Night Games

‘All the fortune and fame, it’s more than a game’ – so goes the brash opening credits of Channel 9’s popular sports panel, The Footy Show. Whatever one’s level of enthusiasm towards AFL or NRL, they undeniably wield enormous power. Both multi-billion dollar organisations, the codes reap huge sponsorship deals, including cosy ties with betting agencies and generous tax exemptions.

Away from the boardrooms, fans take their footy personally. The airwaves overflow with talkback callers when a star player takes a contract at another club. Long and involved debate rages over the legitimacy of an umpire awarding a free kick at the crucial moment. It seems everyone has an opinion on the Australian Crime Commission inquiry into clubs’ alleged misuse of performance-enhancing drugs. By contrast, the continued silence surrounding the leagues’ treatment of women is significant.

Anna Krien marches bravely onto this unequal playing field in Night Games. Expanding on her brilliant Monthly essay Out of Bounds, Night Games uses the 2010 rape allegations brought against Collingwood Football Club, and subsequent trial, to frame the discussion. Wading deeper into the tabloid frenzy of the St Kilda Football Club and Cronulla Sharks sex scandals, Krien wonders how women can compete equally in the masculine world of sport when they’ve been relegated to the sidelines for so long.

Men’s dominance in AFL and NRL is partly explained by the fact women are prevented from playing at an elite level. Night Games narrows in on their plight, from the token board member trying to make her voice heard, to the sports journalist locked out of a press conference in a male change room, to the hideously termed ‘WAG’ walking blindly into media ridicule on the red carpet. The issue is, of course, more complex than ‘men play, women watch’, and Krien, straight shooting as she is, avoids generalisations, focusing instead on the codes’ many grey areas.

Nothing is less black and white than the pack rape allegations levelled against the footballers in the book. The morality of group sex isn’t the issue here, rather consent, and how much these women were able to exercise it. Krien draws a link between footballers on-field camaraderie and their off-field misconduct, where notions of team hierarchy and competitiveness mean sex becomes a sport and ‘she’s a ball and everyone gets a touch’. Within the microcosm of football clubs, where money and status allow officials to close ranks on accused players, doubt is cast over the justice system’s handling of such cases.

Amid the many sordid allegations outlined in the book, an innocuous comment by ex-footballer, turned writer Tony Wilson stands out. Reminiscing to Krien about the sixth sense of adrenalin experienced on-field, Krien becomes defensive, retorting ‘women get that feeling too when they play sport’. That Wilson meant any offence is unlikely but Krien’s reaction is excusable given women’s historical absence from the sporting arena. Krien is not immune from prejudice herself. While watching a women’s reserves match, Krien wonders if she should avoid writing about women’s footy ‘if it turned out not to be that great’. Luckily, the game is a success and she’s gladly proved wrong.

Like politics and religion, football team allegiances are usually determined early on and influenced strongly by those closest to us. At no stage of the Collingwood trial does Krien choose the side of the plaintiff or the defendant, nor is the reader persuaded to. Unfortunately, Krien was denied access to the complainant throughout her investigations, reminiscent of Helen Garner’s conundrum in The First Stone (a book it is rightly compared to).  Unintentionally, this allows some sympathy for the accused, leading Krien to wrestle with her own objectivity. Overall, she provides a fair, nuanced account of the trial.

Like Garner, her literary forebear, Krien’s measured prose cuts like glass, reflecting the jagged complexities of her subject matter. Krien’s growing stature as one of Australia’s eminent journalists is supported by her extensive legal research. Her previous book, Into the Woods, a look at corruption in Tasmania’s forestry industry, was also well researched, at times exhaustively so. The seamless blend of information and narrative in Night Games makes it more compelling.

Throughout Night Games, Krien describes the power of footballers as casting a spell over their adoring fans. The same could be said about Krien and Garner. Appearing at the Wheeler Centre after the book’s launch, admiration for the pair reached a pitch typical of a members drive. As fearless in person as they are in print, it’s always invigorating hearing them speak.

Frustratingly, Night Games will most likely be read by those already on Krien’s ‘side’. It’s hard to imagine some of the book’s high profile football identities, unrepentant in their sexism, seriously contemplating the issues Krien raises. It will take much more than a book before the unofficial, far sinister, rules governing the codes are finally broken.

Emily Laidlaw is online editor at Kill Your Darlings