April 2011


Out of bounds

By Anna Krien
Stephen Milne leads his St Kilda teammates in a recovery session, September 2008, Melbourne. © Stuart Mcevoy / Newspix / News Limited
Stephen Milne leads his St Kilda teammates in a recovery session, September 2008, Melbourne. © Stuart Mcevoy / Newspix / News Limited
Sex and the AFL

When 17-year-old Kim Duthie told 60 Minutes last month that she had lied about being pregnant to a St Kilda footballer, it was as if she lifted a spell. Almost everyone from the mainstream media and radio breakfast shows to devotees of online footy forums, Twitter, blogs and YouTube had found themselves caught up in the teenager’s life since she became the subject of an investigation into St Kilda Football Club last year.

Proclaiming to be speaking on behalf of all women mistreated by footballers, she had in January attended St Kilda’s first training session and thrown flimsy placards on the ground reading “St Scandal”, “HU$H”, “AFL (All Fucking Lies)” and “RESPECT. AFL can you please spell that for me?” Female columnists wrote about her “chutzpah”, while older journalists reported wide-eyed on her ability to text, tweet, film and take photos on her assortment of mobile phones. When the 17-year-old set a “honey trap” for a dodgy 47-year-old player manager, releasing audio and video footage of their alleged affair and his coke-snorting habits to the media, she was applauded. “You’re amazing,” gushed radio host Kate Langbroek on the Hughesy & Kate Nova breakfast show. “We salute you.” Miranda Devine called her “an avenging angel” in the Daily Telegraph. The teenager’s Twitter feed grew to over 20,000 followers. On radio, men fought over whether she was a child or not, and whether it was illegal to sleep with her. Each time the AFL urged the media not to feed on the teenager, the governing football body was accused of sweeping the girl under the carpet. Journalists just couldn’t help it. They were addicted to her, and she to them.

Then Kim Duthie appeared on 60 Minutes (Channel 9 is believed to have paid a five-figure sum for her appearance) and told reporter Liz Hayes she had never been pregnant. “I don’t know why I did it,” she said. “I was a stupid immature little teenager.” The convincing photos she had put of herself on the internet – holding her pregnant belly – were fake. In one photo Duthie’s eyes are wide and she has her hand over her mouth in mock horror. She is wearing a bra and St Kilda footy shorts. Oops, her expression says, look who got me pregnant! It now appears that she made herself look pregnant by blowing air into her very elastic abdomen. The media lapsed into an uneasy silence. To make matters worse, the AFL’s chief executive, Andrew Demetriou, subtly chastised the press when he revealed he had been aware something wasn’t quite right about the girl’s claim. “I was led to believe through some of our other investigations that that may have been the case [she was not pregnant] but as you know … there has been a number of occasions whereby this young girl has said things that have proven to be incorrect and that’s why we’ve chosen all along … to act responsibly and not play this out through the media,” he told radio 3AW. In a style best termed “numb”, Duthie’s revelation was duly reported, but the opinion pieces on her own and the footballers’ behaviour now became scarce. The clamour to write the definitive piece on “the St Kilda Schoolgirl” was over. The spell had been lifted and everyone was naked, muddied and a little bit ashamed.

But questions persist: just because she lied about being pregnant, does it mean footballers are off the hook? If anything, the lie was a placebo test and the boys failed dismally. Faced with the accusations, Duthie says one teammate told her to “fuck off, you slag”; another player allegedly sent her a text message, when there were fears she was suicidal, saying, “You slut. Die.” She also says the club’s management coached her on what to say to police investigating on behalf of the Victorian Department of Education whether players had acted inappropriately at a leadership clinic conducted at her school. Kim Duthie was never going to be a heroine for women’s rights, for taking on the big boys at the AFL. What is interesting is how much the public wanted her to be. Duthie became the weapon for other people’s misgivings about a certain vein of schoolyard misogyny that has persisted in spite of the AFL’s own attempts to graduate.

The AFL is big business. Over 7 million spectators entered the stadiums last year. State governments and local councils across the country injected $650 million into the league, while its revenue amounted to $335.8 million. The once working-class game is now flanked by Queen’s Counsels and professional advisers, and supporting a major league football club is not as straightforward as might once have seemed. Instead of going towards the game, members’ money and taxpayer subsidies may end up paying for court trials, settlements, even private detectives to follow and build up a file against an alleged rape victim.

