JACK ANDERSON: Irish sport should heed AFL’s commitment to education

Craig Gilroy during the RBS Six Nations 2017. Pic: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

As someone who teaches sports law and criminal law in Melbourne, but who lived and lectured in Belfast for 15 years, I followed the trial and acquittal of Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding, Blane McIlroy and Rory Harrison with deep and obvious interest, writes Jack Anderson.

The trial did not feature at all in the Australian media — dominated as it was last week by a ball tampering incident involving the national men’s cricket team.

And yet Melbourne would be all too familiar with what happened.

Anna Krien’s provocative, unsettling book Night Games recounts uncannily similar allegations of a serious sexual assault against a woman that took place at a party in the aftermath of the 2010 AFL grand final.

Krien’s book was referred to frequently by Irish commentators in the immediate aftermath of the Belfast acquittal, though clearly it wasn’t read in full by all.

While Krien did peel back the seedy, unseemly culture of team sports in Australia — its misogyny, its immaturity, its violence — it is not a one-dimensional read on a rape trial that also ended in acquittal.

The first hug Krien receives on the jury’s decision of not guilty is from the accused’s grandmother to whom she had grown close to in her research. Krien admits a loss of objectivity as the trial progressed.

Later she speaks challengingly and with great nuance on what she terms the ‘grey zone’ surrounding consent and sexual offences.

As interesting as the Krien book is, what is equally informative was the reaction of the sports body at the centre on the story — the AFL.

In 2005, the AFL commissioned a report by University of Melbourne Professor Jenny Morgan, a global expert on gender, violence, and the criminal law, which led thereafter to the development of a code of conduct on respect and responsibility.

The code starts with an admission by the AFL that it has, like many elite professional sports bodies, historically excluded women from full participation.

Anna Krien
Anna Krien

In its current iteration, the AFL’s policy includes training programmes for clubs and players on respectful relationships and a dedicated complaints system for breaches of the code, all run in conjunction with a leading NGO. The idea is to facilitate violence prevention activities against women in the wider AFL community.

The reason I mention this is that much of the commentary in the aftermath of the Belfast trial has focused on whether the IRFU ought to prematurely terminate Jackson’s and Olding’s contracts on the ground of bringing the sport into disrepute.

But will the IRFU and Ulster Rugby look at themselves in the way the AFL did?

What will they, as employers, do to ensure that no players in the future will think it acceptable to speak about women on WhatsApp in the manner that current employees did, including another Ireland and Ulster player, Craig Gilroy?

The AFL and other Australian sports bodies have admitted that they could do better in this regard. Might all Irish sporting bodies now think about and do the same?

Similar questions were asked of English football clubs when the retrial of Ched Evans on rape charges ended in an acquittal in October 2016.

Evans’ retrial was granted largely on the grounds of fresh evidence by two witnesses who spoke about the complainant’s sexual preferences. On retrial, she was then questioned about her sexual history.

In the aftermath of Evans’ acquittal, however, the debate about the extent to which a complainant’s sexual history ought to be relevant came a distant second in the sports pages to what club might now hire Evans.

Sport moves on, as does its media who, in Ireland, have already moved on to speculation on whether the Champions Cup final will feature Leinster and Munster.

In the immediate aftermath of the Evans acquittal, his legal team, as was also the case with Paddy Jackson’s, were vociferous on what they perceived to be a toxic, even defamatory, social media onslaught against their client.

Irish sport should heed AFL’s commitment to education

That is their right and yet it has been somewhat forgotten that in both instances, the complainant was wrongly named on social media. How vigorously will the PSNI pursue that breach of the complainant’s rights? Who will support her?

There was also criticism by the acquitted in Belfast that the PSNI’s interest in pursuing the case had been motivated by the players’ profile.

This is a matter of conjecture and one the PSNI has vigorously denied. 

If the PSNI is to be questioned further, it should preferably be asked about the figures noted recently in the North by Amnesty International.

In 2016/2017, 823 rapes were reported in Northern Ireland and just 15 convictions occured — a conviction rate of 1.8%. 

Equally disturbing is the Amnesty International survey of NI students carried out in 2008, when Northern Ireland’s sexual offences laws were last amended, which reported that 46% of those interviewed said that raped victims who flirted with their attackers were partially or totally responsible for what happened to them.

In the Republic, a survey at UCC in 2015 revealed that one in seven of its students were victims of rape or sexual assault. In 2017, Cork’s Sexual Violence Centre reported that one in three sexual assault victims using its services were students.

Mandatory consent classes have been called for in our universities. Student welfare officers in third level institutions nationwide have pointed to a lack of sex education programmes in our secondary schools and particularly ones tailored to a generation that is digitally native.

The combination of lack of education and skewed sense of self among some elite professional athletes can be dangerous.

The most infamous example, which unlike the Belfast trial led to a conviction, was the Brock Turner case in the US. Turner was a student athlete at Stanford University who was charged with various sexual offences against a female student on campus.

Irish sport should heed AFL’s commitment to education

Prosecutors sought a six-year jail sentence; he served less than six months. The judge came in for fierce criticism because of the weight he gave in his sentencing remarks to Turner’s status as an athlete.

Of more importance in the Turner case was, however, the victim’s impact statement.

If there are to be mandatory consent class in our universities or secondary schools, the statement should be first on the reading list. It is graphic, courageous and eloquent. It is still online. Read it.

Finally, here in Australia the ball tampering scandal in cricket rolls on into ridiculousness.

In a column in a leading Melbourne paper, writer Clementine Ford reflected on the fact that one of the players had shoved the offending piece of sandpaper down his trousers, remarking caustically that it seems that for Australia to be outraged by the behaviour of its sporting heroes, a man must be caught with his hand down his own pants, instead of down someone else’s.

The player in question was Cameron Bancroft who like the other protagonists, captain Steve Smith and vice-captain David Warner, gave an emotion-filled press conference. 

Bancroft’s conference was in Perth. He faced the international media flanked by a woman who, I must admit like many others, I initially thought to be his Mum.

It wasn’t. It was the current CEO of cricket in Western Australia, and former international cricketer, Christina Mathews.

Why did I, and so many more, think otherwise?

Jack Anderson is Professor of Law at the University of Melbourne and Adjunct Professor at the University of Limerick.

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