It is naive to believe that the behaviour of footballers is unique.
There isn’t a football code across the globe which has remained immune to all kinds of scandals involving allegations of sexual misbehaviour, lewd acts, abject stupidity, drug dealing, booze related incidents involving property destruction and assaults, salary cap breaches, dangerous acts and even murder.
For many footy fans football is a religion and they live their lives around it. It is akin to a form of sacrilege to suggest that their revered heroes may have done something wrong. Fanatical fans seem prepared to accept condescending, patronising, sexist and abusive attitudes to women adopted by players.
They may feel differently if it were their daughter who became caught up in such behaviour. More insidiously, this kind of attitude seems to be sanctioned at the highest levels of the AFL hierarchy.
The inability to see a chink in the armour of their sporting heroes is a fundamental flaw in AFL fan psychology, and has emerged as a recurring theme in the St Kilda photo scandal which became popularly dubbed Dickileaks. The undesirable consequence of this kind of mentality is that it tends to take the gloss off the players dedicated to training hard, are family oriented and devote their time visiting dying children in hospital, supporting charities and mentoring young people, turning around shattered young lives.
When players engage in behaviour which is harmful, the response of the community, fans, the club and organisational structures should be one which demands accountability and responsibility. It starts with attitude and humility.
Former NRL Canberra Raiders star Joel Monaghan has walked a very lonely path, but at the end of the day you would have to concede that he was an exemplar of the type of humility and integrity we should expect from a ‘real’ role model.
A singular act of idiocy on his part, following an end of season drinking session, was judged very harshly and he paid a very high price for his actions. Having strong exemplars in any organisation, particularly a football organisation, is important. It is equally important for any exemplar to have high expectations of themselves as players in a sport which worships players. These two things bleed into one another.
During the course of the recent St Kilda photo scandal, commentators have drawn parallels between the St Kilda scandal and the Monaghan incident which saw the demise of his career.
If you compare and contrast the two incidents in their totality, it only takes a a little bit of reflection to illuminate the difference in the culture of the two Codes.
There is really only one similarity between the two incidents when you examine them closely. Both were driven by the luridness of the behaviour and the situation in which the players found themselves in.
However that is where the similarities begin and end.
Indeed the Monaghan photo is far more vulgar and repulsive than the Saints’ photos which have been published, the reason being that the alleged underlying immoral conduct was in fact the very subject of the photograph.
Monaghan engaged in a childish prank which simulated oral sex with a dog, disinhibited by alcohol and the blokey culture of his team mates engaging in what the Saints would call a bit of frivolity.
By contrast, the pictures of the Saints distributed by a teenage girl, whether rightly or wrongly, didn’t depict the alleged immoral conduct, however it was suggestive of a deeper problem.
The more systemic problem however was quickly addressed by the AFL apparatus which swiftly moved for an interlocutory order to prevent the girl publishing further photos in her collection. The girl had been trying to have her grievances addressed by the AFL for months and believed that there was little hope of them being taken seriously.
A dramatic change has occurred in our culture with the advent of photography, but it shouldn’t be overstated or become the central focus of the scandal. The internet, after all, is just a medium for communication which carries a message. There has been an acceleration of technological advancement as cameras become cheaper, more sophisticated and the technologies of distribution of content change.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that people react to images.
Any photographic journalist or political cartoonist would tell you the visual medium is one of the most powerful forms of political commentary. If you look at the statistics comparing the behaviour of US solidiers in WW2 to those in the Vietnam conflict, there was a relative improvement in their conduct.
The big change was that the control of the media was far greater. The proliferation of cameras and a better understanding of the use of them by enemies as a tool of was dramatically greater in the Vietnam era. Vietnam was the first time when the enemy had access to the family living room.
The images depicting the mistreatment of civilians was graphic, having an devastating emotional impact on the public. Had there been images of US troops misbehaving in WW2 as there was in Vietnam, the attitude towards soldiers in WW2 would have been dramatically different.
For there were many examples of combatants in WW2 actively attempting to kill civilians. We just never saw them. What we have since witnessed is an intelligent combatant learning to exploit the situation with a strategy of embedding photographers into US military units. The ‘deal’ is that photographers obtain quality pictures but have to tow the line in addition to respecting the safety of the unit, and not forfeiting intelligence to the enemy.
By towing the line the US Government is distorting the truth and controlling the production of military motion pictures to produce movies that are competitive in the real world, and shape public perceptions.
What is the relevance of the power to control and distort images in shaping public perception today? The common perception is that the behaviour of soldiers in WW2 was exemplary compared to today. Peoples’ perceptions tend to be persistent. However the reality remains that US soldiers didn’t behave perfectly in WW2 and atrocities were committed, as they are in all wars. The internet is now beginning to have some impact in exposing what is happening on the ground in contemporary conflicts, with many examples of misbehaviour being published for the whole world to see.
