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side by side: eddie mcguire vs women in sport

Content warning: violence against women

Image via SBS

Image via SBS

Sometimes it feels as if women have daily reminders that they are unwelcome in the hyper-masculine domain of sport. But nothing seems to have touched a nerve recently like Eddie McGuire and Co.’s comments about journalist Caroline Wilson last week.

For those in the dark, radio station Triple M’s coverage of The Big Freeze 2, an event held to support motor neurone disease research before the Queen’s Birthday match, involves celebrities taking the plunge down a slide into icy cold water. President of the Collingwood Football Club, Eddie McGuire casually commented on the program that he’d pay $50,000 to see footy journalist Caroline Wilson go down the slide and ‘stay under’. The other commentators appeared to think that this was the most amusing idea of all time, with current part-time St Kilda coach Danny Frawley commenting that he’d even help by holding her underwater.

Unbelievably, this shocking exchange would have sunk without notice if it wasn’t for the power of social media over the following weekend, which broke the story to a wider audience. The Outer Sanctum*, a fantastic football podcast by six women, discussed the comments in Episode 14 on Friday. Josh Pinn of The Footy Gospel podcast then found and uploaded the audio of the incident, which was conspicuously missing from Triple M’s website.

Freelance sport writer Erin Riley also published a piece on her website, calling on the AFL to act appropriately particularly after that night’s White Ribbon match between the Western Bulldogs and Geelong. The article gained traction on Twitter, leaving many users shocked that they had not heard earlier about the exchange. Clearly, the demographic listening to Triple M on Monday didn’t particularly mind, or at least anyone with the ability to call it out publicly.

By Sunday evening, Danny Frawley had apologised and the AFL had promised to make an official statement on the matter. Since then, there have been non-apologies from McGuire, rhetoric with no consequences from the AFL, front page coverage and Collingwood sponsors expressing their disappointment. From the time between finishing this piece and it being published, there may be more. Talk about people power!

The context for this story beyond making a joke about drowning a woman makes it all the worse. In an editorial on Monday, Caroline Wilsonrecalled that she had recently written an opinion piece suggesting that Collingwood introduce a succession plan, considering that McGuire had been club president for nearly 20 years. She was aware that McGuire was unhappy with the article.

After co-host Damian Barrett made a minor attempt to defend Wilson during the exchange, McGuire turned on him, claiming she’d ‘burn [him] like everyone else’. ‘She’s like the black widow,’ McGuire said. ‘She just sucks you in and gets you.’ What a specific point to make, it absolutely reeks of underlying bitterness. Make no mistake, this was no offhand joke. What remarks like this scream is ‘women, toe the line or cop this’.

Caroline Wilson is a woman simply trying to do her job. It doesn’t matter what you think of her opinions – she has the right to express them as a journalist without fearing for her safety from strangers, let alone her industry peers. At the beginning of this season, Mark Robinson from the Herald Sun broke a controversial story naming Collingwood as having up to 11 players tested positive for recreational drugs during the off season. Robinson mentioned other clubs with supposedly higher numbers of players testing positive, but left them unnamed. There was uproar on social media and debates over whether Robinson had breached journalistic ethics but in the extensive backlash, I never saw anything this specific and violent. It is unthinkable that Robinson’s sporting colleagues would have joked about drowning him.

Those who make the argument that we should ‘lighten up’, ‘it’s just a joke’ or, even worse, that we should sit down and shut up because the AFL is run by men are deeply mistaken. Women make up nearly 50% of all fans – think about the millions in memberships and merchandise that we spend every year. We deserve better.

The women who are working in the industry, especially after last week’s announcement of the national women’s league commencing next year, have the right to a safe workplace. They should not have to walk on eggshells and defer to men in fear of facing what Wilson has when they voice a discordant opinion. Think of the women currently working at the Collingwood Football Club and those joining the club in future, with their new women’s football and netball teams. What kind of messages are they receiving from their workplace about how they are valued? Will Collingwood be the club that women don’t want to be drafted to?

Footy is damn well built on women’s backs, and the absolute bare minimum that we deserve is to feel safe and welcomed. It hurts to be shown otherwise by commentators, clubs and the AFL themselves time and again. For all of the rhetoric on diversity that the AFL and clubs espouse, there needs to be real change in the way that women are treated, and that starts with consequences for this behaviour.

My blood runs cold when I hear the audio – men unabashedly guffawing at the idea of drowning a woman, because they don’t like what she has to say. Is this my fate when I speak up?

What’s the answer? I despair to think. The AFL’s lacklustre response in a press conference on Monday morning was disappointing, but sadly unsurprising. Do we boycott the game? Stop going to matches? People will choose to show their disappointment in different ways, and I respect that. I won’t be going to watch my club play on Friday night, I think I need a break.

In her editorial, Wilson said that the incident reminded her of ‘the old days’, when her existence was treated as a regular joke on The Footy Show by McGuire and the other hosts. Thankfully, she believes that the response this time around suggests that the wider community is changing their tune. And I think that some of the thanks has to go to the Internet for providing a space for a diverse range of voices on sport, as opposed to a mainstream still committing to straight white men. Without these voices, this story would probably just have been yet another example of unnoticed and unpunished sexism.

 

*Just as a postscript, The Outer Sanctum have been promoting Geelong player Jimmy Bartel’s ‘Face Up to Domestic Violence’ campaign and you shoulddonate if you can. That facial hair he’s been rocking all season is for this cause, and all funds are going to The Luke Batty Foundation and Bethany, a Geelong-based family services organisation.

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