Of the 800 AFL players, on average 75 are newly plucked from a draft of 1000 young men each year. At Collingwood Football Club annual meetings, new draftees are introduced to members. Eddie McGuire, Magpies’ president and former CEO of the Nine Network, reads out their names, followed by height, weight and sprint speed. Lined up, they are the club’s latest investments. Each has passed the closest thing to a quality assurance test. An assortment of fitness tests, medical examinations, potential injury analyses, family background and psychological checks has occurred; even their drop-punt kicks have been filmed and studied in slow motion.

The final touch for the draftees is a photograph. Each recruit is to stare in steely fashion into the camera lens. They are coaxed to flex their muscles. Often a player will grip a red leather ball with one hand (handspan, by the way, is also measured). This photo is perhaps the first inkling that players are entering into more than a simple contract to play ball. The flash of the camera is as searing as a brand. Some players, stars in their country towns and schoolyards, are already naturals at handling this kind of attention, but if you look closely at these early images, you may still glimpse the ghost of a boy, not yet rendered invisible by pounds of meat and muscle.

Although on the verge of adulthood, these footballers are about to enter a state of prolonged adolescence. For most of their peers the social world is set to expand, but for these select few their already insular existence has just contracted. They will be expected to live, eat and train with their team, as part of a single organism. Recruiters have scoured their personal lives for distractions, hidden vices and interests that may later demand priority over the game. Supportive families are great, clingy ones not so good. As the former footballer Tim Watson once wrote in the Age in 2005, defending then Carlton player Nick Stevens’ decision to play footy instead of attending his brother’s wedding:

You can say to your brother: “I will do my best to attend your wedding but if, by chance, we make the final of the Wizard Cup, my priority has to be to play for Carlton. I am a professional football player; it is an occupation I get well paid for and I have sworn an allegiance to the playing group that I am a part of whatever it is we do as a group.”

(Stevens’ allegiance to his football ‘family’ was curiously reciprocated that same year at the Brownlow Medal afterparty at Crown Casino, where it was reported someone had slipped a Rohypnol into his long-term girlfriend’s drink. Perhaps this was simply a ‘prank’ played on Stevens, albeit via the medium of his girlfriend.)

Young draftees will be subject to diets, curfews, lectures and punishments, which will sit awkwardly alongside story-telling nights of initiation into a clique of in-jokes, nicknames, bets and dares, when humour and humiliation control the power dynamic, and veterans wax lyrical about the debauched adventures of Thommo, Johnno and Stevo.

Distil all that and transfer it into the body of a young man – this conflicting state of entitlement and responsibility – and you may well have a very confused soul.

“The game has changed.” Whoever you talk to in the Aussie Rules football world says as much. For some – such as Indigenous players – that’s a good thing. Since implementing its anti–racial and religious vilification policy in 1995, the AFL can now boast that more than 10% of players are Indigenous, vastly more proportionally than the Indigenous 2% of the larger population. But for others, well – football just isn’t like it used to be.

In a recent Herald Sun Q&A column, the sports journalist Jon Anderson and the former Carlton player David Rhys-Jones bemoaned the passing of the glory days. “In many ways I feel sorry for today’s players,” says Rhys-Jones. “OK, they get the money, but do they have the fun? No way.” Back then, he says, journalists rolled around in the “same drip tray” as the footballers. Anderson chips in with a memory: remember when someone let loose with the fire extinguisher at Brian ‘The Whale’ Roberts’ pub? Sigh.

If the shift in footy culture can be pinpointed, it was in 1993, when the Saints’ Nicky Winmar responded to racist abuse by lifting his jumper and pointing to his black skin. The photographic image of that event is now famous. This defiant act, said former footballer Andrew McLeod at a recent United Nations forum on racism in sport, “made the AFL sit up and take notice”. Two years later, a policy “to combat racial and religious vilification” was rolled out across the league and then extended to every Australian Rules football competition in Australia.

While the new rules soon became a source of pride for the brand, they also signified the disinheritance of a certain type of football subculture. Dyed-in-the-wool types viewed the policy as a slippery slope to political correctness – and, to be fair, the league does at times seem to be taking itself too seriously. The $2000 fine imposed on Richmond player Matthew Richardson when he gave the finger to abusive spectators and the schoolmarmish posturing when controversial Ben Cousins did the same to a TV camera in the Richmond Tigers’ changing room seem over the top. Cousins was fined $5000 by his club’s leadership group for the incident. When CCTV footage of Brendan Fevola taking a piss in a shop alcove is aired on Channel 7 and results in his club fining him $10,000, it is not hard to conclude that the AFL has put itself at the mercy of a highly strung and righteous media.

