“Boys will be boys” – male bonding, misogny & the Australian swim team

By Sienna Merope | 26 Mar 13

By Sienna Merope. This piece is part of our March 2013 focus on Sport and Human Rights. 

A few weeks ago, the damning Bluestone Review of “culture and leadership in Australian Olympic swimming” was released. The report blamed a “toxic” culture for the Australian swim team’s generally underwhelming performance at the 2012 London Olympics, citing a lack of leadership or team spirit, misuse of prescription drugs, bullying and other “hazing”, drunkenness and breach of curfew, amongst other issues.

A couple of days later, news started to break that the Australian men’s freestyle relay team had indulged in a little Stillnox bonding session during a pre-Olympics camp in Manchester. Stillnox is a prescription drug that had been banned two months earlier, so this was a flagrant breach of the Australian Olympic Committee’s rules. More problematic though, from my point of view at least, was what occurred during their “bonding session”.

ignoring incidents of intimidation because they don’t involve a violent sexual assault seems a pretty low bar to set

On the morning of 22 February, Olympic swim team member Jade Neilsen spoke out to the media about the relay team’s behaviour towards her and another female teammate that night, terming it “completely inappropriate … so inappropriate it was not funny”. She refused to reveal the precise details of what had happened. However, from what has leaked to the media, it seems that some time after midnight, a group of male swimmers started making menacing prank phone calls to female swimmers’ rooms, and knocking on their doors.

When Neilsen answered the door, two of the relay members, James Magnussen and Cameron McEvoy, barged in topless, at one point trying to lie on her bed. She and her roommate eventually managed to get rid of them. Later in the night McEvoy returned with another team member, James Roberts, who was wearing only underwear, and banged repeatedly on the door. Unsurprisingly, Neilsen and her roommate didn’t answer. The two women reported the incident, telling their coach that they had been frightened by their teammates, who were acting strangely and “stumbling around”. Another member of the swim team, Emily Seebohm, also complained to the Australian team’s head coach Leigh Nugent, but no further action was taken. Although the relay team admitted taking Stillnox shortly after Neilsen came forward, the exact details, including the comments made to the women, remain unknown.

For teams whose sole purpose is winning, putting down others also has a competitive dimension – they, the outsiders, are the losers, the team, the winner

It would be easy to write this off as just a stupid prank. After all, on the scale of incidents involving sport, sexism and sexually inappropriate behaviour, it hardly rates a mention.

That is telling in itself, and ignoring incidents of intimidation because they don’t involve a violent sexual assault seems a pretty low bar to set. Further, what is disturbing about this story is the familiar dynamics of misogyny in sport that it evokes.

Team bonding is a central feature of many sports. Absolute loyalty to the group is seen as critical to competitive success, particularly in team sports such as AFL or rugby. Even in a solitary sport like swimming, lack of team unity can have a significant effect on performance, as the Bluestone Report makes clear. As a concept, bonding is innocuous, positive even. The reality however, is that in many instances team bonding – or male team bonding at least – seems to rely on a macho culture of humiliation and degradation of others.

A code of silence is really just silent complicity in sexism

Teams are defined as much by who is excluded as who is allowed in. By humiliating would-be intruders, the boundaries of who is “inside” are firmly drawn and one’s own position within the team reinforced. For teams whose sole purpose is winning, putting down others also has a competitive dimension – they, the outsiders, are the losers, the team, the winner. As Anna Krien argued in her compelling article on Sex and the AFL a couple of years ago, this othering is a type of schadenfreude: “they go down and you rise up”. The Bluestone investigation hints at this dynamic, noting that in the absence of a unified team spirit there was an “undertone of divisions: now and then, us and them, men and women, the best and the rest” and “incidents of unkindness, peer intimidation, hazing and just ‘bad form’”.

Another common theme of male bonding in sports is an assertion of shared hyper masculinity: competitive, dominant and, often, aggressive. All too frequently, this is expressed through the sexual objectification and degradation of women. Treating women as objects – whether verbally or physically – seems to be a way to forge closeness, acting as a validation not only of a shared team identity, but as proof of being “real men” – the type of men who win. The most disturbing incarnation of this form of bonding was highlighted by the NRL sex scandals, which shone a light on the culture of league players passing around one woman in group sex sessions that ranged from the questionably consensual to unmistakeable gang rape. Members of the rugby league have admitted that group sex had a bonding role, playing a part in the “players becoming a closer-knit unit”.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the gravity of the Australian swim team incident is comparable to what occurred in the NRL. Based on what’s known publicly, it is not even in the same universe. It is the undertones in the dynamic that are familiar. Whatever the exact details of the incident, what seems clear is that the men’s relay team, who have demi-God status in the hierarchy of Australian swimming, decided to top off a day’s bonding by harassing their female teammates, calling them and asking questions along the lines of “what are you wearing right now?”, before turning up at their hotel rooms in the middle of the night, in a group, half clothed, and banging on the door to be let in. Seen in one light, the incident falls squarely into the definition of sexual harassment. On any view, it was objectifying and highly disrespectful of the women involved, demeaning them and their position as equal members of the team.

The reaction to the incident has also been depressingly familiar. Coach Leigh Nugent admits that on receiving the complaints, he brushed off the incident as childish behaviour. Shortly after Jade Neilsen spoke publicly, another female swimmer, Cate Campbell, was put on the spot by The Today Show about the allegations. Clearly uncomfortable about answering, she eventually offered the line “boys will be boys”. In the media, the Stillnox admission was met with a flurry of headlines about “explosive revelations”, yet there was a notable absence of consideration of the gendered implications of what had occurred. The story was the drug-fuelled “rampage”; that the women involved felt objectified and intimidated, at best a side note.

There also appears to be a disturbing cone of silence around the incident. Although Neilsen was willing to speak out about what had happened in general terms, she refused to be specific about the allegations. Her roommate on the night in question has had her name withheld in the media, presumably because of an unwillingness to publicly come forward. Despite inconsistencies in accounts, with the relay team claiming they never entered anyone’s room and were in bed by 10:30pm, no one but Neilsen and Seebohm have spoken publicly about what happened. This is understandable. The incident reflects badly on the Australian swim team as a whole, as the recent announcement of an Australian Olympic Committee investigation into drug taking incidents shows. No one wants to bring the team down. However, experience in other sports shows that it is exactly this unwillingness to rock the boat or “make the team look bad” that allows systemic misogyny and sexual abuse to flourish. A code of silence is really just silent complicity in sexism.

With so many truly disturbing allegations of violence and sexual abuse towards women by sports stars, it almost seems unfair to focus on this one comparatively minor incident in Australian swimming. However what took place does deserve attention, and in part precisely because it occurred in swimming. After all, swimming is surely one of the more gender equal sports in Australia, with competitors for instance travelling to the Olympics as a single team and female athletes receiving almost the same media coverage and adulation as their male counterparts. The allegations also involve Olympians, who, rightly or wrongly, are held up not only as superstars but as national inspirations and role models. That familiar patterns of sexism and intimidation show themselves even in this context should make us pause and reflect on how deeply ingrained misogyny in sport really is.

Sienna Merope graduated from The University of Melbourne with a BA/LLB (Hons) in 2011 and is currently the Research Director to Chief Justice Bathurst on the NSW Supreme Court (all views are her own only). She has a strong interest in refugee rights, gender and sexuality. She has previously worked for refugee law academics, and volunteered with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency.