Night Games – Mid-Week Review

By Sam Ryan | 30 Oct 13

This article is a part of our October focus on Institutions – you can access more content from this issue here

By Sam Ryan

“The problem is not the game per se, but the macho culture of humiliation that tends to control it”.

Night Games coverAnna Krien’s Night Games cites countless examples of boys behaving badly within the cultural context of sporting institutions across codes and countries. From dumb pranks to criminal assault (mostly the latter, sadly), the list of offences is as damning as the lack of lasting public concern.

Sport is a national obsession and great distracter. Meanwhile, behind the changeroom doors it has offered the perfect environment for a particularly unhealthy form of masculinity to fester, with ‘rooting competitions’, pranks like slipping Rohypnol into the drink of a teammate’s girlfriend, and ‘gangbangs’ as team bonding (which even respected commentators attempt to justify).

Yet, as Krien quotes American sports writer Robert Lipstye, “jock culture is a distortion of sports.” She even discusses her own appreciation of sport, as participant and spectator, specifically AFL.

Night Games is an oft-troubling but essential expose of this culture, which seems unsettled in a modern world that has forced much unwanted change on the bastions of football tradition in recent decades.

“[t]reating women like shit shades into a culture of abuse, which in turn can shade into rape.”

The central thread of the book is the trial of an amateur football player who, after celebrating the 2010 Collingwood premiership with mates and few of the winning players, is shocked to find himself charged with rape.

Taking nothing at face value, Krien delves into the murky waters of rape culture, common rape myths and ‘grey areas’, which she describes as the “glacial space between a man’s action and a woman’s reaction”. ‘Yes’ – either implied or even previously and explicitly stated – does not mean anything goes (particularly when other parties become involved), yet factors like the power dynamic of a situation can disarm any person’s ‘fight or flight’ mechanism.

“… how does an ordinary person, a young female not yet a proud and passionate woman, articulate that … they got fucked, treated like shit and yet for some reason they lay back and ‘took it’?”

And yet, Krien finds that the problem runs deeper than the actions of powerful and popular young men who “like top-quality trade cattle, they are the club’s latest investments” and “expected to live, eat and train with their team, as if part of a single organism.”

“[The] boys have been used as well – used to win, to bolster kingpins and egos, and discarded when no longer of use. You could even say that in being denied the equal and genuine company of women, they’ve been abandoned.”

Krien details how the increasing role of women in these traditional ‘boys clubs’ – particularly reporters and board members – has met fierce resistance over the years from the likes of Alan Jones (whose antics led journalist Jacquelin Magnay to the Human Rights Commission), John Elliott and Sam Newman. They mocked and abused the increasing presence of women in AFL and NRL, many of whom brought not only significant expertise – despite not having played the game, just like most of their counterparts – but also helped begin to shift the power dynamic in environments where “’mateship [is] built on sexism and homophobia, competitive banter, and an emphasis on stereotypically masculine exploits.”

Although there is not an inherent link between such attitudes and sexual abuse, the book highlights the dangers of an environment where women have “been used to reinforce a certain code of masculinity and hierarchy”. Put simply:

“[t]reating women like shit shades into a culture of abuse, which in turn can shade into rape.”

The trial presents personalities and circumstances that do not fit stereotypical – but quite possibly do fit common – rape scenarios. It is difficult to determine which version of events is more accurate; perhaps both are genuinely telling their own truth. In a display of the self-awareness that makes Krien’s writing so compelling, she agonises that “by trying to seek out a shade of grey I’m protecting one of them … I wish I’d picked an easier rape trial … with an obvious villain.”

Yet it is for this very reason it was a suitable case study to explore the broader issues. It highlights many of the reasons convictions, guilty pleas and reports are so low: the “permanent stain” an allegation leaves even if dismissed; the confusion or pressure a woman might feel if her experience doesn’t meet the typical perception of rape; the obvious lack of understanding around nuances of consent; the history of football clubs protecting their own and leaving outsiders in the cold; and well-intentioned but difficult to impose state laws that require the prosecution to prove “the accused was aware that the victim was not or might not be consenting, or was indifferent to whether there was consent” (Victoria’s laws are again facing overhaul).

While these issues seem to have compounded victim silence, other examples given demonstrate that sidestepping the legal system to find justice publicly can also bring further grief after initial empowerment.

Krien’s narrative throughout is as objective, raw and honest. She openly questions everything, including herself, working rationally through challenging notions, which eases the reader toward some of the more difficult truths and gives weight to her conclusions. Her contribution to this important discussion is unyieldingly fair and aware of social complexities:

“If young men are going to be educated about rape and consent, as the AFL and NRL are trying to do, then they need to be taught about respect and decent behaviour as well – before, during and after sex – and not have their adolescent attempts to struggle through the nuances of relationships subjected to jibes from those who think everything about sex is obvious.”

At a time when there is so much discussion on how (or whether) women can protect themselves from assault, Night Games tackles the far more difficult and often evasive issue of why some men have such poor understanding of consensual sexual relations, and how that might be addressed.

Night Games should be widely read, particularly by young men and those in male-dominated environments, whether sports club or all-boys high school. Focusing on this side of the discussion could actually create a culture shift that greatly reduced all forms of sexual abuse.