In the drunken early hours after Collingwood’s 2011 AFL grand final win, celebrations took a dark turn for Melbourne student Sarah. She had ended up at a house party where she had consensual sex with one man she had recently met at a nightclub, and then “felt compelled” to have sex with Collingwood player Dayne Beams. Another player, John McCarthy, was amongst a group of others also in the room, where Sarah felt “trapped”. After she left the house, she was allegedly raped in the alley next to the townhouse by Justin Dyer, a former VFL player.
By the time the matter went to trial, Dyer (fictitious names are used for both the defendant and complainant in Night Games), already a marginal figure in the Melbourne football world, was further isolated from the players he orbited around. Most of the media scrum materialised when the two Magpies players made fleeting appearances at the directions hearing and then at the trial as witnesses and disappeared when they left.
Krien stays, however, and doggedly follows the story, initially feeling discomfort that the events in the townhouse were not pursued and formed only a peripheral part of the trial. She finds herself surprised by Justin’s “gentle demeanour” and passivity and sees him as an outsider abandoned by the football fraternity. She also worries that she is getting too close to the family of the defendant, that her objectivity is destroyed by the defendant’s grandmother hugs her. As it it becomes clear the story won’t conform to any recognisable narrative about rape, she admits to wishing she had chosen to write about an “easier” rape trial instead.
Also troubling is the absence of Sarah from the trial. Like many jurisdictions, Victoria enables complainants to avoid the trauma of facing the accused in court. This rule, known as the ‘rape shield’, is an important protection for women who lodge complaints but Krien fears her absence means she will project her own experiences onto the complainant.
With skill and borderline cruelty, the defence lawyer has the evidence of a neighbour who possibly heard Sarah’s protests discounted, instead focusing attention on how after the contested incident, Dyer kissed the complainant and sat close with her in a taxi to her house, playing on meaningless but well-entrenched notions of how a rapist would act.
While the trial forms the backbone of Night Games, the story branches off into related tangents like the accusations of gang rape by rugby league players at Coffs Harbour, the St. Kilda schoolgirl scandal and the discrimination and vilification female journalists have faced when venturing into the post-game locker room for their work.
As dark as much of the material is, Night Games is far more complex and probing than a wholesale dismissal of football culture. Krien finds a lot to like in the AFL and there are surprising observations at every turn: “One of the reasons…that so many people watch football is not just for the athleticism and the biffo, but also for the tenderness”. In many ways, the sport is making a concerted effort to turn away from elements once accepted as commonplace, with a stand being taken against unacceptable sledging and racism and education initiatives being put in place to avoid some of the ugly excesses of the recent past.
A darker underside persists however, with a “macho culture of humiliation” regularly raring its head, with ex-player Tony Wilson filling the author in on an alcohol-fuelled culture of pranks, youthful bravado, and forms of humour and acceptance rituals that often seem baffling to an outsider.
The narrative always circles back to the trial though and it speaks volumes of the book’s ability to uncover unexpected nuance that it remains gripping even we know though the result. As the verdict draws near, Krien continues to feel haunted by Dyer’s persistence in following Sarah, instinctively sensing that even in his version of events, there is something “off” and disrespectful about his behaviour that night.
This lingering unease is the enduring feeling from Night Games,which is being promoted as a literary hand-grenade, but often settles into a tone more often thoughtful than incendiary. There are few easy answers here, no redemptive sense of any lesson that has been learned.
Whatever the truth about that party and whatever actually happened in the bedroom crowded with footballers and later in a dark, urine-soaked alley, it seems clear that this incident forms just part of a disturbing broader culture, and that much of what took place probably falls in a large grey area between what is against the law and what should be acceptable behaviour.
Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man is an obvious antecedent, but this also brings to mind Michelle Schwarz’s undervalued One Split Second, which similarly used a high profile incident (in that case, the death of cricketer David Hookes) as a starting point to explore themes of masculinity, alcohol and violence and the role they play in Australian society.
Krien has a real feel for the tough, scrappy charm of Australian Rules Football, but seems on less certain territory in discussing other codes. Confusing Rugby League and Rugby Union and referring to the NRL as the A-league are simple mistakes that should have been edited out of an otherwise carefully written book.
Minor quibbles aside, the disquieting, fiercely intelligent Night Games instantly feels like an important work, and is certainly a difficult one to shake.