Playing by the rules isn't a game

A sexist, violent culture exists in some sports, writes Michael Flood.

Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 3 March 2004

Australia has a love affair with sport. Playing sport teaches boys and girls valuable lessons in physical skill, self-discipline, teamwork, and striving for excellence. At the same time though, some sporting cultures also encourage sexism and violence.

American research documents that sports players are over-represented among the men who commit acts of sexual assault and domestic violence.

Two studies found that while male sports team members make up 2 per cent or 3 per cent of the university population, they are responsible for 20 to 30 per cent of reported incidents of violence against women. Another study found that male athletes are more likely than other men to agree with rape-supportive statements.

Cultures of sexism and tolerance for violence are well documented in American football and ice hockey. It would not be surprising if Australian rugby league was similar.

One factor here is male bonding. The "groupthink" or pack mentality of tightly knit, competitive male groups can foster sexual assault, especially if male sports players have group sex as a way to bond as men and as a team. Another factor is male athletes' sense of entitlement. Many have been told their sporting prowess puts them above the law and above scrutiny, and their behaviour is tolerated or hushed up.

Like most traditionally male contact sports, at the elite level rugby league is a man's world. Women are shown as cheerleaders, sexualised props for men's sporting performance. Or they are "beer wenches", women in skimpy tops getting beer for male spectators.

The evidence shows that men are more likely to sexually assault women if they have hostile and negative sexual attitudes towards women, they identify with traditional images of masculinity and male dominance, they believe in rape stereotypes, and they see violence as manly and desirable.

Physical aggression and dominance are part and parcel of rugby league. In media commentary, players are heroic "warriors", "gladiators" or "hit men" involved in a "blitzkrieg" or "battle", using their bodies like weapons to overpower and subdue the opposition. On-field "biffo" is normal and entertaining. And in this and other sports such as cricket, humiliating and "sledging" your opponents is seen as a legitimate way to help you win.

Is it any wonder then that for players and spectators, the boundary between appropriate and inappropriate violence can look very grey? For boys and young men in particular, routinely watching such displays can make violence seem normal and natural.

A recent national survey of 5000 young people aged 12 to 20 found that one in six males agreed with the statements that "it's OK for a boy to make a girl have sex with him if she has flirted with him or led him on" and "it is OK to put pressure on a girl to have sex but not to physically force her".

The good news is that some rugby league players have taken a stand against sexual assault. In an innovative campaign run since 2000 by the NSW Attorney-General's Department, high-profile sportsmen have been delivering the message to young men that violence against women is unacceptable.

In posters for the campaign, rugby league players Laurie Daley and Brad Fittler are shown alongside the words, "Force a woman into touch? That's sexual assault." Sportsmen from AFL, cricket, soccer, basketball, track and field and motor racing have taken part.

While this is a step in the right direction, rugby league must act to get its house in order. If we are to make role models of our sports people, we must first ensure that their behaviour, on and off the field, is worth emulating.