Culture

“Grow A Spine”: Richmond Is Failing Fans By Not Taking A Stand In This Revenge Porn Scandal

An appeal from a life-long Richmond fan.

Richmond

I love the Richmond Football Club. I’ve loved it since I was six years old. I remember the very first game I went to, which of course the Tigers lost by almost 100 points. I remember attending a club function when I was 10, and breathlessly asking Matthew Richardson for his autograph. I remember the crushing heartbreak of the three consecutive elimination final defeats between 2013 and 2015. And I remember that mix of relief, shock and euphoria when the siren sounded on Grand Final day and we were premiers for the first time in my life.

I realise it probably seems ridiculous to people who don’t follow this game. But football fans will understand. When you really barrack for a team, you feel like you’re a part of it. It feels like family. Love really is the only word to describe how it feels.

But loving something isn’t just about blind devotion. Loving something means you have to be willing to hold that thing to account. It means not accepting behaviour that you know, deep down, is unacceptable.

After the events of this week, that’s something that every single Richmond fan needs to come to terms with.

A Disrespectful And Humiliating Gesture

If you haven’t seen the headlines, in the hours after the Grand Final, a Richmond player took a photo of a topless woman with a 2017 Premiership medal around her neck. It has not yet been made public which player the medal belongs to, or which one of them took the photo. What we do know is that while the woman consented to the image being taken, she was also told by the player that it would be deleted from his phone.

Instead the player allegedly kept the image, and later sent it to several of his friends. From there, it made its way to social media, and spread.

The woman (whose face cannot be seen in the photo) has since been in contact with Victoria Police, who are investigating the incident. They reportedly have a list of players whose phones they wish to examine. Depending on what the investigation uncovers, the player could potentially be charged under revenge porn laws, which carry a maximum sentence of up to two years in prison.

The response: “people make errors in judgement all the time”.

But as disgusting as the actions of the player may be, what I find almost as troubling is the failure of the Richmond Football Club to properly condemn the behaviour of one of its stars. Asked about the photo during an appearance on the ABC’s Q&A, club president Peggy O’Neal equivocated.

“I can’t really comment on the particular event, I don’t have all the facts about that,” she said. “But if it turns out that it is disrespectful to women, we certainly don’t stand for that, that’s not what our club’s about, and if someone has made a disrespectful and humiliating gesture, then of course it’ll be taken into account.”

O’Neal also said the player involved had made “a terrible judgement”, but insisted that “people make errors in judgement all the time.”

In some ways O’Neal is absolutely right. This kind of thing does happen all the time, in the sense that one in five Australians have been the victims of revenge porn or other types of image-based abuse. In the sense that more than 50 percent of Australian women experience sexual harassment in public by the time they turn 18. In the sense that whenever a woman comes forward after being sexually harassed or assaulted, she is so often called a liar, a slut, an attention whore, or all three. This is especially true when the alleged abuser is a public figure. In this case, the woman in the photo has been called a “stupid typical football groupie” who was “just after her 15 mins.”

Describing this as an “error in judgement” fails to capture the seriousness of what has taken place. What happened was a betrayal, a gross invasion of privacy, and a sex crime; one that has the potential to destroy this woman’s life – particularly as the story continues to receive wall-to-wall coverage from Victoria’s football-obsessed press.

The player at the centre of all this is still being protected.

Maybe O’Neal didn’t have “all the facts”, but she had enough. She could have pledged significant disciplinary action against any player found to be involved. She could have made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that this kind of abhorrent behaviour will not be tolerated at Tigerland.

As for the men whose names and faces are synonymous with the club: silence. Nothing from captain Trent Cotchin. Nothing from coach Damien Hardwick. Richmond’s official website has continued to churn out Grand Final highlights packages, but has failed to acknowledge the controversy at all.

For what it’s worth, I think O’Neal got one part of her response right. It was the part where she said that the way women are treated around sport “really says what we think about women overall.”

Based on their handling of this situation thus far, it would appear the Richmond Football Club doesn’t think very much of women at all.

A Strong And Bold Response

The pathetic response from the club is especially disheartening given how often the Tigers have positioned themselves at the forefront of the AFL on issues of gender equality.