However, when football personality Sam Newman impersonated Nicky Winmar by “blacking up” on The Footy Show in 1999, it also became clear that something much darker and malicious was rebelling in the world of footy. Six years later the AFL rolled out its Respect & Responsibility program aimed at shifting attitudes towards women and girls, and The Footy Show responded with another ‘harmless’ prank in 2008. On live TV, Newman staple-gunned a photo of the Age’s football journalist Caroline Wilson to a mannequin’s head. The mannequin was wearing only a satin bra and underpants.

“I tell you what, she’s a fair piece, Caro,” he said, standing back to admire the dummy. As he held up items of clothing, fumbling around its breasts, one of the show’s hosts, Garry Lyon, laughed and wrung his hands.

“You getting nervous about this?” enquired Newman, as he approached Wilson’s teeth with a black texta. “Garry, can I just say something, Garry?” he continued. “We’re only having fun … and I know you’re getting nervous about it, but we’re only having fun. If you’re on our show, you’re on our show—”

“We are!” yelped Lyon, shifting around uncomfortably on his seat. The TV audience was whooping and cheering for Newman. “We are!” Lyon repeated.

Consciously or unconsciously, Newman’s gag and many like it are designed to pull down this new moral code. He tested Lyon’s loyalty on air. Newman later defended the gag as a kind of ‘male’ compliment. It was, he said, a sign that The Footy Show culture, AKA Sam Newman, accepted her. This appears to be the definitive problem with football. Not just AFL, but rugby, American football, European soccer – hell, turn the ball into a puck, put a stick in each man’s hands, and it’s a problem in ice hockey. The problem is not the game per se, but the macho culture of humiliation that tends to shadow and control it.

The German word schadenfreude translates to the pleasure one receives at the suffering, misfortunes or humiliations of others. In the world of professional football, winning and losing are the only possible outcomes, and the very basic motivation to win is part and parcel of the sport. To win is to see someone else lose. Empathy is a handicap.

Off-field, schadenfreude can become complicated. It can cleverly disguise itself – particularly in the context of threatened inferiority – as banter, initiation, gags and ‘just a joke’. Be it fending off intruding females or reinforcing your ranking in a team by humiliating new members, taking pleasure in another’s degradation has a seesaw effect. They go down, and you rise up.

In Kim Duthie, football’s dark tendency towards schadenfreude met its match. And this is what the St Kilda Football Club has repeatedly failed to understand in its dealings with the teenager. Duthie was a top athlete when she first met the St Kilda players and, while she was flattered by their sexual attention, she wanted more than simply to sleep with footballers. Duthie wanted to be them. When she was cut off from the team, this highly competitive teenager had her first inkling of the limitations of her sex – and so she broke the rule that bonds all football players: what happens on the footy trip stays on the footy trip.

The 2010 Grand Final was a draw. It was an unfathomable concept for the players and spectators – how do you party when there are no winners and no losers? Then, to the delight of publicans, merchandise sellers and sausage manufacturers, the AFL announced a rematch between Collingwood and St Kilda.

The Pies beat the Saints and the city of Melbourne was still cloaked in night when the story of a pack-rape by celebrating footballers began to surface. By morning, police confirmed that they had confiscated bedsheets from an apartment in South Melbourne and were preparing to question two Collingwood players. “Yet another alleged girl, making alleged allegations, after she awoke with an alleged hangover and I take it, an alleged guilty conscience,” retired footballer Peter ‘Spida’ Everitt announced on Twitter, and followed it up with “Girls!! When will you learn! At 3 am when you are blind drunk & you decide to go home with a guy IT’S NOT FOR A CUP OF MILO!” Morning TV host Kerri-Anne Kennerley picked up the thread, sympathising with players, saying that footballers “put themselves in harm’s way by picking up strays”.

Then, just days before Christmas, Duthie posted online the now-famous photographs of three St Kilda footballers. The captain, Nick Riewoldt, is naked and shrugging comically as a younger player, Zac Dawson, holds a condom wrapper close to his penis. It looks like a photo with a ‘before’ story but at a press conference Riewoldt solemnly assured the public that he had just woken up and was snapped as he got out of bed. In the second photo, mid-fielder Nick Dal Santo is lying on a bed, holding his penis as if in preparation for a wank.

