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The AFL Is Tone Deaf When It Comes To Rape Culture

The Majak Daw case reveals inconsistencies in the league's approach to charges against its players.

by Girard Dorney
Jul 4 2014, 3:00am

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This week Majak Daw, a ruck-forward for the AFL’s North Melbourne Kangaroos, was charged with three counts of sexual assault. The incident was alleged to have taken place in 2007 when Daw was either 15 or 16 and the victim was 15.

The 23-year-old Daw was born in war-torn Sudan and is the first black African to play in the AFL. His background and his promise as an AFL forward have sparked wider interest than would otherwise be given to a player who has thus far struggled with his game.

However his fame and potential are reasons victims’ groups have put forward to argue his club or the league should stand Daw down. In an article by John Kaila for Centre Against Sexual Assault forum spokeswoman Carolyn Worth is quoted as saying, “Until your name is cleared you shouldn’t be in a position of influence and I think those boys (footballers) are in a position of influence.”

Both the club and the AFL are offering support to Daw, who’s flatly denying the allegations. To the surprise of some commentators and victims’ rights groups, he will remain available for VFL and AFL games. The AFL went into further detail, legal counsel Andrew Dillon has said in a statement, “This is a very serious matter and it is being treated very seriously by the club and the AFL… we will monitor the case and reserve the right to take action under our rules if deemed appropriate.”

The deemed appropriate part of that statement is indicative of the case-by-case basis with which the AFL and its clubs deal with criminal charges against players. St. Kilda forward Stephen Milne is on trial this August for an alleged incident of sexual assault in 2004. The charges laid against him last year caused an initial suspension and the player retired at the end of last season. Even more severe was the reaction to Saints midfielder Andrew Lovett’s case; in 2010 St. Kilda terminated his contract the day after the AFL player was charged with sexual assault. In 2011 a jury found him not guilty. 

Majak Daw’s management issued a statement that the player was entitled to a presumption of innocence, but that’s not how the AFL has treated players in the past. And that’s part of the problem for the AFL, the ad-hoc approach they’ve taken.

No reasons have been put forth by either the AFL or North Melbourne to explain why Daw is being treated differently to Milne or Lovett. One significant difference between the cases is that when their incidents occurred Stephen Milne and Andrew Lovett were adult AFL players. Daw was a teenager who was three years away from being drafted by the AFL. The other difference is that Daw is a symbol for the power of sport. He is a trailblazer for refugees and black Africans living in Australia.

It’s a complicated issue, such cases are reflections of where Australia stands as a society in regards to such issues as rape culture, women’s rights, and race relations. Worthwhile considering are previous instances in Daw’s career that were considered media-worthy.

In 2012 Majak Daw was handed an indefinite ban for being untruthful to his coach. He had gone out clubbing when he was supposed to be rehabbing from a knee injury. The club’s reluctance to talk about the ban lead to an article being written in the Herald Sun that was described as a beat-up. One of the things his coach said to explain Daw’s suspension was, “Trust is everything, not only in football clubs but everywhere.”

According to his team Daw has not been reaching his potential as a player this year. After a disappointing game in May his coach said, “We've got to weigh up his value to the side. I've still got great confidence in him in the future but he's ... playing like a rookie at the moment.” The headline of the Sportal article that quote is taken from is, “'Rookie' Majak Daw could be dropped, warns Brad Scott”. Around the same time last year that wasn’t a threat, Daw was dropped before an important match with St. Kilda.

Think about it as a story we will look back on years from now. An AFL player was admonished harshly for lying to his coach, and called out in the media for playing poorly, but when that same player was charged with three counts of sexual assault his management, his club, and his league gave him measured support. These facts don’t amount to a condemnation of anybody but, if they are a reflection of what we value as a society, what do they say about us?

When a player is charged with a crime the AFL and its clubs should either withhold any action until the legal process decides his fate, as they have with Majak Daw, or they should demand players be beyond reproach, and punish them when they fail to meet that demand. They should not pick between the two, and run a kangaroo court every time a new charge is levelled.

By not having consistency on this issue the AFL invites complaint. The question becomes not what differentiates the players but what differentiates the victims? Why do some see their alleged rapist publicly isolated, and others see him supported?