November 25, 2021


Cricketing institutions are on a sticky wicket

By Russell Marks
Image of test cricket captain Tim Paine announcing his resignation. Image via ABC News

Test cricket captain Tim Paine announces his resignation. Image via ABC News

Tim Paine’s sexting scandal reveals more about institutional failures than personal ones

On the evening and morning before his first test match for Australia in seven years – November 22 and 23, 2017 – 32-year-old Tim Paine and a female colleague at Cricket Tasmania had been flirting via text. The message threads are now all over the internet. They show Paine in a state of sexual excitement, making explicit advances and sending a photograph of his penis. “I can go from zero to 100 really quickly,” Paine told journalists last month when discussing his recovery from neck surgery, though it was also an apt description of his sexting libido. “We’re both fucked if this got out,” the woman told him at the time. “True!” Paine agreed. “So fucked.”

It was four years before the sexting thread became publicly known, courtesy of Stephen Drill’s investigation for the Herald Sun. In the meantime, Paine had been appointed captain of the Australian men’s test team. The woman he’d been texting then filed a sexual harassment complaint, Cricket Tasmania and Cricket Australia each conducted an in-house investigation, neither found Paine had done anything particularly wrong, and Paine stayed on as captain. All of this was done behind closed doors. When the news broke last Friday, it was explosive. Crisis meetings at Cricket Australia preceded Paine’s tearful resignation from the captaincy, and Cricket Australia now says it was wrong to keep everything hush-hush back in 2018.

This is a smutty sexting scandal, but it’s also more than that. Among the least interesting questions are those which go to Paine’s morality. He’d only been married a year; his dream of playing for Australia had just been revived. He had a lot to lose. But even people with a lot to lose make stupid decisions in moments of weakness or madness, and technology now facilitates this kind of stupidity and creates enduring records of it. He hoped nobody else would ever see his messages. They did. They’ve cost him the test captaincy – colloquially referred to as the second most important job in the country – and his reputation.

The more interesting questions relate to the behaviour of the institutions involved. These questions go to a broader malaise that pervades Australian sport and corporate life generally. Despite the codes of conduct, mission statements, governance and ethics frameworks, training sessions, media management, crisis consultants, reviews, and commitments to accountability and integrity, there’s a sense that none of it amounts to much more than slick marketing.

Four months after Tim Paine sent his “dick pic” and returned to the test team, that team was suddenly in a scandal of almost existential proportions. Australia’s male cricketers have sledged, fought, big-noted, bullied, racially vilified, toured South Africa during that country’s apartheid-era banishment from international sport, taken banned diuretics, taken money from bookmakers, and even rolled a ball down the wicket so that a winning six became a physical impossibility. But cheating was something that other teams did, at least until the third day of the third test in South Africa, when TV cameras focused in on young batsman Cameron Bancroft as he tried to rough up the match ball with sandpaper. Every schoolkid cricketer knows this is illegal, but it quickly emerged that the plan to cheat had been premeditated, deliberately worked out and executed by the team’s leaders. The scandal eventually led to the banishment of not just Bancroft but also his captain and vice-captain, Steven Smith and David Warner, from Australian cricket for 12 months. Coach Darren Lehmann, cleared of any knowledge of the plan, resigned soon afterwards, as did Cricket Australia CEO James Sutherland.

To call that South African tour a disaster for Australian cricket would be like describing Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership as “a bit disappointing” for the Labor Party. With the reputation of its men’s team sunk, and with sponsorships on the line – Magellan Financial Group dropped a $20 million naming rights deal, and others threatened to follow – Cricket Australia knew it needed to rebuild trust. It turned to Tim Paine. His story was the stuff of cricketing fairytales. Before his November recall he hadn’t even been a regular starter for Tasmania, and had been about to retire. But he had seniority and respect, and did well in front of cameras. Before he resigned, Sutherland ordered an “independent review” into Australian cricket’s culture and governance. Paine would be the steadying hand that would guide the Australian men’s team’s moral recovery.

The precise sequence of subsequent events is not yet known, but at some point, the woman was charged with theft and resigned from Cricket Tasmania. According to reports, she says all this happened after she made the harassment complaint. Cricket Tasmania, meanwhile, released a statement emphasising that she’d been sacked and charged before she complained, the implication being that perhaps she’d been a more willing participant than she was now claiming. That’s a very difficult sell. As plenty have pointed out, it sounds a lot like victim-blaming, or at least point-missing. Cricket Australia’s “Integrity Unit” conducted its own separate investigation, which determined that the communication between Paine and the woman was “consensual”, and that Paine’s messages had not breached its code of conduct.