Although the teenager claimed she had taken the photos herself, it was said – and later confirmed – that the players took the photos of each other on a footy trip in Miami. Lawyer Ross Levin, the club’s vice-president, threatened to tie the teenager up in litigation for the next 15 years of her life.

Few observers acknowledged the eerie familiarity of the teenager’s choice of font for her Christmas e-card. Over the images she had typed, in red italic font, “Merry Christmas, Courtesy of the St Kilda School Girl!” thereby referencing a viral email that had circulated through the AFL Players’ Association, present and past footballers, footy staff, various government departments, law firms and police officers several months earlier. Attached to the email was first a photo of Duthie taken from her Facebook page. She is wearing black leggings and a St Kilda jumper cut off at the midriff, with “The Saints Girl” typed over the top. Also circulating was a digitally altered movie poster for Three Men and a Baby with the actors’ heads substituted for the players believed to have slept with her.

With her counter-strike, the internet suddenly became Duthie’s schoolyard. “I was not sleeping for days on end,” she later told the Age journalist Peter Munro. “I would just sit up on my laptop reading article after article about myself. I was just so obsessed with wanting to know what the world was saying about me and trying to defend myself at the same time.” When she posted the photos, Duthie was holidaying with her parents in a Gold Coast motel room. By the time her parents settled in front of the TV for the night, their daughter was on the evening news, bizarrely in a room that looked exactly like the room they were in. Scores of Australians watched as Duthie spoke to her laptop, manically tossing her long brown hair and answering her mobile phone to torrents of abuse. “OK,” she says feverishly, leaning into the video camera on her computer, “so everyone wants to know what I’m fucking really feeling like. I can’t even explain it. Do you know how fucking angry I am with everyone? Oh my god, I could fucking scream.”

When Duthie flew into Melbourne Airport, a media scrum was waiting. Her parents, she told the reporters, had taken the bus home and she was not welcome to join them. She was dressed in a black blazer over a short dress, shiny black heels, and had a tattoo on the inside of her wrist like an entry stamp into a nightclub. It was as if Kerri-Anne Kennerley had conjured up a “stray”.

“We used to have the Downlows,” recalls Craig Dermody, who played amateur football in Gepps Cross, a rough part of Adelaide. The Downlow was the Gepps Cross club’s equivalent of the AFL’s ‘best and fairest’ Brownlow Medal and it went to the club member who did the most debauched thing on the end-of-season trip. The first Downlow that the then 16-year-old witnessed was at a seafood restaurant with the team and coach. “The owner was getting drunk with us and our coach took the owner’s tobacco pouch out of his front shirt pocket, pissed in it and put it back in the man’s pocket.” Everything that could be drunk was drunk that night in the restaurant, recalls Dermody. The waitress, the owner’s daughter, screwed in the corridor. When I ask if they at least paid the bill, Dermody shakes his head. “Nah, the owner loved us. He wanted to be one of us.” For his “pissing in the tobacco pouch” gag, the coach got the Downlow that year.

Another gag the Gepps Cross Rams liked to do was take a piss while standing at the bar as the next round of pints was tallied up. (When the St Kilda player Fraser Gehrig did the same thing in 2004 and accidentally urinated on the woman standing beside him, the media had a field day. Gehrig later claimed it was “splashback” that had got her.) Gepps Cross, like many other clubs, survived on its bar and pokies earnings. Its punters were also its players and a high level of tolerance was required in order to maintain this symbiosis. ‘Pie and porn night’ is a community club mainstay, as are strippers. In Melbourne’s south-east, Prahran Football Club hired a stripper to rev up its players in the changing room before a match. They lost. In a world like this, as a minion or a top player, it would be easy to start perceiving women as service providers.

You have the mothers who cheer from the sidelines, drive to and from games and training, cook carbohydrates the night before, volunteer in the canteen, get the grass stains out of uniforms. There’s the female support staff tending to the players’ injuries, massaging their hamstrings, studying their eating habits and micro-managing their media image. In the past five years, the AFL has made a concerted effort to have women directors and commissioners but in some quarters the presence of women in powerful positions has strengthened the resentment of females intruding in what is a male domain, especially when they speak up. “They serve very little purpose at board level,” said Newman on The Footy Show, after five female club directors had written to complain about the episode that humiliated Caroline Wilson. “What do they do? I’m not knocking women [but] for very little input they demand a lot of clout.”

