One day there will be a worthwhile documentary made about rugby league players and their interactions with women. Four Corners’ highly-anticipated program last night, “The Code of Silence”, was not it.

Reporter Sarah Ferguson delivered a muddled, unsatisfying 45 minutes which broke little new ground. It concentrated on four incidents: an allegation of s-xual assault against Dane Tilse in 2005 for which no charges were laid; harsh words by Anthony Watmough to a young woman at Manly’s season launch this year; the alleged rape of a semi-conscious woman by an unnamed player; and a group s-x session between numerous Cronulla players and a 19-year-old woman in Christchurch in 2002 where her level of consent is disputed.

This seemed an odd selection of incidents. If attitudes to women are to be explored, why no mention of Roosters forward Anthony Cherrington who recently pleaded guilty to an assault in which he struck his girlfriend to the face and body before approaching her with a knife?

Why was there no mention of Greg Bird, recently found guilty of one count of reckless wounding and one count of making a false accusation to police after allegedly attacking his girlfriend with a glass (released on bail, due for sentencing on 22 June) and soon to face court again in relation to an alleged assault of a woman at a nightclub?

If Cronulla’s club culture was to be called into question, why not mention that Bird’s former Sharks teammate Tevita Latu was sacked after punching a teenage woman in the face and breaking her nose?

Why spend so long on Watmough’s unpleasant language but not mention that in 2007 his former partner took out an AVO against him?

If the thorny question of s-xual consent was the focus of the program, why was there no mention of the recent accusation by a young woman that she was s-xually assaulted by five Balmain Tigers players at a Caloundra resort?

Why not investigate the case of Titans forward Anthony Laffranchi who had a rape charge dismissed 13 months ago when the magistrate found that the prosecution could bring no direct evidence of lack of consent on the woman’s part?

Similarly, why no mention of Warriors winger Michael Crockett having his rape charges dismissed by a Sydney court last year?

Why was the notorious incident with the Bulldogs at Coffs Harbour given such a cursory mention? Why was there no mention whatsoever of the complaints made by a woman who had s-x in a toilet with three Brisbane Broncos players — Karmichael Hunt, Sam Thaiday, Darius Boyd — last year?

If the incidents that Ferguson omitted are surprising, so was the inclusion of self-styled “cougar” Charmyne Palavi. If her carrying-on was supposed to provide balance and show the temptations thrown at NRL players, it fell short of the mark. Palavi alleged that after drinking too much she fell unconscious in a hotel room and woke to find a “star” player raping her, but said breezily that she did not even consider laying charges.

Ferguson failed to question her closely about the incident, or about the apparent double-standard where she “hooks up” players with females, but is displeased when one young man tells her about forcing a woman to give oral s-x to him and six teammates. Overlay of Palavi partying and applying fake tan to her legs did nothing to make her look more credible.

Ferguson’s distaste for group s-x is palpable and clouds her judgment — I think “degrading” and “depraved” are two adjectives she used. This fails, firstly, to take into account that some people (male and female) want to indulge in group s-x. Secondly, it prevents her discovering if group s-x is more prevalent in rugby league than anywhere else, and if so, why.

Easily the most affecting section was the interview with the New Zealand woman who had s-x with Cronulla players in 2002. The negative impact on her life seems enormous. A possible scenario (given that Four Corners was not saying it was non-consensual) is that the woman felt unable, for various reasons, to stop the group s-x. Why was this so? What was the power dynamic? Ferguson could have profitably interviewed Jason Stephens, a Cronulla player at the time of the incident, who has written a book advocating pre-marital celibacy.

She could have also interviewed feisty women who have long involvement with the game, such as Rebecca Wilson or Deb Spillane, to dig into the myths and realities of rugby league’s culture. Catherine Lumby is a specialist adviser to the NRL on gender politics — where was her input?

The program began clunkily with a profile of the Newcastle Knights club, including full dressing room access. Ferguson asked a player and a coach about young men being “risk takers”, as if risk-taking has anything to do with s-xual assault. This section also featured Brian Smith urging his players not to be “softcocks”, a regrettable term in the circumstances. Apparently the Knights were told the proposed program was about rugby league’s drinking culture when they agreed to cooperate.

Alcohol was rightly identified as one important factor, but Ferguson failed to acknowledge that all of the women in the incidents she chose to highlight had been drinking. Does alcohol render these women more vulnerable? Given that the idea of each party giving formal verbal consent before s-x is unrealistic, does alcohol diminish the ability to give and receive clear non-verbal consent?

It is hard to fathom why there was no attempt to compare rugby league players’ behaviour towards women to that of other sportsmen. What happens in rugby union? The AFL? Cricket? Other sports overseas? Rugby league is a maelstrom of issues around masculinity, but is it unique — and if so, why?

The wash up? The perpetrators of foul deeds that were not raised on the program will be extremely relieved. Matt Johns has had his reputation shredded for what may have been consensual s-x, which hardly seems fair. Many people have suggested that it is also unfair to his children who will probably cop schoolyard taunting. Sarah Ferguson will hopefully move on to better researched, more subtly thought-through stories (preferably unembellished by hokey re-enactments which make reports harder to take seriously).

The Four Corners caravan has packed up and rolled out, leaving behind the malign fact that, for all of the NRL players who have ever been accused of s-xual assault, not one (to my knowledge) has ever been found guilty and jailed. Either there are a lot of women falsely suggesting rape or the system is failing horribly.

Several years ago in a place near Coffs Harbour I was introduced to a grim, taciturn man. Later I learned that he was the father of the woman who had alleged rape by Bulldogs players in 2004. “It has basically killed him,” the person I was with told me, although I could see that already from his face.

There are many more ripples in this murky pool than “The Code of Silence” managed to show.

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Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey