CW: mentions of abuse and sexual assault

On the field, we expect sportsmen to play by the rules. There is public uproar when they don’t. Off the field, it seems that we don’t care what they do and we are seemingly happy to excuse abuse and assault. Over the past week, it has been particularly apparent that what the media holds important is inherently shaped by the Australian expectations of a what it means to be a man.

We’ve seen headline after headline about Australia’s ball tampering in South Africa, and Steve Smith’s emotional apology. Yes, the drama and shame that has faced Australian Cricket over the last week is definitely something to write and talk about. However, when it covers almost the entire front page and has dominated every conversation with every misc. relative that I have had this long weekend, it seems, to me at least, that we have our priorities backwards.

Moreover, the presentation of the story is interesting (and somewhat concerning) when looking at the portrayal of gender. It almost appears that it isn’t even the scandal that News Corp is using to sell the paper, it’s Smith’s heartbroken sadness – the notion of a strong gender-conforming man breaking down emotionally. This is rooted in the construction of an Australian ‘toxic masculinity’, where men are dissuaded from strong displays of emotion, broadly perceived to be feminizing. The construction of this type of masculinity is engrained in Australian culture and contributes to the subjugation of women, as well as pressuring men to conform to a heteronormative stereotype – the cool sporty guy from high school that didn’t seem to care about very much at all. More than almost anyone else, we expect sportsmen to meet this mark, while The Australian seeks to capitalise on Smith missing it.

But it’s not Smith, it’s the media that is really missing the mark. Time after time they have failed to recognise the unacceptable behaviour of sportsmen towards women off the field. There are countless cases of Australian sportsmen perpetrating domestic abuse and sexual assault who will never be tainted with the same brush as Smith. In the last year, Crows player Nathan Bock assaulting his girlfriend outside an Adelaide club; Carlton footballer Justin Murphy robbing and threatening to kill his former partner; Norm Smith medallist Shannon Grant, charged with assault after attacking a woman in Victoria; to name a few. None of these fielded the same uproar as a piece of sandpaper in South Africa.

Dr Deb Waterhouse, academic at Macquarie University and author of “Athletes, Sexual Assault and ‘Trials by Media’: Narrative Immunity” attributes these silences by the media to players being granted a kind of ‘narrative immunity’ where survivors are not believed, and the media will not print stories that go against respected players. This is echoed in 2015 documentary The Hunting Ground, reporting case after case of complaints of sexual assault against university sportsmen that were ignored and covered up. Although complex, this plays directly into the Australian idea of a man. We value strength and physical prowess at the expense of empathy and justice. On the field we expect sportsmen to play by the rules, and there is uproar against cheating. However, off the field we are seemingly happy to excuse abuse and assault.  We need to put the sandpapering of a cricket ball into context and start holding sportsmen to account for their actions off the field too.

On the field we expect sportsmen to play by the rules, and there is uproar against cheating. However, off the field we are seemingly happy to excuse abuse and assault. What the media holds important is inherently shaped by the Australian expectations of a man.

Conrad Hogg | @conradhogg

Conrad spends too much time at brunch and in the Guild, and not enough time doing his honours.