On a big night out with the ‘boys’, women are there to make the men feel closer to one another – not only at strip clubs and brothels, but at bars and nightclubs and even on the sidewalk. They bond over a girl’s body – be it checking her out together in a bar, leering out of a taxi window and yelling at her on the street, watching their mate have sex, or even passing a girl between them. One of the problems of watching porn together, particularly with the gang bang as common plot, is that the further detached from reality a group is, and the more entitled they feel, the more they might start to expect a shared porn experience. And then, finally, you have the WAGs, the tail of the dog, otherwise known as ‘wives and girlfriends’ of footballers.

In online photo galleries, WAGs are ogled; “Sports stars not only rake in the big bucks and travel around the world doing what they love most, they also get some of the hottest women in the world. Here are some of Australia’s sexiest sports WAGs,” writes FHM magazine. In the Herald Sun: “Every sport has them, their stars wouldn’t perform as well without them. They are the wives and girlfriends, or WAGs. Take a look.” On radio: “Triple M makes a calendar of Melbourne’s hottest WAGS!” Not only are these lucky women service providers, they are trophies. Amazingly, Wayne Carey’s (suitably nicknamed ‘The King’) fall from grace in the AFL was not when he grabbed a woman’s breasts on a city street after drinking with his teammates for 12 hours straight and said to her, “Why don’t you get a bigger pair of tits?” Nor was it when it came to light that his North Melbourne club had negotiated a $15,000 settlement with a woman who claimed to have been sexually harassed by Carey and another AFL player. No, Carey hit an all-time low in the popularity stakes in 2002 when he shagged teammate and vice-captain Anthony Steven’s wife in a bathroom at a party. Touchingly, the Kangaroo players publicly linked arms around their vice-captain and Carey was shunned. But the issue wasn’t about morality – if it had been, Carey would have been shunned years before. It was about being cuckolded by a teammate.

Back at Gepps Cross, Dermody never got the sense club members had a limit to their tolerance of bad behaviour until Adam Heuskes arrived to coach them. “A few people left then, but not many. He was a former AFL player and a poor club like ours was consider pretty lucky to get him.”

Heuskes was twice accused of raping young women in front of, or with, his teammates, in 1999 and 2000. One incident, on an oval across the road from the Adelaide nightclub Heaven, saw friends take the alleged victim to police immediately after locating her. She said three AFL footballers including Heuskes, who had been drinking in the nightclub, raped her. Police charged Heuskes and another AFL player but the charges were dropped six weeks later when the then South Australian Director of Public Prosecutions Paul Rofe QC advised the police they had insufficient evidence. Without witnesses to the incident, the allegation, like so many, boiled down to a stalemate of ‘he said, she said’. Two years later, the three footballers reportedly paid the woman $200,000 in an out-of-court settlement, and effectively gagged her. Some years later Channel 7’s Today Tonight raised the issue of Rofe’s own connections to the game, as a director at the Adelaide Football Club (and former player) at the time of the rape investigation. When the tarnished footballer came to Gepps Cross, Dermody said his interest in the club and footy was waning – but he did play a few games under the notorious footballer. “He was a pretty charismatic guy,” he says. “And he was quick, always had a comeback. He could humiliate you in a second.”

In Aussie Rules, ‘sledging’ is seen as a legitimate way of taking down the opposition. It involves getting in the ear of the opposition and baiting them about their social shortcomings, which used to include being “a faggot”, “a girl”, “a monkey”, “a black bastard” or “a towel-head terrorist”. Recently one footballer was even sledged for being “selfish” for leaving his critically ill child to play footy. Spectators like to join in the sledging, female fans included – who, in footy, make up almost half of the crowd – calling players “girls” and “poofters” when they duck out of a headlong crash. With the introduction of vilification codes, the Respect & Responsibility program and so on, acceptable social shortcomings for use in sledging are getting harder to come by. But as a result of media scrutiny, players are now getting sledged about their scandals. In 2008 St Kilda’s Nick Riewoldt was overheard on an umpire’s microphone saying to Essendon player Andrew Lovett, “You bash your fucking missus.” Lovett had just been fined $500 after he was found guilty of breaching an intervention order taken out by his ex-girlfriend. Less than a year later and Lovett was traded to the Saints.