When Collingwood President and Triple M commentator Eddie McGuire joked about drowning football journalist Caroline Wilson, the Richmond playing group collectively decided to boycott McGuire’s radio program. When O’Neal was elected in 2013, Richmond became the first club in VFL/AFL history to appoint a female president. And just last month, it was revealed that the club has been granted an AFL Women’s license, and will join the competition in 2020. They will also field a VFLW side starting in 2018.

It’s things like this, as much as any match result, that make me proud to be fan. Like the theme song says, “we’re strong and we’re bold”.

But as good as the club has been at making big, strong, bold symbolic gestures, now that they find their own principles being put to the test, they have let themselves and their supporters down.

If the Tigers really want to be seen as a leader on issues of gender equality, they need to promise that the player (or players) will never run out in yellow and black again. This needs to happen regardless of who the players are. They need to set an example. They need to demonstrate that this sport is more than just the boys’ club it is so often accused of being. They need to make it clear to young men that no matter who they are, their actions have consequences. They need to send the message that this kind of thing is not acceptable. Not at Richmond. Not in football. Not anywhere.

Of course, that’s not an opinion that everyone shares. On Wednesday, Mark Robinson, chief football writer for The Herald Sun, weighed in on the issue. While acknowledging that no footballer should be above the law, Robbo also wrote that, “if a player were to lose his job for being the first to send the image, that would be a gross over-reaction.”

Robinson doesn’t offer much to justify this statement. But hey, perhaps he’s just thinking about the young man’s future. Perhaps he doesn’t want to see a promising career cut short by a stupid mistake. No doubt plenty of people feel exactly the same way.

That’s a justification used by many people who have tried to excuse abhorrent behaviour by athletes in the past, and it’s a justification that risks allowing a culture of total disrespect towards women to develop. As we’ve seen far too many times, that culture can have extremely serious ramifications.

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I realise that Richmond is faced with a horrible decision. If a player were to be fired over something like this, the backlash from supporters would be enormous. The playing group would be devastated. Not to mention the fact that it could very well cost the club its chance of winning back-to-back flags.

Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly the right decision to make.

It’s easy to say you believe in equality when it doesn’t cost you anything to do so. But if Richmond fails to act on this, all its grand gestures won’t be worth a thing. And neither will that shiny new premiership cup.

Speaking to afl.com.au on Tuesday, the day after O’Neal appeared on Q&A, Richmond CEO Brendon Gale said the club felt very strongly “about creating an environment where women can thrive.”

That sounds nice. But actions speak louder than words.

Now It’s Up To The Fans

In 2017, Richmond attracted more people to games than any other club in the competition. More than 75,000 fans signed up as members. The turnout to the Grand Final was the largest in more than 20 years.

In short, the Tiger Army is fiercely loyal. It is also, as anyone who attended a final this year can attest, extraordinarily loud. Now is the time to make that roar heard.

Ultimately, the Richmond Football Club is a business. And if its administrators won’t act out of a sense of principle or moral obligation, maybe they’ll act if the people buying the memberships and the merchandise make it clear that they have no other choice.

Loving something means you have to be willing to hold that thing to account.

Like the club, each and every Richmond supporter is now faced with a horrible decision: jump back on the Tiger train, or demand your club grow a spine.

It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s one thing to take a stand against this sort of the thing in the abstract. It’s much harder when the person involved is someone that you really care about. We’ve all experienced it, at some point or another: a friend or a colleague or an acquaintance, acting in a way that’s sexist or disrespectful. Hopefully we’ve had the courage to call it out. And sure, it’s not as though most Richmond supporters actually have personal relationships with the players. But it feels like we do.

I walked down Punt Road in the hours after the Grand Final. I cheered and screamed and cried and hugged strangers and high-fived people until my hand was completely numb. Tiger fans, I know what this club means to you. I know how much you love it.

But loving something isn’t just about blind devotion. Loving something means you have to be willing to hold that thing to account. It means not accepting behaviour that you know, deep down, is unacceptable.

Feature image: Richmond FC/Instagram.

Tom Clift is Junkee’s after-hours editor, and tweets at @tom_clift