By Dr Kate Seear, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, Monash University
This article was originally published in The Conversation on 20 June 2016.
Eddie McGuire caused a furore by suggesting the drowning of prominent sports journalist Caroline Wilson.
In March 2016, five female friends and I began The Outer Sanctum podcast, a weekly show where we discuss the big footy issues of the day. Through interviews we also aim to provide a platform for voices not usually heard in conventional sports media.
As six passionate female footy fans, we hoped we could disrupt the conversation by showing that women, too, are passionate and knowledgeable about footy, but also by exploring some of the bigger social and cultural aspects of the game.
A major footy story
Over the last couple of days, we have somehow suddenly found ourselves at the centre of a major footy story.
On this week’s podcast we explored controversial comments that two AFL club presidents, Eddie McGuire and James Brayshaw, had made with others on Triple M radio. They laughed about drowning prominent Fairfax sports journalist Caroline Wilson to raise money for charity. I recommend listening to the audio in full, because both the language and the atmosphere are important.
We were surprised that this hadn’t been a much bigger story during the week. No major news media had run with it.
Over the weekend, however, listeners to our little podcast started to take notice: the story began to spread on social media, was eventually picked up by freelance sports writer Erin Riley, independent podcaster and blogger Josh Pinn and, eventually, The Age, Herald Sun, The Guardian, ABC and others.
The AFL has since publicly condemned the comments. Ironically, they came in an historic week for women in the game: it launched the inaugural women’s league, held a special themed game to support the anti-violence charity White Ribbon, and partnered with Our Watch, an organisation that aims to raise awareness about violence against women.
It also comes at a time when prominent AFL footballer Jimmy Bartel is running a season-long campaign to raise awareness about violence against women through his #FaceUpToDV campaign.
It feels like we have taken one step forward and two steps back.
These events raise important questions about footy culture
There are two particularly important questions to emerge from this series of events.
First, what might this “casual sexism” and “blokey banter” tell us about the culture of AFL football specifically, and society more broadly? Wilson has herself suggested that it’s a rebuke for being a strong, opinionated and tough woman who routinely holds the big boys of AFL to account.
The impact on Wilson is clear – she is hurt and offended. But on radio talkback and social media around the country she is already being criticised for lacking a sense of humour and for “bringing it on herself”. This is language that bears dangerous and uncomfortable parallels with victim-blaming language so often used in the context of rape.
Language matters. As Our Watch points out, there are important links between the use of disrespectful language towards women, the language of violence, and the occurrence of violence.When prominent men with a major media platform use disrespectful language towards women, it risks reinforcing the notion that women are inferior to men.
As media commentator Patrick Smith noted:
What’s happening is the football community is going exactly the same route that racism went through. We had to learn that there are no throwaway lines in racism, that nothing is funny. There’s no throwaway lines in domestic violence. So whatever you think is funny, is not funny.
Patterns of speech can also constitute, in some contexts, a form of actual family violence, a point explicitly recognised in legislation defining family violence.
The need for education and respect
The Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence’s final, seven-volume report directly acknowledged the importance of education, language and socialisation in the treatment of women.
Among its 227 recommendations for change, the commission emphasised prevention, including the need for schools to educate young children on respectful relationships.
The commission’s report also stresses the need for supportive workplaces. Let us not forget, then, that these comments were made in a workplace, where the capacity to cause hurt and offence should be at the forefront of people’s minds.
They were also made on a major media platform with a wide audience. The Commercial Radio Australia rules explicitly state that media should not broadcast material “which condones or incites violence against women”. Although I am not suggesting that was the intention or the effect here, it’s another pointed reminder of the need to speak with care.
The importance of new voices and diverse media
The second question we need to ask is this: why was this story not picked up by the mainstream media? Why did it take our podcast, and our listeners, to generate this conversation?
Wilson believes that people are scared of McGuire and reluctant to stand up to him. This might drive a culture of non-reporting and fear that journalists who challenge powerful figures risk losing their AFL accreditation.
It may be that some mainstream AFL journalists thought nothing of the exchange because the language of casual sexism is so commonplace that it might just seem no normal to them. But that’s what makes this an even bigger story: McGuire, Brayshaw and their colleagues are powerful media figures, with extraordinary reach and clout. It’s incumbent upon them to be careful when they speak, because what they say carries enormous weight.
Needless to say, there are questions to be asked and answered by some of the biggest names in the game. In a media landscape that has long been dominated by certain groups (primarily white men), this story offers a stark reminder of the importance of new voices and diverse media.
These voices “from the outer” are sparking new conversations: some painful and long overdue, but they are conversations that will ultimately only enrich the game we love, and our society.
And as we continue to be reminded that one woman dies from violence per week in this country, let us hope that this is the start of a new conversation, rather than the end of one.