s—if not an entire book’s—worth altogether. One I hope Krien will eventually tackle.
Frustratingly, we never hear Sarah’s story. And, like Krien, I was shocked I wasn’t more on Sarah’s side. This was at least in part because Sarah chose never to speak to Krien (you don’t even hear her evidence, because she gave it via electronic hook-up to a closed courtroom), but also because I kept thinking she’d made some foolish mistakes.
That’s doing women a disservice, though, and playing into the men-aren’t-at-fault thinking that’s so fuelled such behaviour as is catalogued in Night Games. Krien recalls the words of Australian sociologist Lois Bryson, who wrote that feminists who ignore sport do so at their own peril.
There is no absolute truth with this tale, but that’s what I desperately wanted. In fact, there are many intangible aspects of this tale I keep turning over and over in my mind. Other friends who’ve read the book have sought me out to discuss it. That’s due to the combination of the explosive and fraught topic and the nuanced, outsider-looking-in perspective Krien has brought to it.
Krien comes up with this summary with which I agree: ‘Justin’s offering to see Sarah home was opportunistic. There was something rotten, something off, and perhaps something naïve too, about his persistence. Of that much I can be certain. But the rest is murky. Treating women like sh&t shades into a culture of abuse, which in turn can shade into rape.’
In recent months, we’ve seen AFL players setting dwarves alight and tipping a man out of his wheelchair, stealing his taxi, and throwing a kebab at him. Methinks there’s more to come from this AFL examination, and I hope it comes from Krien.