David Gallup’s response to ABC 1’s Four Corners program last night that aired details about a group sex incident involving several Cronulla footballers, including former Test player Matthew Johns, is a good one. His warning that players either need to conform to the league’s standards or get out of the game sends a strong message to the NRL players. What he now needs to do is back this up with strong action, so that both attitudes and behaviours are consistent. He also needs to keep talking about it, publicly and privately, and encourage all players and administrators to do the same.
His statement, that “… this is not a time for clubs and players to complain about the media or the fact that victims have spoken out,” sends a strong, explicit message to a culture that will find hard to change. In addition, the message has to be consistent and regular, and has to be repeated to the point where there is no excuse for how a player might behave under any circumstances.
Dan Ariely, of MIT and Duke University, conducted some interesting research into how the “heat of the moment” leads people to behave in highly undesirable ways, and have attitudes that did not conform to their normal attitudes, particularly in relation to their beliefs around sex and the opposite sex. He found that subjects experiencing sexual arousal reported a willingness to engage in morally questionable behaviour in order to obtain sexual gratification, and were willing to engage in unsafe sex.
It is not unsurprising then, that when players are put in situations such as those reported by Four Corners, where they are both highly aroused (partly because of the situation, and partly because they have access to these highly “unrealistic” situations) and experiencing significant pressure to conform to the group, that they behave in this way. This is not an excuse for the behaviour, but we need to recognise that there is more to solving this problem than punishing individuals (although punishing perpetrators should be part of the solution), blaming “bad apples”, or citing alcohol as the problem. We also need to recognise that the players, and the administration, need to create an environment where they avoid getting into situations where this kind of outcome will arise, and where appropriate, alternative environments for the players to socialise.
The only way to counteract the probability of these things happening is to both change the culture and the environment in which the players interact, and socialise.
At present, any ambiguity in responses will simply reinforce the status quo. Gallup, Channel Nine, and the Melbourne Storm’s initial response is good, however, the entire League has to change. The League also has to remove the opportunities for these types of situations to arise. As Roy Masters said on Four Corners, “They live in the golden triangle of celebrity status, a lot of money, and too much time.”
These people are more than football players, they are celebrities, and it is not unreasonable to think that they will have access to experiences that “average” people do not. But in the same way that most celebrities work hard to avoid situations where they might “behave badly”, sportspeople need to do the same. It sounds like a form of “nannying”, and to some degree it has to be.
There are parallels in this incident to the AFL “chicken-gate” incident. Two different situations and outcome, but both were part of a broader attitude, which sees women predominantly as sexual objects for personal pleasure and exploitation. If the NRL and the AFL are serious about these issues, there needs to be a dramatic shift in the way administration, leading players, and all those involved, talk about these issues. If you want to stop physical and sexual violence against women, this has to be part of the solution.
As I have said previously, if all of the institutions around these players reinforce constantly, without conditions, that this type of behaviour is abhorrent then it becomes easier for the unconscious mind to modify its attitude. Players may heed the headline from the Sydney Morning Herald, “One Sordid Night costs Johns his career”, and the events of the last few days are likely to have an influence in the short-term. But the response has to be constant, unconditional, and consistent for there to be major cultural change in any code.