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The game that stops a state can also stop the violence

October 02 2018 By Patty Kinnersly, Our Watch CEO

It’s not quite the race that stops the nation, but the game that stops a state is not far down on the list of cherished moments of cultural unity in this sports-mad country of ours.

AFL Grand Final Image

Image: Getty

This past weekend, hundreds of thousands of people fronted up or tuned in to watch two teams put everything they have on the line for the coveted ‘flag’. The atmosphere was charged. Players jostled and shoved one another and the crowd bellowed in indignation at key kicks and controversial calls. The fourth quarter was truly heart-stopping.
 
But when the final siren blew, everyone on the field shook hands. Guys who had been locked in seemingly mortal combat just moments before showed great mutual respect. Some hugged one another.

It would be truly fantastic if that’s all there was to the AFL Grand Final, and indeed to every other huge sporting event that captures Aussies’ hearts.

But sadly, police every year tell a different story, about another field of play, where the game doesn’t end in handshakes or hugs.

Police in Victoria and interstate will tell you that – even though the Eagles and the Pies (and the Roosters and the Storm) have tens of thousands of female members and fans, women on both sides lose at this time of year.
On big sporting occasions, police brace themselves for a spike in call-outs to domestic violence incidents.

That’s in addition to the 657 domestic violence matters police already deal with every single day.

Why is that? Well, it’s important first to look at why it’s not. It’s not because of sport.

Neither the AFL nor the NRL, nor the alcohol consumption that accompanies their biggest games are to blame for the violence.

The real reason is gender inequality. Footy players can shake hands at the end of the match because the playing field is equal, but for women off the field it is not.

When men are violent with women, it’s never because sport or beer made them do it. Men who choose to behave that way do so because fundamentally, they see women as ‘less than’ themselves; as less deserving of respect, and therefore an acceptable recipient for their aggression. 

It’s a hard pill to swallow. We see ourselves as a nation of equals. We watch footy as families, as couples and as mixed-sex groups of friends. Our love of the game unites us, even when our scarves and beanies are different colours.

But figures released this week tell a different story about how equal we are, on the whole. The Australian Bureau of Statistics released data showing that women at the very start of their careers, as graduates, are worth $5,000 less than their male counterparts in most professions. The same figures also showed just one in six CEOs in this country is a woman.

Research by the University of NSW published in esteemed journal Nature Communications found women are still underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and maths professions, despite achieving the same grades as male students. 

When you take these figures into account, it’s not hard to see why large numbers of men do not see women as equals. The exact message conveyed to all of us is this: women are worth less than men – literally.

So what is it about game night that brings out men’s aggression toward their partners? Isn’t sport at its very heart all about fairness?

Extensive research has shown there are four key drivers of violence against women.

Three of them are:

  1. Disrespect towards women and male peer relations that emphasise aggression
  2. Stereotyped constructions of masculinity and femininity
  3. Condoning of violence against women
I don’t know about you, but I can see a few things there that come up a fair bit in footy through phrases and behaviours. A lot of the slurs hurled at the game were names for female body parts, or other female-only terms.
But while sport and alcohol may stir up violent behaviour, there is no way that behaviour could occur if the perpetrators saw their partners as equals.

Sport is, in fact, part of the solution.

A number of major sporting organisations are working with Our Watch to do just that. They are working to ensure women and men are equally represented at all levels of their clubs, and they are empowering players and spokespeople to publicly challenge sexist behaviours and remarks both on and off the field.

It'll be a team effort, but if we all keep working together – players and fans, men and women – we will bring closer the day when police don’t have to brace for more domestic violence matters and can instead relax with their partners and children and enjoy the game.

Because there’s no denying that when we’re equal, everybody wins.