Monday, 23 March 2015

Book Review: Waterhouse-Watson, D. (2013) Athletes, Sexual Assault, and ‘Trials by Media’: Narrative Immunity. United Kingdom: Routledge.

Waterhouse-Watson is a academic who writes extensively about sexual violence and the media.  This review is about her book on the ‘Trial’ of athletes by media but I will also refer to the work of Anna Krien Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport (2013).  They both cover sexual violence associated with sport in Australia and take some of the same examples.  Here is Waterhouse-Watson’s review of Krien - that she is insufficiently feminist and too close to the accused footballer.

Waterhouse-Watson book opens with a note on Terminology and - spoiler alert - concludes with an Afterword in which she declares herself once to have been the No 1 fan of the Aussie Rules team the Hawthorn Hawks but now has hung up her scarf and cancelled her membership.  It is sometimes disparagingly said of sports journalists that they are fans with typewriters perhaps we might now warn of academics that to study their favourite sport will end in disillusion.  Sports journalist Walsh is eloquent on the disappointment he felt in discovering his beloved Lance Armstrong was a ‘drugs cheat’, and then resolute in pursuit of him.

She declares in her Introduction:
Disproportionate numbers of elite athletes, at high school, university and professional levels, have been accused of sexual assault as compared with men in the wider community. (2013:1).
She gives no reference for this but a few pages later she later mentions Crosset and BenedictMessner (2002: 26) notes that Crosset found in 1995 ‘athletes’ made up 3.7% of the student population but accounted for 19% of sexual assault reports.  But that 30% of the athlete population were in the money-spinning, contact sports of basketball, football and ice-hockey and they accounted for two thirds of those sexual assaults.

Crosset (1999) is very specific in his abstract:
The current sociological debate on whether male athletes commit more violence against women compared to those who do not participate in organized sport is unproductive and simplistic. Theoretical constructs such as athletic affiliation and rape culture are too broad to capture the unique dynamics of athletes' violence.
And yet Waterhouse-Watson inclines to these wider tropes.  However, she is not a sociologist, letalone a criminologist, but a narratologist and does not rely on those matters.  She seeks to show that footballers are given ‘immunity’ by the media in its ‘trials’ of the players by the ways in which they are spoken of.  Benedict is seen, perhaps correctly, to incline to viewing the actions of sports stars as arising from individual pathology unconstrained, then covered up, by the authorities.  Messner is treated more kindly but still seen to ignore the failure of the criminal justice process.

