The NRL has been marred by bad press over players’ sexual misconduct for years, but the issue is perhaps only now getting the scrutiny it deserves after last week’s Four Corners episode Code of Silence, which delved into a 2002 group-sex incident involving members of the Cronulla Sharks and a then-teenage girl, and (perhaps most importantly) implicated NRL Footy Show host and former Cronulla player Matthew Johns in the event.

Thanks to the involvement of such a high-profile personality, the story has renewed debate all over the mainstream media and blogosphere on the issue of a toxic sexual culture inherent within many sporting teams, as well as the larger issue of sexual consent.

A brief timeline of events

  • In 2002, several Cronulla players had sex with a 19-year-old girl during a pre-season trip to Christchurch, NZ, while others watched. Five days later, the girl made a complaint to the police. Forty Cronulla players and staff were interviewed, with those present during the incident all agreeing the girl had consented. No charges were laid.
  • The story was given a small amount of media attention in Australia and New Zealand; the team publicly denied any wrong-doing. The girl is believed to have identified Johns to both the press and the police at the time, but his name was not made public.
  • Seven years later, the ABC’s Four Corners announces it will air an expose on sexual misconduct on within the NRL, including a detailed discussion of the 2002 incident and an interview with the girl, in which she identifies Johns as one of the players with whom she had sex. The story hit the mainstream media before the program had gone to air.
  • In damage control, the NRL Footy Show aired a pre-recorded acknowledgment of the situation from Johns, after which co-host Paul “Fatty” Vautin leaned over and gave Johns a pat on the back –  a move that went down like a lead balloon with the pundits:[youtube][/youtube]
  • The Four Corners episode airs on 11 May, in which the girl states: “I only remember one player definitely, it was Mattie Johns… He laughed and he joked and he very loud and boisterous and thought it was hilarious and you know kept it going.”
  • On May 13, Johns and his wife appeared on Nine’s A Current Affair, in which he apologised for his involvement in the incident but maintained the girl had consented.
  • The same day, Johns is stood down from both his job with The Footy Show and his coaching job with Melbourne Storm.

The commentary

And now the fallout begins. Kevin Rudd has made some obligatory platitudes about treating women with respect. Hipster parenting site Babble says the Four Corners episode should be used by parents to educate their sons on the issue.

The Sydney Star Observer has an interesting insight into how issues of s-xual consent are discussed with young NRL players:

The material from the NRL seminars include a DVD scenario of an intoxicated woman who goes home with two men and agrees to sex with one of them, but not both. Young players from Newcastle’s under-20s team responded by saying, “She put out first” and that, as she flirted with both men, it was OK for both to have sex with her.

The second version has a drunk man subjected to homos-xual rape. The players have a very different reaction.

At ABC’s Unleashed, former cricketer Michael Jeh points out the elephant in the room, asking: “what is it with footballers and group sex?”, but the SMH’s Sam de Brito says it’s more common than you may think and the NZ Herald’s Chris Rattue offers a first-hand anecdote of just how pervasive it is in League. However, both Meanjin and Jill Singer argue that calling the incident “group sex” at all is an injustice, when –  they argue  —  it should be referred to as “assault”.

The Australian’s Brent Read notes the incident has turned Johns’ much-loved character Reg Reagan – a fat, obnoxious, drunken caricature of a footballer –  into an ugly reality, and thus we probably never will see the biff again.

And for some contrast, SBS’s Jesse Fink somewhat controversially defends Johns, stating:

Matthew Johns should not have been stood down by Channel Nine. He should not have been publicly humiliated by the ABC. He should not be called to account by self-appointed guardians of the greater good like Tracy Grimshaw and Rebecca Wilson.

He should not have had his name dragged through the proverbial mud by what, for me, was one of the flimsiest stories ever to appear on Four Corners.