ANNA KRIEN Night Games: Sex, power and sport. Reviewed by David Day
2014 Davitt Award-winner Night Games uses the rape trial of an AFL player to frame an examination of the darker side of male sporting culture.
Australians’ deep, absorbed love of sport is such that it plays no small role in helping shape our broader culture and society. However, sport also stands alone as a subculture underpinned by different values to those that underpin our day-to-day lives, as Anna Krien illuminates in Night Games, a compelling piece of long-form narrative journalism.
Krien captures well how the way we relate to other people can alter in the context of sport, which can intensify loyalties and foster enmity – think how differently you might behave around a person supporting a team opposing yours in the NRL grand final, or around the players on that touch footy team who take things that bit too seriously when you’re playing them. With professional athletes, it’s easy to imagine how sport could magnify and distort relationships, including those with teammates, opponents and outsiders – they’re fighting battles with mates, against opponents, and in front of huge crowds that love or hate them.
In Night Games Krien attempts to delineate these affected human interactions, along with their drivers and implications, as she illuminates the interplay among sex, power and sport. Focusing on Australia’s major footy codes, she demonstrates that sporting culture can warp athletes’ understanding of what interaction with women, in particular, looks like, and how it can lead to toxic outcomes.
The trial of a young man accused of raping a woman after a house party attended by AFL players serves as the case study underpinning Krien’s analysis. Justin Dyer and Sarah Wesley (names changed for the book) met at a house party, where more than one young male may have crossed a line demarcating Sarah’s consent to sexual activity, and Justin’s attempt to have ‘his turn’ sparked a rape allegation. Krien draws on the ensuing trial to frame a discussion about how women and sex can be perceived by teams of men as little more than vehicles for their own bonding.
Krien illuminates the idea that in an environment where players are part of a team that goes ‘to war’ together, there’s a perceived need to develop an intense bond that can spill into their ‘real lives’ off the field. Such a bond, forged of loyalty and unity, can be strengthened by at all times demonstrating the pre-eminence of relationships with teammates over other relationships. This in turn can shape behaviours and rituals that reinforce this – the ‘night games’ that can manifest as the sharing or objectification of women but are more about teammates’ relationships with each other. Krien shows how women’s humanity can be forgotten as their bodies are taken to be an input to the manufacture of particular male relationships:
And if a woman is considered nothing more than meat, then what capacity for consent can she possibly have? What in-depth inner life can she have? Who could think to ask a piece of meat for true consent? Gang-bangs are about sex, yes, but they’re also about ‘being with the boys’ – the woman involved is no more than a ‘vehicle for bonding’ …
In progressing through this analysis of ‘macho footy culture’ and the way it can lead to outcomes such as sex attacks on women, the reader might wonder whether Night Games will ultimately reveal itself to be a didactic judgement on sport by an outsider. In linking shocking behaviours and attitudes with wider sporting culture it focuses on football particularly. Why? It’s a question Krien admits deserves contemplation:
… why can’t football be just a game? Why make more of it? Why ruin it with seedy accusations of a shadowy macho subculture, one that can just as easily be found in the military or even the construction industry, and then counter this with shrill claims that these men, boys, are heroes, ‘role models’?
But it’s inescapable that both the NRL and AFL have had to deal with serious, unsavoury incidents. Allegations of rape and sexual assault against Bulldogs players in Coffs Harbour and Sharks players in New Zealand have been among the more serious examples of a flawed NRL culture. In the AFL, rape allegations against St Kilda’s Stephen Milne and ex-Essendon player Andrew Lovett, and the murkiness surrounding AFL-affiliated individuals’ dealings with teenager Kim Duthie, demonstrate the problem is widespread in both codes.
So there’s enough to suggest value in having a discussion about footy’s problems with women, especially when sport plays such a significant role in Australian culture. Besides which, as Krien notes, surely the fact that she’s a writer is enough?
And no ‘shrill’ attack ever comes. Krien’s is a careful, sober reasoning about how certain conditions and influences have contributed to often nauseating, sometimes shocking events. Rather than rendering a black and white argument and establishing herself on one side of it, Krien expertly brings issues to light in such a way that readers can establish for themselves what may be considered right, wrong or neither in relation to the effects of footy culture on young men’s perceptions of women and sex.
Further, she recognises that footy administrators, and many behind the running of their games, are working hard to do the right thing, and that it’s lazy to simply heap criticism on the sports themselves, or the athletes as whole:
Just as the myth of the ‘deserving’ rape victim persists – a woman who is drunk is more likely to be ‘asking for it’ – a fixed image of footballers and male athletes as badly behaved jocks and potential rapists is also beginning to take shape.
Krien concludes that, ‘as the codes strove to do the right thing, it became clear that something or someone was resisting’. And as to what that is … ‘The problem is not the game per se, but the macho culture of humiliation that tends to shadow and control it.’
But Night Games shows that there is more to the problem, including a lack of understanding around the point at which consensual sexual behaviour becomes something else. Night Games explores the grey, multi-layered gradations of violence and consent around sex, and sets out how perceptions of an event can shift, float, and manifest differently to different people.
Aside from its clear articulation of an important issue, for me the strongest aspect of this book was that it forces readers to think. It’s not a lecture on what to think, it’s a call to do some thinking. And if you’re worried that sport might become something else if we try to change it to benefit ‘the do-gooders’ … well of course it might. And that something else can be something better – for everyone – if we get it right.
But how do we get it right? Krien didn’t solve for me what exactly should happen to bring about a different attitude, or to ensure footy players’ behaviours alter, or how to establish a positive sporting subculture accessible to and respectful of all. Some possibilities are touched on, such as a form of restorative justice where perpetrators have to face their accusers and look the person they’ve damaged in the eye. It’s also suggested that if sport facilitates the problem, it could also facilitate the answer:
[Players] who tread the grey zone of rape and treating women badly, can be made accountable. More than managed, they can be changed, if their codes make it so, if their clubs quit covering up and if the world of football stops being a sanctuary for tired old sentiments such as ‘boys will be boys’ and instead becomes a sanctuary for boys who not only want to play good football but also become good men in the process.
By the end of the book I was left angry and ready to support change, without a clear idea of how to do so beyond hoping that sporting executives will do the right thing and soon. However this is hardly a major shortcoming. Bringing about a cultural shift in attitudes towards women and sex is a complex issue. And that’s the point Night Games helped me to better understand.
Krien is eminently successful in bringing important issues into the light and revealing the blurred lines and complexities that need to be given thought if sport is to play a more positive role in society. I cannot recommend Night Games highly enough. It is an important book.
David Day is a literature-loving sports enthusiast who works in public policy development. He tweets as @DjcDay.
Anna Krien Night Games; Sex, power and sport Black Inc Books 2014 (reprint) PB 288pp $19.99
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.