After so many revelations, sporting organisations need to look deeply at their histories with child sexual abuse
If there was a moment that exemplified the impact of men telling their stories of childhood sexual abuse in elite sport, it was when Adam Kneale said he’d been inspired to share his harrowing experiences at Footscray football club when he read the words of another survivor, former Australian under-19 cricketer Jamie Mitchell.
“I’m at the point of not being embarrassed about it,” Mitchell told ABC Sport.
If there was a moment that typified institutional responses to such stories, it was AFL club Carlton’s reaction to a 2021 ABC Sport investigation that revealed the late John Morice, the club’s Little League coach for half a decade in the 1970s, was a manipulative deviant who had abused many boys placed in his care.
The Blues’ statement, attributed to then-chief executive Cain Liddle, was 90-words long, made no mention of sexual abuse, offered no apology, nor the prospect of assistance to survivors, and promptly faded from public view within 24 hours.
In the latter sense, perhaps it could be called a deft piece of risk management. The message it sent to survivors was something else.
The AFL, usually so emphatic in its messages of social justice, barely shrugged before slinking away.
Cricket Australia? Only once confronted with the full horror of Jamie Mitchell’s heartbreaking story did it finally sign up to the National Redress Scheme.
Other aspects of its response were so cack-handed as to compound Mitchell’s suffering. Only one of its powerful state associations has signed up for Redress.
The survivors battle on
Just as Kneale had taken heart from Mitchell’s story, Mitchell had been emboldened by former St Kilda star Rod Owen’s.
For Rod, the stakes were different again — his fame in the football world had burned brightly and the infamy of his hell-raising life after football formed an equally compelling and macho image.
It was beyond brave for Rod to step forward and tell the world that his life of excess was not glamorous but, instead, the tragic outcome of his childhood sexual abuse by St Kilda Little League coach Darrell Ray and team manager Albert Briggs.
Rod knew it meant many people’s first thought of him would be an image of victimhood that sits uneasily beside the unsparing self-assessments that fuel his recovery from addiction.
He knew he would no longer be known as just the footballer Rod Owen, but as Rod Owen who was sexually abused.
To other male survivors, Rod’s inspiration has been clear.
Wary of Rod’s burden, his old neighbour, Glen Fearnett, told ABC Sport his own story of abuse at the hands of Gary Mitchell, Ray’s “assistant coach” at St Kilda.
In their stories we can see a microcosm of an invisible tragedy that affects far too many men whose only crime was to dream of playing league footy.
Because Glen and Rod grew up in the bayside suburbs of Melbourne’s south-east in the 1970s, they were alarmingly at risk of sexual abuse.
Paedophile coaches controlled not only the St Kilda Little League team for whom every young boy wanted to play, but other suburban teams in St Kilda’s popular local junior league.
The region’s schools, scout groups, yacht clubs, boys’ homes and churches were also infiltrated by offenders.
There is no typical survivor. ABC Sport has interviewed more than 100 men who experienced abuse at the hands of the St Kilda offenders alone: They are concreters and chief executives, school teachers and lawyers, musicians and early retirees.
Some packed their traumas away in the recesses of their minds, never sharing their experiences with loved ones, holding their families and work lives together with an awesome fortitude. Others have seen their private and professional lives cratered.
One has never had a job, a driver’s licence, a romantic relationship or felt a moment’s peace in a world that told him as a boy that he didn’t matter. And to whom exactly does he matter now?
Professional sport is moving too slowly to confront a destructive problem
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse achieved many things, plenty of them positive.
But, when you speak to survivors and investigate their stories, one suspicion about the process hardens into fact: The decade-long spotlight that was placed on the Catholic Church gave almost a free pass to numerous other institutions, and professional sporting organisations are chief among them.
In the days before “working with children” checks, few other institutional atmospheres contained more of the classic preconditions of predation: young children eager to please, coaches with untrammelled power, volunteer administrators too swamped with paperwork to notice sinister dynamics, a prevailing atmosphere of naivety.
To the royal commission, the AFL did not give a submission.
Cricket Australia’s was 28 pages of waffle that didn’t explain how it might deal with even the skeletons it knew about.
Other sports with well-documented histories of harbouring abusers acted put-upon, or treated it as another box-ticking exercise.
We could say it’s simply not good enough — that sports that enjoy tax-free billions and preach their value to the community should be asked to prove that worth — but it is also just plain dumb because litigation will play out regardless.
