Lads, it’s time for greater respect

When I was a schoolboy, the mums served afternoon tea at Friday afternoon footy games. The dads would file in, the ladies would hand out party pies and curry puffs and the captains would thank them in their speeches. Later, at club level, there were porn nights, footy trips and half-hearted initiations.

Some coaches banned girlfriends from after-match functions – others would hit on your sister given a five-second window of opportunity. There were always wives, student physios and canteen mums. But it was a belching, clamorous and decidedly male bubble.

For anyone that’s played football, Anna Krien’s Night Games, which follows the rape trial of a young Victorian footballer, is concussing. Personally, there were regular flashes of recognition and an unremitting unease, one that occasionally morphed into shame.

It elicited a certain defensiveness too. It’s tempting to channel your inner Sam Newman and say Krien picked low-lying fruit – that she took the biggest game in town and ran with a sure-fire bestseller. It’s easy to say that this is a man’s game and that men need space – to bond and to let off steam. It’s easy to point out that coded conversations and male hierarchies are everywhere, whether it’s on construction sites or in corporate corridors of power. But there’s nothing easy about this book.

Unlike the film Blinder, which sought safer ground and made a right royal hash of it, Night Games treads the grey zone between rape and treating women like dirt. Though football is central to the narrative, it is jock culture that stands accused. Whether you’re a bunk-bedding basketballer in the Olympic village or a leg spinner with strand-by-strand plugs and a giant inflatable penis, the same themes apply. For sportspeople, they’re questions of entitlement, groupthink and a self-indulgent, Peter Pan existence.

I grew up with footy and for better and probably worse, it helped define me as a man. It both stunted and elevated me. It propped up my strut. It introduced me to my closest friends and to total scumbugs. I played football with and against hundreds of guys like Krien’s blank, unremarkable protagonist. In the dark recesses of my mind, I know I have put myself in similar positions to him, navigated similar grey zones.

Growing up, footballers weren’t exactly role models but their cultural clout was greater than today. It was a curious time for AFL footballers – an era when players embraced full-time professionalism while persisting with their herculean social lives. The stars were far more visible and subject to greater adulation than those of today. They were given carte blanche to pretty much do as they pleased. Many are now inclined to preach from the puritanical pulpit whenever a scandal breaks. Back then, their currency was the drink card. Men like John Elliot ran clubs and the two biggest on-field names were ”God” and ”The King”. The brightest off-field star was Ricky Nixon. All three would soon be revealed as all too human and all too male.

Potential draftees are now more carefully screened, better educated and on a tighter leash. The stars are essentially unknowable but come across as far more humble and grounded.

As fans, we are nonetheless tougher on them than ever before. Commentary has become tart and cynical. Supporters are less star-struck and more inclined to sledge and vent via social media. The fan base has also changed markedly. Whether it was born of commercial necessity or courtesy of their obsession with PR and sanitising the game, attracting more women has been one of the AFL’s great triumphs.

Increasingly, men and women attend matches, watch at bars and discuss the game at water coolers as equals. But footy always sleepwalks its way back to sexism. Witness the way the chief football writer of this newspaper is pilloried, the indignation when a woman dared enter the commentary box and the casual contempt for females on panel shows. The dearth of women in meaningful roles persists. The Footy Show, with its sneering, leering patriarch, splutters into its third decade. On Brownlow night, WAGS have been spun around a lazy susan and scrutinised like they’re at a yearling sale. Football, by virtue of its heft, swagger and blokey brio, is an easy target but a deserving one. The game has come a long way but it was miles behind to begin with.

As it currently grapples with everything from homophobia to tanking, Krien poses a more pressing question – how does an often brutal and very male game find a place for women, one that doesn’t stink of servitude and goes beyond mere bums on seats?

Night Games explores what young men and women struggle to articulate, what the legal system still cannot comprehend and what the AFL could never assuage with a snappy advert or commemorative round. For every superstar, club CEO, boundary rider, bar-propper and park footballer, it should be mandatory reading.

Jonathan Horn is a freelance writer.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on 苏州美甲学校.

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