Waterhouse-Watson states that 55 elite AFL or NRL players since 1999 had ‘been involved in alleged rapes’ (p2) and in an endnote (n2, 219) makes the point that many were not named and that there may be overlaps.  She gives an Appendix (1) that sets out some of that detail but doesn’t refer to that in the body of the text and only in a later end note.  The appendix itself adds some further confusion as both team members and non-playing staff are mixed in (not her fault as relying on news reports).  A quantitative summary and some discussion of methods might have helped.  My small effort in that direction follows.
She lists 22 incidents (that may cover the 55 figure mentioned above) from 1998-2011 plus six others believed to be ‘before 2009’.  The greatest number of men mentioned was an incident in 2002 involving ‘a dozen Cronulla Sharks’ and 2002 the year with the greatest number of incidents involving 12 men in total.  And in the text (p2) 2004 is noted as the third year in a row when the opening of the season began with an alleged sexual assault.  In the 28 incidents in total: 19 ‘no charges’; 4 show the victim pressed no charges; 3 ‘charges laid and later dropped’ and 2 acquitted at trial.
She properly notes the Ched Evans case (and the timing is fortuitous in enabling her to incorporate it) and contrasts it with the Australian cases, in that he was convicted.  Evans, a   Wales football international, was jailed for five years in 2012 after being found guilty of raping a 19-year-old woman at a hotel.  He maintains his innocence. The facts of his case seem very similar to those that she covers. One can see that Evans may think that since his circumstances are no different to cases he does know then he too is innocent.  No supporter of rape, McKinnon notes:
.. men who are in prison for rape think it’s the dumbest thing that ever happened …It is just a miscarriage of justice; they were put in jail for something very little different from what most men do most of the time and call it sex.  The only difference is they got caught.  That view is non remorseful and not rehabilitative.
Waterhouse-Watson does not quote McKinnon, nor when, she discusses Mike Tyson, does she mention Tony Jefferson who has written about as a pro-feminist.  This is a shame because one weakness of the book is the issue of race and ethnicity and it might have assisted her discussion of the footballer’s body (ch 4).  Ethnicity is discussed in respect of some players from the indigenous communities (p 86 and 158) but they are seen largely as ‘footballers’ so receive the immunity due them (chapter 2). 
The first mention of Tyson is aligned with his attorney at appeal, Alan Dershowitz’s, claim that, ‘Whenever I come into a case my client has already been tried and convicted in the press’ (Chancer, 2005: 134). Here Waterhouse-Watson doesn’t pick up enough on the issues of ‘race’ or that Tyson was found guilty in a criminal justice ‘trial’.  Deadlines mean she missed that Alan Dershowitz himself is currently actively contesting sex accusations made against him.
In Chapter 3 she notes the silencing of women victims in both the legal and media trials but this would require a change in the law and the willingness of women to speak out.  Later (p 169) she notes how ‘Sarah’ a victim is allowed only to talk on a TV show about her personal experience but experts and others get to talk about ‘rape’ and ‘football’.  However Krien mentions one young woman Kimberly Duthie, a 16 year old school girl who willingly slept with two St Kilda players and had a relationship with a third.  She was briefly a media sensation when she released naked pictures of the men. She blogged as ‘The small girl, with a big voice’ and still has 13.3k followers on Twitter as @NotASchoolgirl.  She refused to be silenced and possibly because she was voicing the ‘Party Girl’/‘Groupie’ was given much media attention.  Krien is not condemnatory or celebratory but tackles the issue; Waterhouse-Watson does not.  However, she touches on the matter in this journal article.
In chapter 4 on the footballers body it is suggested that the automaticity of and the concentration on the athlete’s body means that whilst the actus reus may be present the mens rea is not.  He is a weapon.
Chapter 5 concentrates on alcohol and team building and brings no surprises; but in modern professional sport it should, perhaps, be more surprising how much alcohol abuse still occurs.
In Chapter 6 she uses Messner (2002: 157/158) to dismiss the ‘education’ offered by the clubs and authorities under their programmes like the AFL’s Respect and Responsibility or the NRL’s Play by the Rules:
I suspect these programs will have little effect, especially when they are one-shot interventions that are not organically linked to longer-term institutional attempts to address men’s violence at its psychological, peer group and organisational roots.
I agree but she does not continue the quote to the point where he still support such efforts in hope that one participant ‘might then take the risk to break the silence and speak out against the dominant discourse and practices of the group’!
In Chapter 7 she addresses the possibility of ‘alternative strategies’.  I cannot address the narratological issues but note the naivety of her reliance on a guide to journalism, Reporting in Australia.  It suggests a level of objectivity and fair-dealing that her own work suggests is rare.
She approvingly quotes two journalists coverage (Jessica Halloran and Jacquelin Magnay’s ‘Bulldogs Party Ended in Woman’s Screams by Pool’) and picks out some good practice then opines that the use of ‘accommodation’ avoids the ‘sordidness’ of ‘hotel’ and ‘the sexualisation of the woman and consequent implication of consent’ (p162).  I think this is far too strong a suggestion when journalistic practice of stylistic variation suggests itself.  Moreover, the term ‘hotel’ appears six times in the article and ‘novotel’ once against two appearances of ‘accommodation’.
Equally contentious are her readings of Cindy Wockner’s interview with a victim who came forward after the report of a similar case to hers (‘Secret Victim Breaks Silence — “It’s Time People knew the Truth”’ - no trace on internet but this article tells of police views on the case that brought her forward).  Waterhouse-Watson suggests that introducing the complainant as, ‘a 43-year old mother’ (About 84,800 results on Sydney Daily Telegraph website!) ‘immediately positions her as an object of illegitimate violence, as the mother marker de-emphasises her sexuality and positions her as a subject of (stereo)typical feminine virtue’ (p164).  Apart from being potentially ageist it ignores the burgeoning number of MILF websites and ‘the rise of the cougar’!
Waterhouse-Watson very successfully puts the Australian media in the dock for their faulty ‘trials’ of these footballers and notes herself
Somewhat ironically the best chance that victims have of seeing players penalised may be the football leagues themselves, as they have no burden of ‘proof beyond reasonable doubt’ to uphold. (p183)
I hope that it is not just because I am a man that I have criminological and legal concerns about replacing criminal justice trials with narratological or sports authority ones whilst recognising she is right to contest the power of the media to conduct their trials.
She has shown that Australian male sports stars appear to have considerable immunity in rape and sexual assault cases.  But is this more than men more generally? How many non-celebrity men have the same immunity? And is it the celebrity that grants immunity? And is the fan’s worship - including her own - also part of the problem?  We give celebrities too much slack (see Penfould-Mounce).  And, criminological point, we also give them more opportunities. Whether feminist academics or Gold Diggers we feed the delusion that we have given prior consent.
Here I suggest how sport might be used to discuss issues of consent.

She mentions her previous work in various journals for many of the chapters.
Ch 1
Ch 2
Ch 4
Ch 5
Ch 7


  1. Thanks for your review of Waterhouse-Watson's book, which I've also read. I have to admit that I found the study considerably more ground-breaking and enlightening than you appear to have. While I don't want to add a long comment that essentially 'reviews your review', I find the narratological/discourse analysis of Waterhouse-Watson's study to be one of the most persuasive I've ever read. You seem to give this primary goal and focus some credit toward the end of your review when you briefly write 'Waterhouse-Watson very successfully puts the Australian media in the dock for their faulty "trials" of these footballers', but you generally devote a lot more time to issues that I can only describe as tangential or beyond the scope of the study. It's a shame that you focus in so much detail on what is *not* in the book rather than what is. I found a lot of the points in your review unclear and to survey the chapter structure and content of Waterhouse-Watson's book without highlighting the original contributions to existing narrative theory (regarding, for example, the narrative pool) or the articulation of common tropes employed in media representations of complainants, would seem fairly disingenuous. Further, I'm aware that Waterhouse-Watson's research since the publication of this book has both engaged with issues of 'race' and the controversy involving Kim Duthie (about which a whole article has been published in 2014). You may find it useful to follow up on these, which progress the findings of the book further into areas that you will find of more interest.

    All the best,

    1. Thanks Adam

      I write as a criminologist interested in sport and masculinity. I don't feel competent to talk about the narratology though did pick up on some comments (which I don't think were strictly narratological). I hope you will see that I'm on the same side as Waterhouse-Watson and whilst critical was trying to extend her work and people's knowledge of it. She has been kind enough to follow me back on twitter and hope you might too.

      How can I draw peoples' attention to your critique? Have you twitter, website or blog?