Doing the right thing — proactively examining their own histories, offering support to survivors where needed — is a straightforward display of corporate social responsibility, and far better for “the brand” than silence and denial, or the wait-and-see approach.
It would also acknowledge the increasing imposition of Sports Integrity Australia on organisations without a plan.
It is too early to identify a major sporting organisation with an unimpeachably “right” approach to confronting its history of abuse, but St Kilda is now an interesting case study, having grappled for more than a year with the stories of Owen and dozens of his mates and having made a sincere start.
Owen remains estranged from the Saints and would be well within his rights to remain so.
St Kilda has made well-intentioned mistakes along the way. However, when confronted with the horrifying stories of the club’s past, chief executive Matt Finnis responded as a father and a human being first, speaking with empathy and genuine feeling. Survivors value that greatly.
Last week, the Saints announced a partnership with the In Good Faith Foundation, an independent, trauma-informed service to assist survivors.
This was a courageous and correct decision by the club: To an extent, it takes the matter out of its own hands, but it offers much-needed assistance to people whose problems cannot be adequately addressed by a football club.
Likewise, the major sports that are beginning the process of passing complaints to Sports Integrity Australia for independent investigation.
To admit you lack the skills to deal with something serious is not a display of weakness.
Should the media ask more questions of professional sporting organisations?
The role of the media in addressing these problems is not entirely clear-cut, thus it is often misunderstood.
Survivors and readers often ask why ABC Sport’s investigations of child sexual abuse at AFL clubs received scant follow-up coverage in other media, a question with an understandable hint of conspiracy about it. The answers are quite dull, residing in three key theories.
The first theory is that such stories draw on resources now lacking at most commercial media outlets.
To a large extent, this is true. It is draining and often unpleasant work that draws on different skills and requires a drastically different mindset than other reporting on sport, a mindset that makes it very difficult for general assignment reporters to flit between traumatic and everyday stories.
It is also an outcome of the differing responsibilities and priorities of the various media outlets.
The ABC charter demands, among other things, rigorous public interest journalism, and ABC management supports journalists to expose these stories, whereas commercial media responds to commercial demands — the production of massive volumes of content by too few reporters.
A journalist delving only temporarily into the topic faces other barriers.
Child sexual abuse is a topic that not many people feel comfortable publicly discussing.
In football, there are few public advocates other than Owen so, unlike most other topics, there are no sound bites and social media posts from which overworked reporters can craft reaction content.
Accordingly, the “conversation” is limited. The Herald Sun’s Mark Robinson conducted a heartfelt interview with Owen, but the most thoughtful discussions about these issues are generally found in what might be termed “alternative media”: podcasts by The Outer Sanctum and Rohan Connolly’s Footyology.
The second theory is that stories of historical abuse are too legally complex to publish. In fact, the opposite is often true.
Editorial standards must be rigorous, but offenders cannot be defamed beyond the grave. And all bar one of the paedophiles to have infiltrated the three AFL clubs examined by ABC Sport had an extensive list of convictions.
The third and least palatable theory is that the issue is “too serious” for mere football reporters, which implies it is also too serious for their audience.
This only works in the minds of people who also separate sport and politics. Journalists and fans cannot live in a fantasy land in which sport and real life do not intersect.
The resources a journalist requires to tackle this topic are not straightforward, but they are free: diligence, sincerity, a trauma-informed approach to interviewing survivors and a willingness to stick with them for weeks, months and sometimes years after their stories have been told.
That might sound like an overwhelming demand, but it’s also an honour.
The Athletic’s Katie Strang — who has fearlessly tackled stories of sexual abuse and misconduct in US sport — expressed this well in an interview with The New Yorker.
“The work was exceptionally, emotionally draining. But I was also so emotionally invested that I felt a deep reservoir of purpose in my work,” she wrote.
Strang had a few other observations that are hard to improve upon.
“I think the money that’s involved in sports is such that it can corrupt, blind and obfuscate. I think it incentivises people to look the other way, to not be vigilant about the protection of athletes, or to be fearful of litigation and let that dictate the course,” she wrote.
“I think there’s a tremendous amount of cachet that comes with athletic expertise and prowess, and I think that gives some individuals a certain level of power and influence.
“I think that there’s probably too much credulity when it comes to these institutions and assumption that they always have athletes’ and employees’ and kids’ wellbeing in mind.
“And I don’t think that there’s probably enough accountability and oversight of some of these institutions.”
It is surely time that major sporting institutions performed their own, unsparing investigations.