If you were to consider in isolation the list of subjects – the Tasmanian forestry industry, the treatment of animals, and, most recently, the relationships between women and professional footballers – that Anna Krien has written about, you might conclude that she is a writer attracted to high profile “issues”, subjects that get turned into journalistic fodder, reported on with hysteria and moral indignation, and then put to one side by the news cycle, without necessarily any resolution or remedy.
But, as I discovered when I read her latest book Night Games, Krien doesn’t write about “issues”, but instead about people. She’s not interested in popular opinion, but instead at getting beyond it. She writes with deadly clear-headedness, and is particularly honest about her own failings. Night Games is primarily about a rape trial of a footballer, and in it somehow Krien manages to pry open a world of tacky nightclubs, gangbangs, and locker-room jokes, by first of all admitting how lost she is in it herself. Her own words, at the moment when the verdict in the trial was delivered: “I still don’t know who is guilty and who is innocent, and yet here I am, hugging the grandmother in the defendant’s corner, and that’s a problem, don’t you think?”
I spoke to Krien recently by phone and she talked me through getting interested in the dark side of professional footballers sex lives, what she likes about footy, bullshit commentary, not taking sides, the possibility of women playing in the AFL one day, what’s wrong with the legal system, and some of the more fucked up stories she came across in her research.
VICE: Why did you write about footy players and sex?
Anna Krien:It’s always been hovering around in my subconscious as a story. I remember about a decade ago being at a bar in North Fitzroy, and there was pub trivia in the backroom. One of the questions was, what was the name of the girl who died in the hotel room with Gary Ablett Snr. I remember thinking, What the fuck? This is pub trivia. But I also remember thinking, I hope someone remembers her name. Someone did, and the trivia team high-fived. From that incident onwards, I’ve been aware of a constant surfacing of really ugly stories of allegations of sexual assault against footballers and hush money being paid to women.
Yeah, for sure, there’s a seediness there that people talk about. I thought you were pretty even-handed though. The point didn’t seem to be judgemental. Did you try not to be too anti-jock?
I want to stress that the book’s not anti-sport. There’s a fantastic American sportswriter Robert Lipsyte who said that jock-culture is a distortion of sport. I really agree with that. Sport’s not a problem; men who use sport to enforce their idea of masculinity are. I like footy. I play sport. I didn’t want to be smug and lefty, and self-righteous. I didn’t want to say isn’t it obvious that all sports players are this or that, and they all behave badly, because that’s not true.
Are you a footy fan?
I like watching the odd game, but I wouldn’t call myself a fan. My partner is a fan.
My editor suggested watching a football match with you while we spoke. What would that have been like?
That would have been fun. There would have been a lot of piss-taking of all the talk before and after the game. I don’t really understand why we interview sportspeople. You know? "What do you want to happen today?" "Oh we really want to win." No shit. There’d be piss-taking of the commentary, but the game I like watching, particularly some of the smaller, really fast aboriginal players, who seem to be playing a different game sometimes. I love watching them. I think we would have enjoyed ourselves.
On that, you raise the possibility of women playing AFL in the book, but then sort of rule it out. But maybe women could. I mean, there’s an indigenous player at Port Adelaide, Jake Neade, who is sixty something kilos. If he can hold his own, I think women can play footy without necessarily being as strong as men.
Maybe! Though I can’t say I’ll be putting up my hand for that. I used to play basketball with a bunch of guys – it was just a casual game but there were times when I’d run into one of them and it felt like running into a metal pole. I remember actually feeling my teeth and bones rattle like on a cartoon.
If women played AFL they’d be seen by players more as peers. The fact that they’re not seems to be the problem you uncover?
Yeah, at the moment, they’re more service providers. Mums drive the boys to games. Women look after players’ media-image. Women massage the knots in their thighs. Women constantly help men to be the heroes on the field.
People are going to be curious about the scandalous details in the book. I wasn’t expecting to be shocked, but there’s this weird, casual change room scatology that you describe of people pissing on each other, and shitting in people’s shoes. Football’s seen as a mainstream thing, but were you surprised by how plain fucked-up some of that stuff is?
That’s the story of some players on an end of year trip. A group of players, some older and some younger, go back to a woman’s house and have sex with her, and while that’s going on, one of the older players decided to take a dump in her shoe. When it’s over, the over-accommodating woman offers the players a lift home, and they think great, not only do we get to fuck her, but also we get a lift home. She goes to put her shoe on and puts her foot in the shit. All the players laugh, and instead of being outraged, she laughs it off too. That’s kind of what the book’s about. Guys who think that’s okay, and why women let it happen.
A lot of what you describe is quite far removed from sex, and a lot of it isn’t directed at women, but at other players. Guys doing pretty off stuff to each other. There’s one story of a guy jamming his dick in another player’s mouth out of the blue in a changing room for no apparent reason. It’s pretty abnormal.
These guys have been carved out of the normal world. They spend 24 hours a day with each other in this inner world of the locker room, and become further and further removed from the reality the rest of us live. It’s probably pretty confusing to them in a sense. There are women who present themselves to them. There’s a lot of easy sex going on. The normal barriers to consent that the rest of us deal with often aren’t present for these footballers. Problems arise when something different happens, and a woman stumbles in their world and doesn’t know the rules of a groupie, which are: lie back, take it, and go home.
The target of your most severe criticism at times was the legal system. Were you surprised by how unimaginative the legal system is?
I was. I followed the rape trial of a junior footballer. By the end of the book, it seemed pretty obvious that no one was going to come out of the legal system with a) any sense of justice, or b) any sense of enlightenment. People went in pretty uninformed, and came out, if anything, with their prejudices confirmed.
In covering the trial, you really insert yourself the version of events. You describe getting to know quite well the family of the accused. I got the impression that you had a lot of sympathy for him.
Yeah, I really felt for Justin Dyer. As I got to know him and his family, it was really clear that they were suffering. His father had been diagnosed with cancer at the start of the trial. They’d been financially crippled by the cost of the legal cost. Which isn’t to say there wasn’t equal trauma on the complainant’s side. But I couldn’t portray Justin as a monster because he didn’t strike me as one.
You speak to Justin extensively, and the reader really gets to know him, but we never hear from the victim. How much of problem was not getting to talk to her?
Yeah, I panicked. I really struggled, especially as I got closer and closer to him. I really worried about not having anything to compare his suffering to. I think her voice is a real gap in the book, which is why I don’t just focus on the one trial, but also look at other cases and other trials. Not as a way of replacing her voice, but as an alternative.
How hard was it not to take sides?
I think it’s harder for other people to accept that I’m not going to take sides. To me it’s kind of obvious how hard it is to take sides. Often these rape cases boil down to he said, she said. Or they said, she said. It’s so easy to introduce an element of doubt. Often the jury doesn’t have an option but find not guilty. I can’t ignore those elements of doubt. I wasn’t there to take sides, but to show how complicated it was.
Have you had any responses from footy players?
Well it’s only been out three days! I’ll give the football world a bit longer to read it. There may be some knee-jerk reactions from people who just see the cover and think badly. I do think that if that world reads the book, they might appreciate it, and see that I haven’t just said they’re all potential rapists, or said stupid things like that. I’d hope I’ve given a more nuanced account of things, and tried to understand why certain things happen.
That you’ve played the ball, not the man?
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