Football's women problem

Into the void of the last AFL off-season leapt a young woman who called herself ‘The small girl, with a big voice’.1 The echoes of that voice – its Facebook- , Blogger- , Twitter- and ultimately 60 Minutes-fuelled reverberations – dominated the off-season and continue to be felt. This was, in the words of Richmond director Peggy Haines, ‘a crisis of a proportion that hadn’t been contemplated’.2

The issue erupted in May 2010 with claims that a sixteen-year-old had slept with two St Kilda footballers who visited her school, had begun a relationship with 23-year-old Sam Gilbert and was pregnant. After confiding in her school principal, her claim was immediately reported to the Education Department and thence to the police, but within twenty-four hours, investigating police asserted that the contact had come well after the school visit and no charges would be laid.

In December, the story reignited when the young woman, saying she had miscarried twins, launched a vengeful Facebook salvo: a photo of a naked Nick Riewoldt, St Kilda’s captain, posing beside a bare-chested, condom wrapper-holding teammate, and a second photo of another (apparently unaware) teammate masturbating. Splashed across them was the message: ‘Merry Christmas Courtesy of the St Kilda Schoolgirl’. The photos went viral, the club started legal action and the young woman threatened to release photos featuring players from other clubs.

A Federal Court ruling appeared to resolve the matter, ordering the photos be removed and no others posted, and requiring the young woman and the team to undertake mediation; the judge accepted Riewoldt’s claim that his photograph was taken by Gilbert while the men were holidaying overseas. But in February 2011 there was another twist, with revelations that the young woman was involved with Ricky Nixon, the AFL’s most powerful player agent, and Riewoldt’s and Gilbert’s manager. A married 47-year-old with teenage sons, Nixon acknowledged ‘inappropriate dealings’; she claimed a sexual relationship involving alcohol and illegal drugs. And on 6 March, a dramatic coda: a 60 Minutes broadcast rushed to air before Nixon returned from overseas. Having tweeted ‘At last – My story. My life. All will be revealed …’, the young woman shared Nixon’s text messages and emails (tawdry, boastful and at times threatening), described telling the St Kilda players she was nineteen, and revealed that her pregnancy was a lie. This prompted a predictable public backlash,3 while Nixon announced he was stepping down and entering rehab.

From its earliest days, Australian Rules has drawn strong support from women, a fact the code’s administrators proudly trumpet. Yet with women becoming steadily more prominent and influential within the game, here was a saga that revealed – albeit in very contemporary forms – some ugly and clichéd realities about sex, sport and football’s treatment of women.

Before trying to tease out the implications of this protracted tale, it’s worth asking how far events would have gone without the involvement of the mainstream media.

The pregnancy story broke on 26 May 2010. By that evening, police had declared there would be no charges. Perhaps the story – or its snowballing momentum – could have stopped there. Perhaps the journalists assigned might have waited, taken that day to conduct investigations, attempt verification and weigh up the story’s import.

But today’s media environment often resembles a factual Ponzi scheme: claims become reports and the reports themselves become news, with media stories becoming both subject and source for the next round. The latest iteration becomes the story, the ‘breaking’ news so central to validity and competitive edge in an internet age, demanding a response. When such stories collapse, they take both the unscrupulous and the cautious with them.

In this environment, the difference between serious and sensationalist media might be the number of hedging words (‘reported’, ‘claimed’, ‘alleged’), with neutrality residing in the choice of expert opinion (ex-footballer or Centre Against Sexual Assault worker?). ‘Serious’ coverage can attribute claims to, for example, the (tabloid) Herald Sun and (sports-dedicated radio) SEN, while still covering those claims.

For a story to gain traction, it needs to feed an existing appetite. In Melbourne, there is probably none more voracious than the hunger for football. Ally that with sex and you’re not only catering to a generalised taste for the salacious but also to those who disapprove of sport generally, AFL in particular, or St Kilda Football Club specifically.

The original story dissipated soon enough, but not before creating a memorably named protagonist – ‘The St Kilda Schoolgirl’ – and ensuring her longevity by writing her into two familiar narratives: the epic tale of footballers behaving badly and the sorry story of the St Kilda Football Club, whose history is marked by a resounding lack of success and an unshakable run of bad-luck-cum-mismanagement. The team had narrowly failed to win their second premiership the two previous seasons and a rape charge was hanging over (later sacked) recruit Andrew Lovett.