We can never underestimate the power of imagery, whether in war or footy.
The Monaghan picture provoked a potent emotional reaction, leaving the public feeling reflexively repulsed by the outrageous behaviour. It brought disgrace and disgust upon Monaghan. The image is burnt into the minds of the public and there is little likelihood it will ever be erased. To compound the problem, it was circulated over the internet, which never forgets.
However we need to be very careful as our instinctive reactions to crude images aren’t always reliable. There is a need to scrutinise the two incidents as whole far more critically, as a cursory comparison of the two images overlooks some important realities.
The only commonality between the two photos is the involvement of celebrity footballers. There are several critical differences between the two incidents. The Monaghan photo was far more lewd as the photo, containing as it did, a depiction of the offending behaviour. This was not the case with the Saints’ photos.
Another aspect of the incident which is of critical importance is the direct impact of the respective incidents. The impact of the AFL incident as a whole was very grave, being life threatening and almost certainly permanent.
By contrast the NRL incident had no direct impact on anyone. The dog photographed didn’t object to being called a dog, whereas the St Kilda schoolgirl did object to being called a “bitch” and a “slut“. The dog’s response and behaviour was predictably within the normal range of the response of a typical canine. It didn’t mind being called a dog or a “bitch“.
The most pointed and significant difference is found in the responses of the respective players, which illuminates their attitudes, values and core beliefs.
Joel Monaghan was clearly contrite, despondent and full of humility to the point of being speechless. Whilst Sam allegedly cried and hyperventilated when informed he was a father, Joel cried over the consequences of his behaviour and what it symbolised.
The AFL players’ response was one of indignance, arrogance and a feeling of injury and betrayal between team mates, their anger related predominantly to being caught.
Nick didn’t feel upset that his manhood was exposed in it’s full waxed form. He was aggrieved by the fact that the image in which he posed was showcased to the public rather than being deleted.
The photographer, Gilbert, didn’t seem ashamed of the fact that he had used a 16 year old girl, rather his upset and aggravation seemed to centre around his impending fatherhood, a natural and forseeable consequence of having sex with a fertile young girl.
Monaghan was upset by the injury, shame and humiliation he caused to his Code, the club, official, media, fans, spectators and corporate sponsors, all of whom he felt he had let down by the transgression which occurred as a result of an unforgivable lapse of judgement.
Whilst Monaghan was more concerned about the impact of his personal on his sponsors, seeking a release from agreements which provided him lucrative financial benefits, the Saints seemed in general to be concerned about their loss of sponsorships.
I have yet to hear a Saint express their personal concern about the effect of their behaviour on their sponsors.
Whilst Monaghan didn’t attempt to lay the blame for his behaviour at the feet of a team mate or anyone else involved in the publication of the photo, the Saints and the AFL have been very busy playing the blame game.
The starkness of the contrast is dramatic.
Monaghan resigned and took full responsibility without reservations for an act which he characterised as one for which there was no appropriate response.
The regret flowed from the realisation that he wasn’t the centre of the universe, and enjoyed a privilege bestowed upon him by virtue of his status, rather than a sense of entitlement. His tearful reaction clearly spoke of a man who didn’t believe he discharged that honour in the way that served the interests of his club, his sponsors, the community, the game or the fans.
By contrast the AFL deflected responsibility, ‘lawyered up‘, engaged in obfuscation, defensiveness, character assassination, media manipulation and cover-ups for their players.
Their agents were complicit in the execution of the shame and blame strategy. The condemnation of a very powerful and well resourced network of grown men was directed largely at a 16 year old teenager whom they knew had been involved in a very difficult relationship with an AFL player, lost two children, and been abused by a Police officer in a position of trust.
The AFL and the St Kilda Football Club were aware that this AFL player had gained access to her body, and arguably could have very well given her implied access to his computer and hard drive, depending of course on the relative degree of intimacy he felt towards his computer and the girl who carried his children. We don’t really know whether he gave her implied permission to access or use the material which resided on his laptop, which could very well change the ball game with respect to her alleged authorised takings of the images in question.
An adoring AFL public rallied to the cry of the poor AFL players, their revered heroes whose behaviour they worship, even where it consists of misbehaviour. Even errant behaviour, at its worst, has been characterised by fans as somewhat cute or cheeky, much like a puppy dog. The blokey guy reaction has also featured prominently in the fans’ response when it came to judging the boys.
How do we explain these divergent responses to player transgressions in the NRL and ARL?
What message do the two incidents send to the public?
Clearly Monaghan wasn’t advocating bestiality. Save for a few alien abduction theories about the NRL’s possible involvement in bestiality and the spread of aids, to the extent that we can guage, the dog wasn’t hurt or harmed.