Then, after a night of drinking, a girl accused the “dark one” of raping her at one of the St Kilda player’s apartments (Lovett is Indigenous). When the players were questioned by police, they said they had crowded around Lovett after the distraught girl left, trying to find out what happened. In court St Kilda ruckman Adam Pattison testified, “I remember Fisher saying, ‘Did you chop her?’ and Lovett said, ‘Yeah, I did, but she had no problem.’”

Then there is Stephen Milne, also a Saints player and the most notorious on-field sledger. Since rape allegations in 2004, Milne is now called “rapist” by his opposition and is booed by spectators. Neither of these creative spins on sledging appear to be moral judgements – rather they’re perceived as weak spots, something to make a player see red and lose sight of the ball.

In 2004 American writer Robert Lipsyte, an award-winning sports reporter and columnist for the New York Times, dropped a bomb at an American Psychiatric Association general meeting when he suggested that “psychiatry has not taken enough interest in jock culture as a window into other American pathologies.” By dismissing sports “as all fun and games”, he said, analysts were ignoring “the values of the arena and the locker room [that] have been imposed on our national life”. This is a far cry from the idea that sport brings people together and is the great leveller. It is also noteworthy that the two teenage gunmen of the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 preempted their killing spree by demanding all “jocks” to stand up and declaring: “Anybody with a white hat or a shirt with a sports emblem on it is dead.” In the aftermath, much of congressional and mainstream debate sought to place the blame for the shootings on violent video games, movies and the internet. But a task force set up to examine the Columbine school environment believed there was more to it. “I don’t think any one thing drove them to this,” task-force member Joyce Hooker told Washington Post writers Lorraine Adams and Dale Russakoff. “But I think we need to say, ‘Whoa. Why did they focus on athletes?’” The reporters went on to draw a parallel between the teenagers’ rage, their endless humiliation in pranks and the reign of the ‘jocks’ at their school:

Dozens of interviews and a review of court records suggest that Harris’s and Klebold’s rage began with the injustices of jocks. The pair knew of instances where athletes convicted of crimes went without suspension from games or expulsion from school. They witnessed instances of athletes tormenting others while school authorities looked the other way. They believed that high-profile athletes could finagle their way out of jail.

Australia is not America – but this quote has an awfully familiar ring to it. In the past two years, a series of allegations of special treatment of footballers by the Victoria Police has emerged. In 2010, the Milne rape case (in which teammate Leigh Montagna was implicated) resurfaced despite the two players being cleared. The detective and sergeant leading the investigation had since left the force and the silence around the case came to the attention of Channel 9. Former Senior Detective Scott Gladman said that the investigation had been seriously hindered by other police and that the alleged victim’s statement was leaked to the club. “She’s just one of these footy sluts that runs around looking for footballers to fuck,” one officer allegedly told Gladman, urging him to drop the case. Unauthorised photocopies of transcripts were made, a missing page being found on a police photocopier. Recordings of the player interviews vanished from Gladman’s desk for up to seven hours. “We were told that if things went well, consider yourself a Saints person for life,” Gladman told the TV station. The former cop’s claims were backed up by Mike Smith, who had also worked on the case in 2004. Smith said one cop associated with the St Kilda Football Club was very interested in the investigations. This particular policeman is now widely believed to be Senior Sergeant Hans Harms, who had been a trainer at St Kilda for 17 years. A Saints insider told 3AW that Harms had travelled with the players to games and knew them well. “He gave massages, did training, strapping, game preparation and [ran] water bottles during the game.”

These allegations have since triggered an Office of Police Integrity investigation into Brighton Police Station, which is around the corner from Khyats Hotel, where both St Kilda players and off-duty police are regulars. A raid on the station revealed that witness statements, Gladman’s reports and a master tape of interviews from the case are missing. “They wanted to be seen to be more important in their eyes to the club,” Mike Smith had said of the officers, “anything they could do to help the club they would do.” Then, in July 2010, a freedom of information request filed by Australian Associated Press came through. The police document was largely blacked out but the gist of it was clear: it was a memorandum of understanding struck between Victoria Police and the AFL, a contract which formalised the sharing of files, photos, videos and evidence on people involved in the AFL. The police were required to let the AFL know of any investigations into the league’s players and staff, and would contact it before making any public comment. The formality of this intimacy between police and football looked plain ugly to outsiders. It was one thing to hear about certain police officers undermining investigations because of their fanaticism for a football club, but an official document such as this reeked of conspiracy. And now there’s Kim Duthie. The Age reported last month that over 80 police officers have accessed and read her file on the Victoria Police database.

