Speaking up for women in sport

| May 17, 2024

Sport has a role to play in creating a culture of respect, yet women in sport are often seen as “less than” on almost every measure: salaries, sponsorship, broadcasting, leadership, access, media, coaching, officiating, uniforms and support.

Research shows three out of four Australian men are gender equality supporters, but very few (17%) prioritise taking any action.

As Australia grapples with a “national crisis” of violence against women, what can men in sport do to help?

What does the research tell us?

Rigid gender norms can play a part in fuelling male violence against women and children. And sport is an arena, excuse the pun, where rigid gender norms flourish.

When it comes to sport and gendered violence, a special level of toxic attack and misogyny is reserved for women who “dare” to play, watch and work in sport, and this is particularly heightened for women of colour and/or presumed to be from the LGBTQI+ community, whether identifying or not.

Sport also regularly promotes alcohol and gambling, with evident impacts on women and children – whenever there are big sporting events, violence against women by spectators increases.

Players, coaches, commentators and officials repeatedly avoid sanctions, or get a slap on the wrist, and go on to secure leadership roles in sport, sometimes despite allegations of serious gender-based offences.

The message this sends to younger players and fans is that misogyny is acceptable and that “heroes” are beyond reproach. This green-lights sexism, and completely undermines any messages around equality.

Tracey Gaudry has held a trifecta of roles relevant to this discussion. Not only was she previously a former champion cyclist, and former CEO of Hawthorn Football Club, she has also been Respect Victoria’s CEO.

Back in 2020 she nailed the confluence of issues:

“Gender inequality is a driver of violence against women and it can start out small. Because sport comes from a male-dominant origin, those things build up over time and become a natural part of the sporting system and an assumed part.”

What are sports codes and teams doing?

Professional sport organisations and clubs have been trying to address abusive behaviour towards women for decades. Both the AFL and NRL began developing respect and responsibility programs and policies 20 years ago, yet the abuse, and the headlines, continue – against both women in the game, and at home.

There are also opportunities for clubs to take action even if their governing bodies don’t. Semi-professional rugby league club the Redfern All Blacks, for example, are showing leadership: players who are alleged to be perpetrators are banned from playing until they’re prepared to talk about it openly, and prove they are committed to changing their behaviour.

Education is also vital.

At the elite level, most codes are trying to educate those within their sports – the NRL’s Voice Against Violence program, led by Our Watch, is the same organisation the AFL has recently partnered with.

The NRL also implements the “Change the Story” framework in partnership with ANROWS and VicHealth, which includes a zero tolerance education program for juniors transitioning into seniors.

What more should be done?

The AFL’s recent minute silence gesture to support women affected by violence does not go far enough.

Men, especially those in leadership positions, can take action by actively dishonouring the men who have abused women.

Some of the men we celebrate around the country for their service as players, presidents, life members and coaches have been abusive towards women and children.

Recently, the AFL demanded Wayne Carey – who has a long history of domestic violence allegations and assault convictions – be denied his NSW Hall of Fame Legend status. The next step is to see Carey struck off his club and AFL honour rolls.

The same treatment should apply to other convicted abusers such as Jarrod Hayne and Ben Cousins – the list goes on.

To take a stand on violence against women, award winners who have been convicted for, or admitted to, abuse against women should be explicitly called out with an asterisk next to their names – “dishonoured for abuse against women”.

And current and future awards must be ineligible to abusers. Serious crimes should mean a life ban for all roles in sport.

If there is a criminal conviction, or an admission of disrespectful behaviour (abuse, sexism, racism, ableism or homophobia), then action must immediately be taken to strip them of their privileges.

What about the grey area of allegations?

One tricky challenge for sport organisations is how to deal with allegations that don’t result in criminal convictions.

The legal system has systematically failed to protect women from sexual predators, so we can’t rely solely on a conviction to act.

In 2019, the NRL introduced a discretionary “no fault, stand down” rule  for players charged with serious criminal offences, and/or offences involving women and children. Under this rule, players must stand down from matches until the matter is resolved.

All sports should, as a baseline starting point, be following suit.

Where to from here?

It’s time sport organisations and fans acknowledged two things can be true: good, even great, athletes, coaches or administrators can be bad humans.

Sporting codes need a zero-tolerance approach for abuse of women which should apply to fans, players, coaches, umpires, referees and administrators.

All codes should strongly consider implementing the “no fault, stand down” rule similar to the NRL. Perpetrators should not be allowed back into high-profile roles. Supporters must also be held to account – if fans can be banned for racism, they can be banned for sexism.

At all levels and across all sports, we must send the message from the ground up: misogyny is unacceptable and the consequence for your bad behaviour is that you are no longer welcome.

This article was written by Catherine Ordway and Ginger Gorman, the Editor of the feminist academic blog BroadAgenda at the Faculty of Business, Government and Law at the University of Canberra.

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