We were Sophie’s* first work placement after slogging it out at TAFE to learn some basic skills. She had no idea how to dress for the office or conduct herself in a professional environment, so I was asked to mentor her a little.
We started with the simple things. I taught her how to answer the phone, by saying the name of the company, her name, and ask “How can I help you?”. Actually, I would have settled for the company name, or her name, or “How can I help you?” because they were all better than “Yeah? This is Sophie?” said with perfect upward inflection around a mouthful of gum.
Sometimes she’d sing along with the radio, but she wasn’t a real fan of the “oldies” station we listened to. It didn’t matter – Sophie would sing along to whatever was playing inside her head, even while she was on the phone. Trust me – it’s disconcerting when you’re on the other end of the line.
There were other ways in which I had to help Sophie to blend into the office. It was a conservative office in a conservative industry, and the pre-Olympic green and gold-sprayed hair didn’t fit in. Neither did the white, too-tight midriff-bearing tops, demin mini-skirts and boots. We talked about her wardrobe choices, the unfortunate days when all her bras were in the wash, her favourite sparkly blue nail polish, and about how bright red lipstick really doesn’t work well on anyone under 30.
"Work is so b-o-r-i-n-g," she told me, "but the weekends were even better if you had money to spend." At least she was motivated.
In some ways, we saved each other; I helped prepare her for office work, and that responsibility saved me from having to sit with the other women in the office at lunchtime. Sophie and I never became friends outside work – there was that 17 year age gap – but she did confide in me, tell me about her weekends, her family, her boyfriends, the Greek customs at home, and the way her parents still made her go to Church, even when she was hung over.
And she told me about the night she was raped by a footballer in the car park of the footy club – he wasn’t her boyfriend, and she didn’t really want to go all the way, but he was so hot and he bought drinks for her and her friends, and she was so honoured that he wanted to fuck her…so she tried not to scream. She hadn’t let her boyfriend go that far, but this was different. This was a rich celebrity, and she reckoned her boyfriend would be real proud of her.
I always think of Sophie in the leadup to State of Origin. It’s the only time that rubgy league penetrates far enough into my consciousness to be noticeable. I just block it out. In fact, I don’t watch footy of any code. I go out of my way to avoid the whole footy culture, or cultures, and particularly rugby league.
It’s not that I don’t like watching fit young men in shorts; I do. I guess I don’t like watching fit young men in shorts and wondering how many Sophie's are going to have to endure their cavemannish approach to women this weekend.
Whether it’s systemic issues with performance enhancing drugs, typical boys behaving badly, booze, recreational drugs, Tom Bloody Waterhouse and live odds, or the sad fact that they have to stage a “Women in League” round to disguise their appalling culture of disrespect, I just can’t be bothered.
Y’know what? One weekend of footy players wearing pink to honour women is actually quite an insult. It’s like going to confession: the sins of the past are wiped away by this one annual gesture. What about personal responsibility? What about the mates looking after their mates? What about clubs taking care of the young players with too much money and too little discipline? Covering for bad behaviour, paying fines, allowing these kids to experiment with recreational drugs and then hushing it up when they're busted or become violent is absolutely shameful.
Does wearing pinks socks and inviting your Mum to a champagne lunch at the Club change anything that needs changing? Does this one event undo the rape of a starstruck seventeen year old? I think about Sophie and I still get angry because it is still happening.
The inconsistency that the Rugby League Management don't seem to recognise is that for those players who already respect women, Women In League is a lovely event. For those who treat women the way Sophie was treated, it’s just a lark, another social occasion in which to dress up and show off. In league parlance, no ground has been gained.
And anyway, how are boozing and gambling and violence compatible with supporting and developing elite athletes?
I don’t deny that licenced clubs contribute to the community with charitable donations, and through the development of junior sports – and that’s great, but also part of the problem. Kids learn to associate playing sports at the clubs with gambling, and boozing and the rest of the culture. Take it to the first class clubs and there are dance floors full of young (underage) ladies like Sophie, blinded by sickly sweet cocktails and the presence of cocky young men with more than a few hangers on.
And the gambling isn’t just a few pokies and Tom Waterhouse on the big screen tellie. In the special gaming rooms, where there is no natural light or sound, you can choose how to lose your coin by playing Keno, Lucky 8s, betting on the horsies at the TAB, Cash Draw Giveaways, lucky door prizes, or your choice of literally hundreds of poker machines per room. Then, to make your gambling experience as surreal as possible, my local footy club provides patrons in the “Games Room” with Platinum Service and free tea and coffee. They hope you'll never want to leave.
Don’t you worry about what to do with the kids, either. There’s a Kids Club on the premises, open six nights a week and during the day on weekends. Or course, the kids aren’t in the Gaming Room or the Bar, but they are right there, soaking up the culture. When the Under Tens are on the field, their parents are cheering from the raised Alfresco Lounge, beer on the table, smoke in one hand while they check off their Keno numbers with the other. Great example.
It’s sad that these risky behaviours all seem to meet at the local footy club, yet the fact that they do makes it all the more important that the footy clubs themselves take real action to correct the dangerous culture in their sport.
* Not her real name