Understandably the RSPCA made a statement condemning the act for the message it could send to the public. However there was no direct or indirect harm to the dog. It was about the public’s sensibilities. The incident can be contrasted with an appalling incident involving an NFL footballer Michael Dwayne Vick, engaged in the barbaric practices involving organised dog fights. This venture involved indescribable cruelty, leading to his indictment.
By contrast to the Monaghan incident, in the St Kilda photo scandal, we saw a young teenage girl bearing visible scars of a suicide attempt, who ironically, like Monaghan appeared at times to be far more fragile and at far greater risk of committing suicide than either the dog or AFL players.
Who emerged as the culprits in both sagas in the eyes of the public?
In the St Kilda photo scandal it was the teenage girl, a ward of the State,and to a far lesser extent Sam Gilbert. However Gilbert’s main sin was his unsafe photography practices and his betrayal of a team mate. St Kilda player Justin Blake tells us that the players have healed and will make up for the incident by playing better footy in 2011.
The manner in which the AFL, the players and officials responded to the incident serves as a reminder that often the people an organisation chooses to vilify and marginalise speak the loudest of all when it comes to assessing it’s integrity.
NRL boss David Gallop expressed his shock publicly, pledging to monitor Monaghans’ response to what he characterised as an atrocity. There was condemnation from the league, self-denunciation on the part of the player and a lot of soul searching by the Club. NRL officials expressed being appalled by the image and the Raiders instigated a public enquiry into the incident
By contrast the AFL apparatus moved into defensive mode quickly, their response being one of arrogance, with the fraternity indifferent to the fate of the teenager and without taking any responsibility for the players’ actions or the injury of the girl who was castigated.
Whilst the dog went on with his life, Ross Levin, representing St Kilda players and the AFL Players Association promised the public he would have the girl on a leash for the next 15 years of her life.
The AFL’s response was typical of a neanderthal pack mentality of maurauding footballers whose guardians are oblivious of women’s rights and lacking in any sensitivity.
Despite all of the tokenistic gestures in place to uphold the respect of women, they are just empty gestures. The only thing that the guardians of AFL upheld was respect and sympathy for the injured footballers. In reacting as they did, they normalised the behaviour of the players and assisted the fans in remaining desensitised to the real victims.
The Monaghan incident didn’t involve any statutory rape investigations, family disruption. The dog moved on with it’s life without any counselling or support, and no statements were taken from either it or it’s owner. As far as we know the dog didn’t feel used as a sex toy for gratification and disposed of, possibly because it wasn’t expecting a life long commitment, eviction or a pregnancy followed by a miscarriage. Neither are we are of any police abuse of the dog.
The unspoken tragedy here is not just the direct victim, namely the teenage girl, rather the indirect victims. It is women themselves who have collectively been victimised and shown that they are prepared to make rash and unsafe assumptions about this girl’s plight. The clearest evidence of this is the admonition ‘she was asking for it’.
To correct any organisational malaise, cultural change is required, not just a set of principles incorporated into a document which are more honoured in the breach than the observance.
There needs to be a willingness to engage in some self-reflection. It requires strong moral leadership, an attitude of humility and integrity and a code of honour.
The NRL has had more serious scandals than the AFL, and have learnt to be more pragmatic having learnt some hard lessons. The NRL can’t afford to be as idealistic as the AFL are being about their players. The NRL have meted out some disproportionately harsh penalties to its’ players on more than one occasion.
It takes time and effort for change to occur within any organisational culture. The AFL desparately need exemplars and ambassadors. For instance, when Leigh Matthews exhorts his players not to hit other players during a match, he would be the first to admit that he gained notoriety for king hitting as a player and was the first football player ever to be charged with a criminal offence for ‘on-field conduct‘. Leigh Matthews, although he has made mistakes, is ‘real’.
An AFL coach looking like the Michelin tyre man exhorting players to train hard and eat well may not be taken credibly by players. An Club executive condemning a young fragile girl who has been abused is not a good example for players who are being taught to respect women by the Club and the AFL.
The moral personal discipline needs to be included into the mix of characteristics required to be an ambassador both on and off the field.
Disappointingly, the occasional ex-footballer who has dared to express their opinion with unwavering moral integrity about the inappropriateness of the AFL’s response to women has been greeted by derision by players and club officials. It would be refreshing to see similarly enlightened views filtering down from the top brass in the AFL.
More often than not controversial comments coming from the likes of Jason Akermanis to the effect that he perceives that there is widespread drug use in the AFL are treated as more scandalous by the AFL than the issue of alleged drug use itself.
The tendency which seems to be entrenched, of the AFL silencing critics rather than deal with the problem, reek of attitudes endemic in a dictatatorship rather than a vibrant democracy.