Cricket Australia’s conclusions have been challenged. Two circumstances make Paine’s text messages a matter of public concern. One is Cricket Australia’s self-interest in marketing him as the poster boy of a reformed national men’s team culture. The other is the harassment complaint and its gendered implications. The month before Paine sent those messages, American actor Alyssa Milano tweeted in response to the publicised allegations about Harvey Weinstein: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” Seen through the lens of the #MeToo movement, Paine’s “flirtations” become the sexually aggressive behaviour of a high-profile sportsman, imposing himself on a woman with much less social capital – and then evading accountability. (As the ABC’s Russell Jackson asks: “is the code of conduct worth the paper it’s printed on?”) Paine’s dick pic was unsolicited, in the sense that the woman he was text-flirting with neither asked for it nor explicitly consented to receiving it. “Should men seek enthusiastic consent before sending a dick pic?” asks Mamamia executive editor Jessie Stephens. “The answer is almost definitely yes.”

It’s possible to overstate this dimension, of course. In their recent book, The Feminist and the Sex Offender, activists Judith Levine and Erica Meiners caution against a strict model of consent that “leaves out a lot of sexual territory”. Flirtation is necessarily ambiguous, and people frequently make mistakes. Often the flirter in error – the one who escalates too fast – looks foolish and pathetic, as Paine does here. But from Cricket Australia’s perspective, the central question was (and remains): what is the right thing to do?

Cricket Australia decided against publicising its investigation or its subject matter. Its current board – which wasn’t involved in 2018 – now admit this was a mistake. But what has changed? The publicity? It was inevitable that the scandal would emerge. Journalists who knew about the text exchange had apparently contacted Paine from time to time. The current board members knew this – or should have known it – just as much as the previous board members did in 2018, by which time the #MeToo movement made the eventual public reaction even more certain. Withholding the details of the messages was justifiable on the grounds of protecting the privacy of the woman, Paine’s wife and family, and Paine himself. Yet in deciding to retain Paine as captain, Cricket Australia opened itself to allegations of a self-interested cover-up when the texts eventually emerged.

Cricket Australia has form in covering up awkward truths. In 1995, when it was known as the Australian Cricket Board, its chairperson and chief executive secretly issued fines to two players – Shane Warne and Mark Waugh – who had accepted money from a bookmaker, “John”. The Board then kept quiet about the whole thing for three years before The Australian’s Malcolm Conn forced it to come clean. Australia’s cricketing public reacted then in much the same way as now. Paine’s mistake was both less significant – it didn’t threaten to bring the game of cricket into disrepute, as Warne and Waugh’s actions did – and more so, because it came in the context of #MeToo after decades of sportsmen behaving badly.

None of the institutions are behaving particularly well here. After he all but blamed the woman for making a harassment complaint, Cricket Tasmania chair Andrew Gaggin has vented his spleen at what he sees as Cricket Australia’s “appalling” treatment of Paine. “Tim Paine has been a beacon for Australian cricket over the past four years and instrumental in salvaging the reputation of the national team after the calamity of Cape Town.” This is true, but Gaggin pointedly ignores the fact that the dick pic and its cover-up have also damaged the team’s reputation all over again. Sportspeople, being people, aren’t perfect, and we can’t expect them to be. But we can expect a sport’s governing body to set standards of behaviour and accountability that reflect expectations and aspirations of the broader culture.

Admittedly, this is a difficult task in the present environment, in which “accountability” is often a euphemism for punishment. There must also be room for reform. But nobody’s talking about a criminal sanction here. There’s no “right” to captain the Australian men’s cricket team, or to play in it. Some, including Candice Warner, wonder why Paine remains eligible for selection in the upcoming Ashes series. “They’re basically saying that it’s not okay for an Australian cricket captain to send these messages, but it’s okay for an Australian player,” she told 2GB radio. It’s a good point.

A large part of Cricket Australia’s role is to market the game of cricket in Australia. But good marketing doesn’t mean selling bullshit or polishing turds. Arguably its most important business development focus over the past decade has been its effort to include women and girls, to transform the sport’s culture from that of a blokey 20th-century changeroom to one that can make everyone feel comfortable participating. On one level this development has been spectacularly successful. Women’s cricket is now on mainstream TV, and women’s participation in the sport is its biggest growth area. Despite all this, Cricket Australia’s “Integrity Unit” ended up in the same position that Paine found himself in: tell nobody, hope for the best and realise we’re fucked if it ever gets out.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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