The young woman’s accounts of what followed show a recognisable teenage world imploding: she ‘screamed and collapsed’4 at school when told the authorities had been informed; the young man who had made her feel so ‘cool’5 and ‘special’6 wouldn’t speak to her; she was insulted on the street; she lost shifts at her after-school job.7 Whatever options she may have had to deal with, or seek redress for, her treatment narrowed drastically. Gaining this new and public identity – whether archetypal victim or mythic folk devil – proved a point of no return.

‘The St Kilda Schoolgirl’ tag resonated deeply. It brought together a suburb traditionally associated with the sex industry and a sexualised nightlife with a well-established figure of male fantasy (think St Trinian’s, Sailor Moon, An Education, or a box-pleat-sporting Chrissie Amphlett or Britney Spears). And it stuck.

But without such an epithet, what to call this young woman? Some used pseudonyms;8 Nixon referred to her with a Clintonian ‘that woman’; the AFL’s Andrew Demetriou settled on ‘young woman’ (usually in the set phrase ‘the welfare of the young woman’); others tried ‘the teenager’9 or ‘the schoolgirl’. Derryn Hinch insisted she was a girl, a minor; Gideon Haigh10 protested that ‘girl’ was condescending.

Within those terms, spoken by adults, are nuanced declarations of culpability, immaturity, vulnerability, responsibility or sexual availability. Sixteen-turning-seventeen falls confusingly between (late) childhood and (young) adulthood, between reproductive and neurological maturity. Many girls now get their periods while at primary school, while ‘adult’ brain development continues beyond teenage years. Victorian laws address this complexity with an age of consent of sixteen, augmented by limited provisions to protect sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds from sexual exploitation and to accept consensual sex between those younger.11

While well-intentioned policies might lead a high school principal to report a student’s claim (with the guaranteed-to-exacerbate explanation that it was for her own good),12 well-intentioned practices required the media to ‘protect’ her identity.

So, even as she made no attempt to hide her name and face online, the young woman gained various loaded identifiers attached to images downloaded from her websites: a bikini-shot on all fours; a snap of her wearing a clinging, cropped St Kilda guernsey. Adult protections rendered the young woman faceless and nameless, while reducing her to an anonymous, sexualised body. Even the broadsheet Age managed to take a ‘Diana’ shot, a backlit silhouette that made a summery dress as revealing as a negligee.

This young woman had a narrow and oppressive identity foisted on her by the wider – adult – world at an age when a ‘search for identity’ is a standard but challenging negotiation. Her presumed agreement to reveal her name and face on 60 Minutes might be considered a reclamation. Certainly her Facebook Christmas message flung an unwanted identity back in the face of those who publicly ‘named’ and shamed her.

Facebook: the medium could be the message.

The young woman used Facebook, Blogger, Twitter, Formspring and her ever-present mobile phone to disseminate her message and liaise with journalists. There was something almost mesmerising about it: a teenager armed with little more than righteous anger, a mobile phone and internet access running grown men ragged, rendering them as impotent, bullying windbags. It was unsophisticated guerilla warfare waged against the lumbering machinery of conventional (heavily male) social structures: the law, the police, the old-world media, the sport-cum-business elite.13

The rapid and unpredictable diffusion of her missives gave a breathless instability to the story. A message written on the spur of the moment, sent – and forwarded – in a blink.14 The most intimate and most public of declarations blurring together, the socially valuable nuances of register lost. The venting immediacy of Twitter and the self-conscious posturing of Blogger competing for authenticity.

Online forums and newspaper comment boards served as a postmodern peanut gallery. There, knee-jerk reactions, half-cocked opinions, rumour mongering and point scoring (much of it rife with schadenfreude or a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God defensiveness) jostled for space with considered reflections. Such reliance on social media left the young woman exposed to vitriol and threats. The chimera of a groundswell, a community, emerged without any assured flesh-and-blood corollary; after urging her supporters to attend an open St Kilda training session, the young woman found herself conspicuously isolated amidst the compliant media. Conventional ideas of public and private become meaningless in this environment.15

Significantly, these technologies ally the creation, exchange, sharing and archiving of visual images with textual communication in ways we haven’t seen before. Photographs no longer function as the records, aides-mémoire, totems or mementos they once were: mindfully taken, lovingly curated, decisively captioned. On iPhones, laptops and Facebook, photographs become a communicative process, an inchoate collaboration.

