‘Putrid’ abuse highlights sexist underbelly of football
Earlier this week, Tenisha Crook, the girlfriend of Richmond AFL player Jack Higgins, posted a striking rebuke to social media, addressing the vile abuse she's received since an unsubstantiated and unproved rumour surfaced about herself and another footballer on Twitter.
"[It's] absolutely disgusting that it has gotten to the point where I have needed to respond to this slander and defamation. I am horrified at the amount of (all male) putrid messages received in mine and Jack's Facebook and Instagram DMs," Crook wrote.
"The lack of privacy Hig and myself/others have received is appalling. Football fans need to learn to respect the privacy of players and their families/wives and girlfriends (especially in the off-season).
At first glance, this seems to be just another spat in the footballer world. But in fact, it shows the deeper issues of misogyny, and the specific expectations we have of women in sport, at play.
Despite the introduction of the AFLW in February 2017, Australian football is still an industry that operates on a very specific representation of masculinity. Footballers are upheld as sporting heroes, their physical prowess celebrated daily and their team culture seen as a reflection of the 'mateship' values we still ascribe to men.
"Football - and sport more broadly - is a world that is defined by gender, a sex-segregated sport that is intricately linked to how we view masculinity in Australia," says researcher Shawna Marks. "And 'WAGs' are under intense scrutiny to perform their femininity in ways that support the view of Australian footballers as dominant in their masculinity and heterosexuality."
There is no more visible marker of heterosexuality than a supportive, compliant wife or girlfriend. Or, as Rob Hess writes in his study of women and Australian rules football in colonial Melbourne: "the ornamental figure, socialite or voyeur … [who] delights in male bodies in tight shorts".
Instead of seeing these partnerships for what they are - a love story between two people - we are almost always suspicious of a WAG's motivations, almost always labelling her as a groupie who has managed to 'catch' a footballer, to sink her claws into one of 'our boys'.
"Most women I talked to … did not set out to catch footballer, yet that is what people think: they these women actively chose and sought this life out, and that they preyed on these men and that this [the lack of privacy] is what they should have expected," Marks says.
And while these women do have some power, Marks points out that "it's power by proximity, and it's limited at best". Because unlike their husbands and boyfriends, a WAG's power is fleeting and can disappear the moment her partner is no longer a player or if she dares transgress the role ascribed to her.
Take Tania Hird, the wife of James Hird, who for years embodied the gender roles expected of WAGs: the pretty, quiet, supportive wife and mother, always in the background.
"During the Essendon drug scandal, she became very vocal in her support of her husband and, as a result, became a subject of derision," Marks says. "The thing is, Tania Hird was a lawyer and suddenly we saw her using those skills to defend her husband, and we didn't like that".
Marks adds, "shame sticks to women, but somehow it doesn't stick to men. For them it's more of a disgrace, and that disgrace is short lived, whereas a woman is forever tainted."
Earlier this year, during their highly publicised marriage split, it was Nadia Bartel who received torrents of abuse from men suggesting that she essentially deserved what she got, not former Geelong star Jimmy Bartel, despite the fact that he was widely believed to have had an affair with another woman.
Somewhat predictably, while celebrating their over-the-top house-warming party nicknamed Juddchella late last year, it was Rebecca Judd who drew criticism for their festival themed bash, not her husband and former Carlton captain Chris, who owns the home and co-hosted the party.
It's easy to be dismissive of WAGs, who - especially in the age of social media - straddle the fine line between fantasy and reality, accessibility and remoteness.
It's also all too easy to forget that these are women with feelings who often reluctantly live much of their life in the public eye.
The next time a rumour comes out consider this: why is this rumour even out? What purpose does it serve to criticise a woman whose only 'sin' in life is to be shacked up with a footballer? And is what goes on behind closed doors and away from the oval even our business to begin with?
There is a real person behind all this, and deserves better than being hung out to dry in a kangaroo court.
Caroline Zielinski is a columnist for RendezView.com.au