What Kim Duthie now aspires to is a mystery. When she was 15, she was the youngest mountain runner selected to represent Australia in Italy, and she became the under-18 national champion. An interstate competitor for hurdles, long jump, high jump and running, she was a naive schoolgirl, who ate, trained, studied and slept. Now she lives in hotels paid for by the St Kilda Football Club as part of a deal struck by the two parties on the condition that she delete the photos she posted on the internet. Duthie issued a statement asserting that the players involved with her met her socially following a match and not at her school. In the past 18 months, she has tested and stretched the plastic tape of child protection around her and, like a hatchling just out of its shell, she has encountered predators quick to detect her nubile vulnerability. Player manager Ricky Nixon has photos on his mobile phone of Duthie in her underpants; he claims he took the photos to protect himself when she arrived drunk at his office and started to strip. Last month Nixon checked himself into rehab. He is 47 years old.

“I’m already sick of it,” replies my neighbour when I say that footy season is about to start, aware he is an avid AFL fan. As we stop to commune over our green bins, the mention of the game makes his face sour. Football never stops now and his discontent does not stem solely from the handiwork of an angry teenager. The collusion by the AFL and the press that footy is more than just a game has taken a toll. Last year, Carlton’s captain, Chris Judd, won the Brownlow Medal. Known as an all-round good guy, he looked uncomfortable as he accepted the award at the televised black-tie affair. On stage, he answered questions delivered by the event’s host with the usual ‘not really saying anything’ air of a role-model footballer – then suddenly, Judd did something different.

“I think footballers and Brownlow medallists get put up on pedestals …’ he said, in response to the host’s question about what it meant to win the award. “Football, if you like, is sort of make-believe. It’s like a self-indulgent pastime where you go out each week and announce to the football public the type of person you and your mates are. It’s not real.” Struggling to articulate himself, Judd clung to the example of former player Jim Stynes, now Melbourne Demons club president, a philanthropist and youth worker, as someone doing valid work in the real world. When Judd paused, the room erupted into applause. But it felt like a smother. And then, seemingly as quickly as he could, the host moved on: “You touched on it earlier, how tough was it to leave the West Coast Eagles?”

16 March

Anna Krien

Anna Krien is the author of Night Games: Sex, power and sport and Into the Woods: The battle for Tasmania’s forests, and the Quarterly Essays Us and Them: On the Importance of Animals and The Long Goodbye: Coal, Coral and Australia’s Climate Deadlock. Her debut novel, Act of Grace, was published in 2019.

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Building of Knox Grammar School, 1943. State Library of New South Wales

The old boy

Knox Grammar’s Adrian Nisbett

Fretilin supporters protest in Dili following the resignation of then Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, 30 June 2006. © Candido Alves / Newspix / News Limited

Postcolonial blues

East Timor’s lost generation

Tony Blair campaigning his way to a landslide victory for Labour, April 1997. © Tom Stoddart / Getty Images

Chariots of fire

Tony Blair’s legacy

More in The Monthly Essays

Image of Peter Dutton and Sussan Ley

The future of the Liberal Party

Peter Dutton doesn’t just have a talent problem on his hands

Image of Anthony Albanese

How to be a prime minister

The task ahead for Anthony Albanese in restoring the idea that governments should seek to make the country better

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

The slow fade of music education

An elegy for music, learning and impoverished culture

Image of Labor Party election-night event at the Canterbury-Hurlstone Park RSL, Sydney

Teal and loathing: On the campaign trail

The seismic shift that saw voters around the country turn on the Coalition and deliver a Labor victory

Online exclusives

Photo of the hands of an elderly woman. Image © Yui Mok/PA Wire

Age is just a number

The slow decline of Australia’s aged-care system into a bureaucratic nightmare

Image of Mark Coles Smith as Detective Jay Swan in Mystery Road: Origin. Image supplied

The making of Jay Swan in ‘Mystery Road: Origin’

Mark Coles Smith leads an impressive ensemble cast in the ABC’s new prequel series uncovering the early life of Indigenous detective Jay Swan

Image of Australian Army Cadets on parade. Image via Alamy

Ghosts in the war machine

Does the military attract violent misanthropists, or are they forged in murky theatres of war?

Composite image showing John Hughes (image via Giramondo Publishing) and the cover of his novel The Dogs (Upswell Publishing)

A dog’s breakfast

Notes on John Hughes’s plagiarism scandal