Anecdotes, confessions, secrets, opinions and boasts now find visual form. Accidents, snapshots, self-portraits; reactive mugging for the camera or pranksterish commentary: these productive acts express and consolidate relationships; the resulting images proliferate. A ‘snap first, think later’ mentality pervades. Sharing embarrassing, foolish or unguarded moments in this way only reinforces – or enforces – the dynamics and mutuality of attendant relationships.

The ‘I was there’ once central to a photograph’s interpretation is now irredeemably compromised, although, as initial assumptions about the young woman’s postings suggest, it’s hard to relinquish. What she offered were photographs not as evidence but as scalps.

While recognising that distinctly personal photographs are routinely taken, stored and circulated, the question remains: what did those incendiary photographs actually show?16

The (predictable) response touted by the anonymous experts of the internet was that St Kilda are a bunch of poofters, a comment that at times seemed to rest as much on Riewoldt’s shaved body as on implied sexual interaction.

That crude formulation touches on an issue that intrigues historians and analysts of sport: the convergence of masculinity, manliness and homoeroticism. Sport is ‘a very integral part of hegemonic masculinity’, yet the realities of a professional male athlete’s life traduce many elements of conventional maleness.17

Supremely body-conscious, the male athlete spends much of his time in an effectively male-only environment, sometimes naked and, if not, often revealingly dressed (whether training in ‘skins’ or, as an AFL player, competing in shorts and close-fitting guernsey). He is physically intimate with other men, his body routinely handled by trainers, masseurs and physios; mishandled by teammates during play and at training; manhandled by opposing players.

Though he may not be handsome, the toned, well-muscled, neatly proportioned physique typical of an Australian Rules player is strikingly beautiful.18 Both metaphorically and physically, the club strip (football’s curiously revealing term for its uniform) is a flimsy barrier between the unique eroticism of each body and the forbidding anonymity of the team.

A player risks public exposure not only of body but of emotion and physical vulnerability (those stereotypically feminine attributes) as soon as he steps onto an oval. Alongside strength and courage, he gives public physical expression to strong emotions shared with other men: whether on-field hugs of celebration or ‘the hair-tussle of consolation’.19

Off-field, as if in anxious compensation or disavowal, we get exaggerated public declarations of heterosexuality and crude sexism, performances of manliness epitomised by Sam Newman of The Footy Show (an extreme example only highlighted by the colleagues who make a display of ‘tolerating’ his excess) or the deliberately clumsy cross-dressing of the traditional player revues (referenced each year in The Footy Show’s end-of-season spectacular). That program’s cheap – and exceedingly nasty – shots at some of the AFL’s more powerful women demonstrate how threatening and disempowering it can be for a generation of players-turned-commentators and their male hangers-on to find their status and expertise challenged.20 (Though women may make an easy target, the corporatisation of modern professional football has actually done more to weaken the players’ centrality to the game.) Meanwhile, the continued closetedness of gay footballers keeps attention from the logical fault lines underpinning this anxiety around sex, sport, heterosexuality and maleness.

Against such a backdrop, an image of a naked player, a shirtless teammate and a condom is a confident and clearly coded display of both maleness and virility. And (pun intended) of a particular pecking order.

So if such footballers aren’t necessarily homosexual, where do women fit in?

