Men behaving badly: the story AFL & NRL can't avoid

Is men behaving badly the perpetual news story sport cannot avoid?

The AFL and the NRL made front page news over the weekend in national broadsheets as well as state tabloids. But the headlines and associated stories were no cause for celebration.

Two senior executives from the AFL resigned last week on account of sexual relationships they had pursued with younger members of staff.

The football operations boss Simon Lethlean and general manager of commercial Richard Simkiss both apologised unreservedly for their conduct.

Once the affairs became known to the AFL’s CEO Gillon McLachlan their ongoing employment became untenable.

Both resigned after an emergency meeting of the AFL Commission on Thursday night.

“My resignation follows a wrong decision I made to have an inappropriate relationship with a female employee of the AFL,” Lethlean said on Friday. “It is an action for which I am truly sorry for the hurt I have caused. The relationship should never have happened. As a husband and a leader of this organisation it is up to me to set the example. What I did was wrong.”

Simkiss was similarly contrite.

“I have apologised to Gillon and to my colleagues for a serious lapse of judgement that has hurt many people, including my family. My actions did not live up to the values of the AFL and is something I am truly sorry for,” he said.

Both Simkiss and Lethlean are married with children and the affairs are uninspiring to say the least.

It raises the question, yet again, of whether a sexual relationship between two consenting adults ought to make the news. Certainly there are circumstances where it shouldn’t. For the wives, children and families, the innocent victims, having the details of their partner’s indiscretion revealed for all and sundry must compound the ignominy.

But, as McLachlan said, against the background of a high profile sporting organisation that is publicly committed to fostering respect and integrity, scrutiny is inevitable.

“They are judged, as they should be, to a higher standard,” he said. “Many would ask why, but it was imperative for the way I lead and for our organisation to continue to change. I want a diverse and inclusive culture where employees are treated respectfully, fairly and represented at all levels. It was what we have been working so hard to achieve.”

The AFL CEO says creating a more equal and respectful workplace takes ‘more than words’.

“The AFL that I want to lead is a professional organisation based on integrity, respect, care for each other and responsibility,” McLachlan said.

Meanwhile the NRL made news over the weekend on account of the introduction of new sanctions for players who commit crimes against women.

Under the proposed guidelines, still being developed, a player can face a ban from nine months to life, for being violent towards a woman.

The increased severity of punishments for players found guilty of perpetrating domestic violence or sexual assault is welcome. It indicates the league is determined to punish players in a manner that is commensurate with the severity of criminal conduct.

But the fact these sanctions are needed is disquieting. The fact they have been introduced to counter the culture of paying out victims to keep quiet is disturbing.

Catharine Lumby, a long standing gender adviser to the code, says the new protocols will ramp up the response to these crimes, which is vital.

“I think the NRL is showing serious commitment after a series (of) incidents which have really damaged the brand of the game, not to mention the harm that has been done to some women,” Lumby told the Sunday Telegraph. “No woman should be mistreated or abused or hushed up, ever.”

There are light years between consenting adults having an affair and a man sexually assaulting a woman. There is no doubt about that.

But there is no escaping the theme of men behaving badly and there is no escaping the public component of this conduct when it involves a game millions of Australians follow.

Sport occupies a unique position in the Australian psyche. We laud the achievements of our favourites athletes and we give them power and influence because of it.

Historically men have been the recipients of the overwhelming majority of this privilege. It is why, logic aside, better behaviour is expected from them.

They are role models. And by virtue of their visibility, they set the tone for what we permit and what we promote.

When they permit and promote the mistreatment of women, it doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It occurs in a society in which their importance is already elevated.

If we want to seriously deter the sexual assault of women or stem the incidence of domestic violence, we need to hold men accountable for their actions. Regardless of their dexterity or speed or athletic ability.

If we want to build workplaces that are equal and respectful, we need to hold men and women accountable to those standards.


This weekend’s sports stories certainly weren’t inspiring but they did give rise to tiny a seed of hope.  Hope that change is underway, that men behaving badly won’t continue as the accepted norm.  That it will be confronted.

Let’s hope there is sincerity to back up these consequences. Because resignations as lip service, and new protocols to be overlooked when it actually counts, still amount to nothing.

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