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Narrative immunity : Australian footballers in sexual assault 'trials by media'

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posted on 15.01.2017, 23:47 authored by Watson, Deb Suzanne Waterhouse
In Australia in 2004, several sexual assault allegations were made against footballers from the nation‘s principal football codes, Australian Rules and Rugby League, sparking an intense media debate around the culture of the leagues and the nature of relations between elite footballers and women. None of the cases was tried in court, and despite several new cases since, no Australian footballer has yet been made to stand trial for sexual assault. There is a disjunction between the growing number of cases and the repeated failure of any case to be criminally prosecuted; however, there is only a small literature on the problem of athletes and sexual assault, and the majority of this attempts to uncover what causes athletes to rape, rather than addressing the silencing of the cases once they have been reported. The Australian events illuminate a previously un-researched aspect of the unfolding of these types of crimes: the extensive public media debates that they ignite, which, I argue, ultimately perform a kind of de facto adjudication of the crimes. Using narratology, I argue that in the public discourse about these events, certain narrative and grammatical techniques are repetitively employed to deflect blame away from footballers and onto the women involved in the cases, providing footballers with what I call a "narrative immunity" against allegations of sexual assault. This narrative immunity is partly constructed through the rhetorical techniques used in criminal rape trials to discredit complainants. I also broaden the traditional boundaries of such investigations by examining the discourses of football reporting generally, including match reports, injury reporting and general sports news. These broader discourses of football underpin the discourses of sexual assault, and I further investigate the ways in which individual narratives intersect with, and are informed by, "stock" or "cultural stories" − those such as the Woman Scorned and the Gold Digger − which are widely understood to have truth-value, and work to undermine the validity of a woman‘s claim of sexual assault. I show that the circulation of these stories constitutes a de facto adjudication of the women's claims, and thus the media debate supplements and replaces an actual legal process. In this way, the narrative immunity of footballers relegates complainants to the position of Jean-Francois Lyotard‘s victim: the one who is injured, and deprived of the means to prosecute the injury. However, alternative narratives are possible, and I examine the possibilities that these alternative strategies provide for contesting footballers' narrative immunity, thus making it possible for rape complainants to argue their case in the public discourse, not as victims, but as plaintiffs.


Principal supervisor

Nina Philadelphoff-Puren

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

School of English, Communications and Performance Studies


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts