Pro­fes­sional sport sep­a­rates ath­letes from the rest of so­ci­ety

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - COMMENT / SOCCER - TOMMY CON­LON

“A lit­tle ap­palled, my friend looked me in the eye. ‘Those men had all the power,’ she said. ‘She was in a strange house, in a bed­room with most of her clothes off, and a bunch of guys she does not know came in ex­pect­ing to **** her. I mean, did they even pre­pare them­selves for the pos­si­bil­ity of her say­ing no?’”

The team is fam­ily; the team is blood

ANNA KRIEN is an Aus­tralian jour­nal­ist and au­thor. In the pas­sage quoted above she is dis­cussing with her friend a 2010 rape case in­volv­ing an Aus­tralian Rules foot­baller. The case forms the back­bone of her book Night Games: Sex, Power and a Jour­ney into

the Dark Heart of Sport. It won the UK’s pres­ti­gious Wil­liam Hill sports book of the year award for 2014.

The court case that ended in Belfast last week be­comes another file in the bulging port­fo­lio of le­gal episodes in­volv­ing women and sports­men that ranges from Amer­ica to Aus­tralia to Bri­tain and pre­sum­ably many other coun­tries too. The de­tails dif­fer, the sports dif­fer, but many of the themes are sim­i­lar: the pack men­tal­ity of the ath­letes, the prodi­gious amounts of al­co­hol, the starstruck young women drawn into the grav­i­ta­tional or­bit of celebrity sports­men.

These en­coun­ters are as old as fame it­self, go­ing back at least to the early years of the 20th cen­tury when a base­ball ti­tan like Babe Ruth was al­most as well known as the silent movie star Ru­dolph Valentino. There are old arthritic leg­ends of ev­ery sport who’d have their share of sto­ries to tell, if they were so in­clined. Vir­tu­ally the en­tire his­tory of this noc­tur­nal sub-cul­ture will re­main con­signed to obliv­ion. The night porters saw what they saw, and all they saw was two ships pass­ing in the night. The gos­sip that reached the ears of old-school re­porters rarely went any fur­ther.

Maybe it was a more gen­teel kind of dou­ble stan­dard then. The fame and the money are in a dif­fer­ent strato­sphere now. It doesn’t pay to be dis­creet now; it cer­tainly doesn’t pay as well as a tabloid kiss ’n’ tell. And the age of def­er­ence is over too. Roy­als, politi­cians, en­ter­tain­ers, celebs of ev­ery stripe and hue will be stretched on the pub­lic rack in the global town square.

The golden rule for those about to suc­cumb to their fol­lies is to not get caught. We would doubt that even a frac­tion of them are ever caught, de­spite the sav­age voyeurism of the 24/7 me­dia ma­chine. Har­vey We­in­stein got caught, in the end. But the whistle­blow­ers who have been in­side the belly of the Hol­ly­wood beast in­sist that We­in­stein is only the tip of the ice­berg, one strand in a vast labyrinth of in­iq­uity.

The mar­i­tal in­fi­deli­ties of some va­cant Premier League foot­baller don’t amount to a hill of beans by com­par­i­son. The sport­ing uni­verse gen­er­ally pro­duces a more triv­ial kind of per­sonal in­dis­cre­tion.

But as Krien’s book demon­strates, this pre­vi­ously sunny realm has taken a darker turn in re­cent decades. Al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual crimes are be­com­ing more com­mon­place. As long es­tab­lished in pol­i­tics and en­ter­tain­ment and busi­ness, money and fame are lead­ing to all sorts of malev­o­lent power games here too.

The prob­lem is per­haps an un­fore­seen con­se­quence of pro­fes­sion­alised sport. To join a pro­fes­sional team cul­ture is to with­draw from the rest of so­ci­ety. It is an ab­nor­mal work­place. “Al­though on the verge of adult­hood,” writes Krien, “these (sports­men) are about to en­ter a state of pro­longed ado­les­cence. For most of their peers, the world is set to ex­pand, but for these se­lect few their al­ready in­su­lar ex­is­tence has just con­tracted. They will be ex­pected to live, eat and train with their team, as if part of a sin­gle organism.”

Krien quotes a for­mer rugby league pro who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity af­ter a scan­dal in­volv­ing a 19-year-old girl and at least ten play­ers. The Na­tional Rugby League in Aus­tralia is­sued an edict ban­ning what it called this “de­grad­ing” be­hav­iour to­wards women.

The anony­mous player, de­spite the pub­lic out­rage, saw this ini­tia­tive as an in­fringe­ment of one of his ba­sic priv­i­leges. “We al­ready have so many rules; we can’t drink on these days; we can’t go to those places; now we can’t have group sex. About the only thing we can do these days is go to club func­tions and just hang around other play­ers. That’s just iso­lat­ing us more from the rest of world, and it could lead to even more vi­o­lent acts.”

The team is fam­ily; the team is blood; the team is ev­ery­thing. Ran­dom women who end up flirt­ing and drink­ing with them on a night out may find that they have un­wit­tingly joined a sort of se­cret so­ci­ety, a sa­cred in­ner cir­cle, with a very tem­po­rary visa. She will in these cir­cum­stances, says the for­mer Aussie Rules coach Roy Masters, be­come “a ve­hi­cle for bond­ing”. It isn’t about the woman, it is about “the in­ti­macy within the tribe, be­ing ‘one of the boys’, which is the bond­ing mech­a­nism”.

Time and again the prob­lems with this cul­ture are dis­cussed by Krien with im­pres­sive sub­tlety and rigour. She also al­lows the ques­tion of fe­male re­spon­si­bil­ity into the con­ver­sa­tion. She quotes the high-pro­file con­ser­va­tive com­men­ta­tor Mi­randa Devine.

“It is un­fair to ex­pect men to bear full re­spon­si­bil­ity for sex­ual mores as the bound­aries of ac­cept­able be­hav­iour are blurred,” writes Devine. “Young women are told they can act and dress any way they please, and it is men, alone, with their sup­pos­edly filthy, un­con­trol­lable de­sires, who must re­strain them­selves. There is no un­der­stand­ing that fe­male sex­ual at­ti­tudes have al­ways been the most suc­cess­ful reg­u­la­tor of male sex­u­al­ity.”

Af­ter a pro­tracted le­gal in­ves­ti­ga­tion and court case, the player ac­cused of the 2010 rape charges was ac­quit­ted. The broader is­sues raised by this and many other cases, writes Krien, re­main on­go­ing and un­re­solved. “Court, it seems, is not where progress is made,” is her melan­choly con­clu­sion. “It’s just where things end up.”

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