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May 14, 2009

Matthew Johns: what happened and what people are saying about it

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. Ruth Brown canvasses the history -- and reaction.

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.

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11 thoughts on “Matthew Johns: what happened and what people are saying about it

  1. skink

    if you want another apologist for Johns, you should read Perth lawyer Patti Chong, who says in her Faifax blog that: “Johns is innocent. The law gives him the presumption of innonence. He is only guilty in the court of morals. But it takes 2 to tango and I am not fussed about what consenting adults do behind closed doors. He is only answerable to his wife and family and not to the media…Fact is, he was not even charged. He should not lose his job over it.”

  2. stephen martin

    The whole episode leaves a rather nasty taste in the mouth to say the least, but I wonder what started this media frenzy seven years after the event. Although it was apparently consensual I think that Channel 9 and the Storm were correct in dispensing with Matthew John’s services.
    It should also be remembered that the girl concerned was only nineteen at the time of the incident, incidentally no one that I have read has mentioned the sobriety or otherwise of the youngster, which
    might change John’s legal position entirely.

  3. John Reid

    You bash Johns for his misdemeanours? What about the 20 other Cronulla idiots involved in this escapade? Where’s your investigative journalism? Tough economic times prevents you beinfg investigating this?
    Shame Crikey! I thought you looked at all points of view but you’ve just joined the tabloids in biased nonsense targeting Johns who’s admitted and said sorry.
    Bet you don’t publish this, Not good for your image.

  4. Leslie Bursill

    So I am going to be serious for a while rather than use so oft misunderstood ironic phrase. Let’s get it straight, I don’t like footy (thugby foot brawl) and I don’t like M Johns. BUT what Four Corners did to the man was a disgrace and what his employers at Ch 9 did is disgusting. He did nothing illegal, perhaps stupid, certainly immoral, and definitely gross but not illegal. It was 7 years ago!! [portion of comment edited out by Crikey] She was 19 years old, many young men were sent to their deaths for the country at age 19, so even the govt thinks you are of an age to make decisions. Get some perspective on this. If the woman, now aged 26, is suicidal then the publicity she has generated for whatever reason will not help that. If she does harm herself will that also be Johns’ fault or perhaps the media will share that with him??

  5. Heathdon McGregor

    I just wish Mr Johns would either apologise or protest his innocence. Not both at the same time. He either believes it was consensual and he did nothing wrong or he believes that they influenced her to do things she did not want to. The young lady may have agreed to whatever with two men in a hotel room. How did the other “men” know she was interested in them or did they just join in when they heard a good thing going? If the latter then there is no way the 19 year old could offer informed consent. If…if… if… if professional footballers were not above the law.

  6. Chris Johnson

    Had the idiot used his ‘cleared of allegations’ experience to build a career as an advocate of better standards for players on and off the field he’d have retained the support of the NRL and Nine. That he apologised to his victim for the abuse that followed his personal stunt indicates he was well aware it had gone horribly wrong and like so many others hoped it would all go away. It’s called karma and it’s bitten Matt Johns big time. Lets hope the house of cards keeps falling and Matt’s not the only one to get his just desserts.

  7. Scoogsy

    I appreciate that Rugby League has some problems with sexual misconduct. The problem though lies in the way these sorts of misconduct are handled by the NRL, coaches and clubs. I know individual players are ultimately responsible for their own conduct, but if we look at the Cronulla Sharks case no illegal activity occured?

    Yet a process of naming and shaming, primarily Mathew Johns has taken place. Why is this neccessary? A mans career has now wiped from the table because of something that he did which was completely legal.

    I’m sorry if a young girl may have been adversly affected by this. Let us not forget that no rape took place here. This girl consented to sex with at least, if not all of these football players. Where does the responsiblity of the girl come in?

    She goes out, has drinks with football players and consents to sex. This was also her decision. I feel as though these football players are being unfairly targetted to a degree as being the only ones in control and that a respect for a womans abilty to make decisions is being undermined.

    What if the shoe were on the other foot. A football player meets girl A, who happens to have a friend with her, girl B. The football player and girl A go home, girl B comes along. The night ends up with everyone getting drunk and the player having sex with both girls, when all along he only wanted to have sex with girl A. The next day he feels regret for having slept with other girl, who obvisouly took advantage of his intoxicated state. Would we feel sorrow for him the next day?

    There are two sides to every story and I felt 4 Corners was very one sided. This wasn’t about broaching the truth, it was about sex, scandle and ultimately destroying a mans livelyhood.

    I’m not saying what Mathew Johns did was right, but he didn’t deserve this.

  8. Gratton Wilson

    Many of the comments claim that what Johns did was legal, that this is merely a moral issue. How do you get this? I do not hear of anyone claiming that this woman was stone cold sober when she consented to sex with Johns. She was young, possible foolish but if she was drunk, then an experienced drinker like Johns would have been aware that she was not capable of making a competent and reasonable decision. In law an agreement is not valid if one of the parties is aware that the other party is not capable of giving reasoned consent. A contract in such circumstances is invalid in law. If she were drunk and he knew it then she did not legally consent to sex with him and certainly not with all those others. That he permitted or even invited his sexual predator friends to avail themselves of her body was as criminal as that episode in Sydney a few years ago where a rapist rang his friends and invited them to help themselves to a captive female. I understand that they were sentenced to a considerable gaol time. And rightly so!

  9. Philip Walker

    Trial by media is never going to reveal the truth. For all those intent on saying he is guilty you don’t know the whole story, I don’t know the whole story. A series of soundbites and newspaper columns aren’t going to get to the bottom of the matter. He hasn’t had the opportunity of testing the claims made against him and nor have a prosecution tested his actions and words.