Liz Conor, writing seven years ago about sex scandals across Australia’s major football codes, identified the sexual exchange of women, or of images of women, as ‘league sexuality’, stressing its place in various homosocial organisations, such as the army and boys’ schools, and the business elite. Of the group-based sexual activity common to the footballing scandals, she bluntly declared: ‘Men are fucking in each other’s company, which is a short leap from, together.’21

Others have more simply linked these shared sexual experiences with group bonding, condemning ‘the juvenile behaviour by which a team becomes a gang’.22 Despite commentary that stresses either the assumed invincibility of elite players or the groupie-like attraction of women to them, similar behaviour can happen at many levels of the sport.23 While feminist commentators vary significantly in their interpretations, one thing is common to their analyses: the objectification and depersonalisation of the women within these exchanges.24

Of all the distressing experiences that the young woman has recounted, her account of such ‘league sexuality’ should be the most confronting for the game’s female fans. She asked what many outsiders have wondered: ‘What’s with the whole group sex thing anyway … ?’25

The Herald Sun published an edited transcript of the ensuing text exchange, presumably with Sam Gilbert:

[him] it’s just more fun

[her] How … lol …

[him] it just is ok cos were like in a team and its more fun to do things with the boys together

[her] by doing things together, you’re implying girls … ew

[him] we do everything as a team so does every other club its just more fun cos we can talk about it later and remember who was hottest and better at sex and then talk about it at training and stuff …

… at which point he proposes she and a female friend could participate in group sex, an idea that she dismisses, prompting the entreaty ‘just think about it for me and the boys and be a team player ha ha’. All of which illustrates neatly how ‘the sexual degradation of women is a positive activity of team formation’.26 Here, the provision or procuring of the women involved becomes an act of largesse, or team-oriented self-sacrifice, which overrides the exclusive access to a chosen woman that is the more common form of male heterosexual self-assertion.

Questions of coercion and legality inevitably lurk around such activities, particularly where younger women are involved. Whether the women be needy or naïve, mature or manipulative, is immaterial. Criminal or not, such behaviour reveals, replicates and entrenches disdainful and socially unacceptable attitudes to the women involved.

Where does all this leave football’s women?

The young woman in this case – perhaps sincerely, certainly self-servingly – claimed to be standing up for other young women, but few feminists would want to align themselves with, or endorse, her tactics. Nonetheless, she neatly exposed those male truisms that dog efforts to establish greater compassion and justice for sexual assault victims.

‘Why else would he come up to my apartment, you don’t just come up for a cup of Milo, do you?’ she told curious journalists of Ricky Nixon’s admitted visits to her hotel, before tweeting her thanks to ex-player Spida Everitt, who’d offered, following post-Collingwood-premiership sexual assault allegations, ‘Girls!! When will you learn! At 3 am when you are blind drunk & you decide to go home with a guy ITS [sic] NOT FOR A CUP OF MILO!’

More-resonant and strategic reversals can be found in the recent work of photographer and avowed football fan Ponch Hawkes, with the carefully staged images of sex, sport, physicality and violence in her series ‘He Should Never Have Worn Those Shorts’. Her central image, of a naked young man perched on the edge of a bed while partying netballers interact by the door behind, uses a well-established visual language of ravishing and shame, abandon and abandonment, to uneasily evoke the clichéd discourse of sex and sport.

It is women who know, love and embrace the game who will make a difference. And that can be anyone from Western Bulldogs director Susan Alberti and former Essendon director Beverly Knight skewering the AFL’s boys’ club to a combative Caroline Wilson giving as good as she gets on Footy Classified. It could be anyone from Samantha Lane sharing her inside knowledge on Before the Game or Leila Gurruwiwi, informed and enthusiastic, on the Marngrook Footy Show to Rebecca Twigley, glammed up for Brownlow Night, equally articulate and knowledgeable whether talking about frocks or footy, or the dedicated women increasingly taking leadership roles at country football/netball clubs. Women continue to enter previously male-only footballing domains and are now openly challenging the boys’ club and self-protective prevarications they find there.

Male-dominated institutions are also being made more accountable. Seven years ago, Phil Cleary, former player and coach, and respected commentator, condemned the misogynist stereotypes (including those voiced by legal professionals) that beset cases of sexual assaults or violence against women. He bemoaned the particular failure to prosecute cases involving high-profile footballers, but found a positive development in the courage of a young woman who reported an alleged rape involving two St Kilda players, for her claims rested on her right to choose a sexual partner, to have sex ‘on her own terms’.27 That incident has echoes in the case of Lovett, who will stand trial later this year. The alleged assault occurred three weeks after he joined St Kilda; it followed his first night socialising with new teammates, whose testimony was critical towards committal proceedings. His case may yet establish a precedent for successful legal action in serious offences involving an AFL player.

