In the AFL and NRL, Booze No Excuse for Sexual Assault

The rugby and footy season have begun. I know, because allegations of sexual violence are in the news.

The charge of sexual assault against Manly Sea Eagles’ poster boy Brett Stewart is now a matter for the courts. A jury of Stewart’s peers will decide the 24 year-old’s fate next month.

But the way the NRL and other codes manage the sickeningly regular cycle of incident and accusation that punctuate each season remains a legitimate topic of debate.

In think both past and present club management have a case to answer. Why are consequences for players still being meted out on a case-by-case basis? Where is the policy for handling such incidents-endorsed by league, club and association alike-that ensures openness, accountability and consistency of response? Why must key figures persist in making statements that betray the most appalling lack of insight into the causes of sexual violence, and its impact on victims?

Take former NSW Origin coach Phil Gould, who used breaking news about Stewart to re-issue his call for alcohol to be banned during the season. “These blokes need to be saved from themselves,” said Gould. “Careers and reputations are being left in tatters over a moment’s weakness or ill-discipline.” A few days later, NRL chief executive David Gallop blamed alcohol again when standing Stewart down.

Weakness and ill discipline do not cause sexual assault. Retrograde attitudes about women and the acceptability of violence do. While the strain on the careers and reputations of the accused are a concern, surely anyone counting the costs of sexual violence should mention women, too. Alcohol loosens inhibitions, but unless you are the kind of bloke who is barely containing an urge to punch a woman, or force her to have sex, too much drink won’t make you a danger to anyone.

The real source of sexual violence in male sporting codes is the attitudes many elites athletes have about women and sex, and their sense of entitlement to both. These attitudes are shared and perpetuated by the men who advise, coach, treat and manage players.

Male sporting culture is much as it ever was. Young, alpha-males with an over-inflated sense of their own importance and capacities being swarmed at every opportunity by fawning women keen to add a notch to their belt by bedding a star.

What has changed is the attitudes women, and some sections of society, have about the legitimacy and limits of such engagements. Once such women might have been labeled groupies or whores looking to bolster a flagging sense of self-esteem or bag a husband through calculated dispersal of sexual favours.

Now women who put themselves in the way of footy or rugby players have-or feel they ought to have-the same sense of entitlement to sexual gratification as men. They are not floozies or victims, but modern girls pursuing sexual satisfaction on mutually agreed terms.

This conceptualization, one seemingly lost on the far-from-modern boys who permeate every layer of the macho-male leagues, explains why women are quick to cry foul when what they understand as the new sexual contract between the genders is violated.

A fish rots from the head down. Those who mentor and manage elite male athletes are role models to the next generation of players. These men need to take a good, hard look at themselves. Sexual politics are complicated and this is a new world. It’s about attitude, not booze. It’s time everyone got the support and training they need to clean up their act.

Publication history

In the AFL and NRL, Booze No Excuse for Sexual Assault  Sunday Sun-Herald (Sydney)