Football, sex and narrative

Night Games
Anna Krien
Black Inc

One of the gambles of courtroom journalism – indeed, of non-fiction writing in general – is that the subject under examination may not submit to the demands of narrative: that no matter how socially relevant, subjectively dramatic or politically imperative, it simply may not translate to a compelling story on the page. This is the primary structural obstacle faced by Anna Krien in Night Games, and one that threatens to destabilise the entire book, even before politics come into play.

Krien’s analysis of sexism and sport begins with an account of the investigation into the alleged gang rape of a woman in a South Melbourne house in the aftermath of Collingwood’s victory in the 2010 AFL Premiership. Two Collingwood players, Dayne Beams and John McCarthy, were implicated in the investigation, along with a 22-year-old amateur for the Coburg Tigers, Justin Dyer.* Beams and McCarthy were not charged, but Dyer – a small fish in a big pond – found himself facing a rape trial for an incident that occurred with the same woman in a nearby alleyway, some time after the alleged gang rape that night.

Night Games

It is Dyer’s trial that drives the narrative, and his account of the incidents that evening that dominate the story, and subsequently the politics of the text. Dyer was not a professional footballer, and his trial only peripherally involved the AFL itself, as the legal proceedings almost immediately meant a moratorium on courtroom discussion of the alleged gang rape inside the Dorcas Street house. Krien is thus left with a comparatively weak frame on which to build a story about sexism in the AFL, and she skirts around this rather gaping hole in the narrative as best she can, slipping and sliding and looping back on herself in an attempt to come to grips with the adjoining issues. To do so, she draws in numerous related events, from Sam Newman stapling a picture of sports journalist Caroline Wilson’s head to lingerie-clad mannequin on The Footy Show, to the Jill Meagher murder, Rugby League ‘sex scandals’, and an analysis of bro-culture. There is good stuff in there, albeit not necessarily new: the reluctance of many police and law enforcers to take rape cases to trial; the culture of cover-up in the AFL; and the rather damning Memorandum of Understanding between the AFL and Victoria Police that saw the latter agree to feed to the former ‘law enforcement data’ any AFL identities involved in matters coming to police attention.

But as the book wears on, conclusions are few and far between, and one finds oneself wondering, what exactly is Krien’s contention? That Dyer was unfairly targeted and wrongly accused? That writing about rape cases is inherently fraught? That our legal system is ill-equipped to deal with sexual assault? That the corporatisation of sport makes football a breeding ground for oppression and inequality?

The problem is not with the prose, which is lucid and considered. Rather, the problem is an absence of direction, Krien’s professed lack of confidence in her own perspective on the case itself, and a muddy political frame. Studious attempts to remain even-handed come across as political equivocation, which is then undercut by the increasing one-sidedness of the central narrative of the rape case. This is, in part, a practical problem: Krien is unable to report on the complainant’s testimony in the trial, and could not speak to the complainant herself. She attempts to fill the gap with conjecture, personal anecdote, interviews with feminists, and the aforementioned analyses of previous incidents of sexism and sexual assault in sport. Nevertheless, it is Dyer’s story that is privileged, to the point where much later, after he had been acquitted and is no longer prevented from discussing the events inside the house on Dorcas Street, Krien finally asks him, ‘What really happened?’

Perhaps that’s a fair enough question: perhaps any journalist would ask it. But she then relates his version – not the story of the alleyway, but the story of the alleged gang rape. After an account of a male-dominated rape trial heard by a male jury, after example upon example of entrenched sexism in professional sport, the silence of the complainant here is profound. It is hard to see how any disclaimers, structural or practical, could make the decision to privilege Dyer’s perspective on that particular part of the night politically astute. Krien’s decision to do so leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, one that lingers long after the cover is closed.

Stephanie Convery

Stephanie Convery is the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia and the former deputy editor of Overland. On Twitter, she is @gingerandhoney.

More by Stephanie Convery ›

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  1. A very measured review. It’s a much-hyped book, and I was wondering where the critical reviews were!

    The structural challenges are significant and carefully outlined as this review captures.

    I found much of interest in the book, and appreciated the author’s efforts to problematise her response to the case with personal anecdotes and reflection – not everyone will enjoy or approve of that, but it resonated for me, even when I wasn’t convinced.

    But once forced by dearth of story into efforts to comment more broadly, the discussions often seemed quite unfocussed and flimsy. There’s a brief mention in the acknowledgements of reading a history of rape – what a pity there wasn’t a fuller reading list given, beyond the citations scattered through the various chapters (even if a formal bibliography would have been out of place). There’s a whiff of highlighter pen and Google rising from the grab-bag of references. Other sports, other countries, other scandals, other times, all harnessed to the cause. I was hoping for a more carefully explored connection between the nuances of this particular case and context, and those wider themes and politics .

    1. Hi Stephanie, thanks for your comment. It’s interesting to hear others’ perspectives on the book – I noticed the reference to wider reading at the end, too, wondering where it had gone, given the content of the text.

  2. I agree with everything said here. There seems little new in the book. I wonder if the history book she read was in fact Thornhill and Palmer’s essentialist A Natural History of Rape? The subtitle “sex, power and sport” is overblown. I hope Anna can do better next time.

  3. Neato review of a book that was a real let-down, sloppy and not really thought through. And yeah, bitter taste here too. I can’t help but wonder what drove Krien to write it and where she thinks she’s going as a writer. Anyone who has worked in the area of sexual assault would have been able to challenge and rewire her arguments in two minutes. It’s as if she had these half-formulated ideas and then didn’t bother to try them out on anyone who might be able to challenge them.
    In my own review of Krien’s Quarterly Essay at OL a while back I said that she writes great prose but is really problematic when she goes all investigative-journalism. Ain’t changed my mind. Shame, really, she could be so good.

    1. I do think she was trying really hard to work with material that was, as Malcolm Knox said in his review here, “misbehaving”.

      Having said that, I did begin to feel quite strongly that what I was reading was an attempt to engage with the gender politics of sport without actually talking about politics at all. Bizarre – and infuriating – and ultimately crippling.

  4. Agree that the writers place in the story was always going to be tough. However, I think the honesty with which she writes is one of the books strengths. Being so close to the family of the alleged you can see her own beliefs and prejudices challenged and for the most part, so where mine.

    And yes, the book doesn’t really make a contention once you get to the end. I left it thinking the whole issue and incident were greyer than before I picked up the book. Perhaps that is its power as a hyped book

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