Q&A with Anna Krien
In Night Games, Anna Krien takes a fearless and compelling look at the dark side of footy culture – in particular the disturbing incidents that took place in a South Melbourne townhouse after the 2010 grand final that culminated in the rape trial of a young footballer. Here, she talks to Jessica Au.
What drew you to explore this side of sporting culture? Did you feel that this was a book that needed to be written?
It was the unfortunate ‘St Kilda Schoolgirl’ saga that caught my (and many others’) attention back in 2010. It was a pretty trashy story, one that involved a teenage girl, footballers, a false allegation of pregnancy, viral emails, photos of naked players and a salivating media circus. (One tabloid journalist even helped the teenager at the centre of the story, Kimberley Duthie, set a ‘honey trap’ for a dodgy football manager.) But putting the trashy elements aside, there were serious issues at play. Duthie was never going to be a heroine for women’s rights, for taking on the big boys at the AFL – but what was interesting was how much the public wanted her to be. She became a weapon (albeit one that fell apart) for other people’s misgivings about footballers.
And yes, I do feel like this was a book that needed to be written. Whether I’ve succeeded in filling or partially filling the gap on the bookshelves, I don’t know – but over the past decade, the silence in and around the darker side of football, both Aussie Rules and Rugby League, has begun to fray. This is, in part, due to the ‘intrusion’ of female sports journalists who have exposed a shadowy subculture of entitlement, callousness and humiliation, a scene that had been dutifully ignored by male journalists (or should I call them groupies?) for years.
You touch on the ethics of getting to know the family of the young footballer at the centre of the rape trial (who is called ‘Justin’ in the book), and objectivity when everyone, including the writer, has something at stake. As a journalist, how do you negotiate these challenges?
It’s really difficult to negotiate. The defendant, Justin Dyer, and his family were really suffering throughout the trial. They were under enormous pressure, and no amount of objectivity could blinker me from genuinely feeling for them. What was even more difficult was that I had no one to compare their suffering with – the complainant, who I call Sarah, gave her evidence in closed court and was otherwise entirely absent from the trial. I was constantly having to shore up the Dyer family’s pain with speculation about Sarah’s own trauma. And that’s the tough thing about being a writer – you have to continually discern between the emotive and what’s right.
Tell us about the research process for Night Games. What was your reaction to some of the stories that you uncovered?
The start of any investigative process begins with getting the lay of the land. I read whatever I could get my hands on about football, power and sex. The explosive Four Corners’ ‘Code of Silence’ and a surprising early 90s study in the United States that revealed male athletes as featuring prominently in reported sexual assaults, despite constituting only a tiny percentile of the campus population, got the ball rolling. From here, I tried to speak to anyone who had an insight into the on-field and off-field culture of Australia’s two main footy codes, Rugby League and Australian Rules – from past and present players, coaches, staff, sexual assault counsellors, females working within the codes, journalists, ‘groupies’ and so forth.
Alongside this, I was following the rape charges and subsequent trial of Justin Dyer.
As for my reaction to some of the stories I heard in relation to the off-field antics of players and women, I hate to say it but I can’t say I was surprised. Sometimes this disturbed me – I felt like I ought to have been more shocked, more horrified, but unfortunately I thought it was all pretty predictable. It’s a sad thing to admit, but much of it felt grossly familiar.
What did surprise me was the depth and breadth of yearning to be part of the team – what struck me as a sad schoolyard desire that had potential to be quite dangerous, particularly if the need to be ‘in’ with ‘the boys’ got in the way of doing proper police work, for example. Another thing that shocked me is that footy isn’t taxed. Football clubs and football leagues don’t pay income tax. Most sporting bodies don’t. They are not-for-profit, so to speak, their status much like that of a charity. I think this is a real clanger because it reveals that football is not ‘just’ a business and it’s not ‘just’ a game – its responsibilities are very real.
You write also about the ‘grey zone’ – the ‘glacial space between a man’s action and a woman’s reaction’ – and later ask whether there is any room for exploring disturbing sexual encounters, that often don’t fit within stock stereotypes. Culturally, socially or legally, do you feel we have the language for this yet?
I don’t think we do. I think it’s very difficult for someone to reflect on a disturbing sexual encounter without feeling pressured to conclude that there was a victim and a perpetrator, that it was rape or that they were to blame for bringing it on themselves. And, ultimately, this is what Night Games is about – that strange place between consent and rape, one that the slogan ‘No means No’ doesn’t allow for.
Finally, tell us about your favourite works of literary journalism.
Locally, it’s the ladies that have my heart. Helen Garner’s The First Stone, Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man and Anna Funder’s Stasiland are all incredible works of literary journalism, their brave voices not too fragile to question themselves and yet strong enough to draw a line. Add to that the poetry of their writing. It’s like these writers play the piano on their typewriters. Offshore, it’s the usual suspects that have me enthralled – Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is hilarious, and there is always John Behrendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil to curl up with.
Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport is available now.