That this game followed passionately by both men and women is played at its elite and most popular level by men should be a challenge, not an impediment, to a more inclusive culture. Perhaps a spurned teenager with an internet account will prove to be one catalyst.

  1. The name she used for her blog.
  2. Peggy Haines, cited in Samantha Lane, ‘AFL accused of shooting messenger’, Age, 7 March 2011.
  3. Perhaps naively, but not alone, I had never doubted the fundamental premise of a pregnancy.
  4. Cited in Emma Martin, ‘My side of the story’, Who Weekly, 17 January 2011, p. 34.
  5. Cited in Martin, p. 36.
  6. Peter Munro, ‘Saints’ teen: track star who took a wrong turn’, Age, 26 December 2010, p. 4.
  7. Ruth Lampard and Anthony Dowsley, ‘Tortured teen in a bloke’s world’, Herald Sun, 22 December 2010, p. 3.
  8. Lampard and Dowsley, p. 3; Martin, pp. 34–6.
  9. Munro, pp. 1, 4.
  10. Gideon Haigh, speaking on ABC’s Offsiders, 27 February 2011.
  11. As an aside, the conflicting messages, and possible manipulations, around a young woman of this age can inflect other legal decisions. One journalist, to whom the young woman acknowledged arrests for shoplifting, drug use, assaults and trespass, noted, ‘She escaped each charge without conviction, she says, and felt invincible.’ Munro, p. 1.
  12. Cited in Martin, p. 34.
  13. In one novel response, a Federal Court summons was issued via social media.
  14. And received in a blink, it could be added. Two months later, my teenage daughter unsuspectingly opened a message from a friend to find herself looking at a photo of Nick Riewoldt she’d declared she never wanted to see.
  15. Such erosion of private space – and personal time – is exacerbated for professional footballers, whose actions are monitored and who are in a sense always ‘at work’. As representatives of their team, their league and their code – The Brand – their sporting achievements, attributes and effort are judged insufficient unless they are also good role models.
  16. With some reservations, discussion of these is based on the many very detailed descriptions and ‘disguised’ versions available, not on the photos themselves, though it took a degree of care and vigilance, as someone following this story, to not view them.
  17. Mark Connellan, ‘From manliness to masculinities’, Sporting Traditions, vol. 17, no. 2, 2001, p. 60.
  18. Margaret Lindley explores this idea at (humorous but nuanced) length, see ‘Taking a joke too far and footballer’s shorts’ in Dennis Hemphill and Caroline Symons (eds), Gender, Sexuality and Sport: A Dangerous Mix, Walla Walla Press, Petersham, 2002.
  19. Lindley, p. 64
  20. Attacks on the Age’s lead football writer Caroline Wilson and Western Bulldogs director Susan Alberti aroused significant debate and, in Alberti’s case, legal recourse.
  21. Liz Conor, ‘In a league of their own’, Overland, no. 176, 2004, p. 76.
  22. Sally Kift, ‘Sport and the law: sex and the team player: when a team becomes a gang’, Alternative Law Journal, vol. 30, no. 3, 2005, p. 137
  23. Age opinion pieces on the current scandal by Beth Gaze drew on remembered events at a country football club, while a more recent legal case involved charges (not pursued beyond a committal hearing) relating to an alleged gang rape on an unofficial trip by a suburban junior team.
  24. This is seen in extreme in the ‘Chickengate’ affair at the North Melbourne Kangaroos. There, a jokey in-group ritual, in which a rubber chicken was passed to a player who had let the team down, took an explicitly sexual turn: a video in which revenge of various kinds was exacted on the chicken, including through a simulated rape.
  25. Lampard and Dowsley, p. 4.
  26. Nina Philadelphoff-Puren, ‘Dereliction: women, rape and football’,Australian Feminist Law Journal, vol. 21, 2004, p. 41.
  27. Phil Cleary, ‘Football, culture and violence against women: or how the law lets women down’, Overland, 176, 2004, pp. 71, 75.

Stephanie Holt

Stephanie Holt is a former Meanjin editor who currently teaches in Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT, where she is also a program coordinator. She is a member of the NTEU and a St Kilda supporter.

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