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22 January 2015

A journey into the dark heart of sport: Anna Krien’s “Night Games”

The William Hill 2014 Sports Book of the Year covers the rape trial of an Australian Rules footballer -- but also raises broader questions about how to resolve a culture clash.

By Juliet Jacques

Night Games: Sex, Power and a Journey Into the Dark Heart of Sport 
Anna Krien
Yellow Jersey, 288pp, £12.99

“By trying to seek out a shade of grey, I’m protecting one of them. That is not going to sit well with feminists or footballers,” Anna Krien writes, summarising her mission in this book. Night Games, which won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award 2014, covers the rape trial of an Australian Rules footballer but is also about culture clashes, and about the difficulties in understanding, let alone resolving them.

Krien starts by conceding that documenting objective truth will not be possible. In an author’s note she explains that on grounds of confidentiality she is forbidden to report the complainant’s testimony or to use the woman’s name. She adds, “I believe the defendant’s name should be suppressed here for the same reason.” So she calls the complainant Sarah Wesley and the defendant Justin Dyer, and she reveals in the prologue that the court declared Dyer “not guilty”.

With the verdict established, Krien questions the dynamics behind it. Dyer’s seats in court were full, Wesley’s almost empty as she gave evidence by live link. The jury of 12 included just two women after Dyer challenged its composition. Krien’s position, too, is compromised as Dyer’s grandmother hugs her at the judgment. From there, the book works like a thriller, using clear prose to explore complex structural problems with this case and, more broadly, sporting or social conventions and jury trials.

In 2010, after Collingwood beat St Kilda in the Australian Football League (AFL) Grand Final, rumours of a gang rape began to circulate. Police confiscated bedsheets from a townhouse where Wesley had agreed to go with a local league player, Nate Cooper, and confirmed they would question two players who’d had sex with her there. Initially they invited Dyer, then 22, a player with the smaller Coburg Tigers, as a witness, only telling him later he was a suspect. As Krien writes, “Dyer was a nobody, but what happened that night and how it revealed itself could affect ‘real’ footballers, not to mention the richest footy club in town.”

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Dyer was accused of raping Wesley in an alleyway after she left the townhouse. His image appeared in print and online, but cut out from his footballing friends. The Tigers dropped him but another side embraced him. This is a huge problem in team sports: often if you’re good enough you’re moral enough – unless financial interests dictate otherwise. (The same dynamic was at play before and after the Welsh player Ched Evans’s rape conviction, but particularly after his release when Sheffield United and Oldham Athletic considered signing him. It was complicated further by Evans’s prospective father-in-law offering to subsidise any losses from club sponsors withdrawing.)

The chance to interrogate this subculture was missed because the Victoria state police decided not to charge Dyer’s more prestigious associates. But how could the court question witnesses adequately, let alone judge Dyer, if it couldn’t discuss what had happened earlier in the townhouse?

Like many writers, Krien is captivated by ambiguity: sport, on the other hand, relies on certainties – that a team can win while staying within the rules. Yet sport’s central dilemma has always been how acceptable it is to bend those rules in pursuit of victory. This mentality can have awful consequences in societies that cast men and
women as polar opposites, unable to understand each other and seeing sex as a game – or, for men, a conquest. In a case of this sort, the court is supposed to decide what is fair but the odds are stacked against a complainant. Dyer’s lawyer aimed to create “reasonable doubt” about his client’s guilt, which led to him putting Wesley on trial and using any inconsistencies to brand her a “liar”.

Krien is rarely unambivalent, but here she records her fury. The matter is shaped by old preconceptions; since the story of Adam and Eve, men have cast women as deceptive. She sharply recalls Catharine MacKinnon’s assertion: “Feminism is built on believing women’s accounts of sexual use and abuse by men.”

As conviction rates for reported rape are so low – 6.5 per cent in England and Wales in 2012 – it seems dangerous even to discuss inconsistencies in survivors’ stories. Krien considers the “accepted” idea of rape and the need to fit that narrative, especially if there is no physical violence. In court, the policewoman leading the Australian investigation said Wesley had felt “compelled” but not “forced” to have sex with a Collingwood player in the townhouse, but that inquiry was dropped and charges never laid. Did the police assume the jury would not be sophisticated enough to consider the sex in the townhouse, whereas Dyer’s alleyway encounter looked a “classic” case? Are the police even fit to bring complainants to court, given that they so frequently aim to discourage people from pressing charges?

Moreover, the idea of “fight or flight” as a reaction ignores a third response: to freeze. There are also difficulties around consent – it relies on the capacity to say yes, knowledge of what one is saying yes to, and that decision being free of threat, Krien notes, yet in the “gang bangs” that male sports teams use as a bonding ritual, men hold the physical and psychological power. On many occasions clubs have approached women to stop them reporting sexual assault. And the agreement that “formalised the sharing of files, photos, videos and evidence of people involved” between the AFL and the Victoria police only added a flavour of conspiracy.

Krien skilfully illustrates the ways in which the AFL’s efforts to address its sexual culture were derided by players and pundits focusing on how accusations of rape “brought down” players and clubs. She also shows how recent legal reforms in Victoria, which oblige the prosecution to “prove that the accused was aware that the victim might or might not be consenting”, have made it harder to secure a conviction and led to old judgments being overturned, as a jury must agree that not only was consent not given, but this was understood by all parties. Defence lawyers have turned legislation that was meant to be progressive into something that favours the powerful.

Here lie the fundamental questions posed in Night Games: how can we judge individual acts using such antiquated systems, in such a corrupt culture? 

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