It's Damaging the Game: Australian Football Clubs and Sexual Assault

Curator's Note

The celebrity culture of elite sport makes any controversy involving athletes newsworthy. A large number of sexual assault cases involving Australian footballers (rugby league/Australian Rules) have been reported in the news media over the last 15 years, although charges are rare and there have been no convictions to date. Sexual assault is widely recognised as the most-underreported crime, with the lowest conviction rates of all violent crimes. When the accused perpetrators are famous footballers, convictions are even more rare, and the cases held up to much greater scrutiny. Particularly before any trial, news reporting of such cases will most likely centre on those figures who make it newsworthy: the footballers, not the complainant who says she was raped (in all reported cases, the complainant was female).

From this perspective, reporting of such incidents often emphasises the damaging impact of the charges or allegations on the accused footballers, the club and the sport as a whole. While there are notable exceptions, lost playing opportunities, lost sponsorship and the sport’s reputation are often foregrounded, with spokespeople from the club and league invariably granted air-time. This therefore implies that these are the most significant outcomes. The impact on the complainant and the severity of the alleged acts can be completely overshadowed, despite rape victims commonly suffering long-term effects such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Particularly for fans of the sport, who often feel a personal connection to ‘their’ players and team, with this kind of emphasis, it can be tempting to see football as the victim and neglect the complainant, and the problem of sexual violence, entirely.

The presumption of innocence must be maintained, in order for due legal process to take place. However, it is also critical that complainants are not made out to be the aggressors, or that they have done something wrong just by making a complaint. Rape complainants are equally entitled to the presumption of ‘innocence’.

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