On Tuesday last week the St Kilda football club announced that one of its players, Stephen Milne, had been charged with four counts of rape for an alleged incident that occurred in 2004.
Since the charges were announced, there has been a recurrent theme coming from individuals within the Saints.
Saints’ coach Scott Watters, in a piece on the St Kilda website on Friday, focused on the club’s “duty of care and responsibility to Milney”. Captain Nick Riewoldt, in a radio interview last Wednesday said that Milne should be allowed to continue playing in part because “Milney is the absolute heart and soul of the football club.” Riewoldt reportedly focused on his “resilience” and what a difficult time this is for Milne and his family.
This has been the tenor of the response from the club. Milne was put on indefinite leave because of concerns about his welfare and the club’s duty of care to him. Lip service has been paid every step of the way to the fact that this series of events “is distressing to all the parties involved,” but the main focus from all sections of the club has been on Milne’s welfare.
Has this been a difficult week for Stephen Milne and his family? I have no doubt that it has. Whether he is guilty or not, this would be difficult. Would Nick Riewoldt and Nick dal Santo have liked to have had their mate, Milne, play alongside them on their 250th game, against Melbourne on Saturday? Absolutely. They and the rest of the players are, I trust, finding this news difficult. The emotional effect of what has gone on is quite tangible and serious.
But emotions have lots of different motivations. They circulate in different directions for different people. We need to respect these responses – but we should also consider the politics that lie behind them.
This would also have been a difficult week, I think more importantly, for the woman who has made the allegations. She, we can presume, is carrying some form of trauma from her experiences, whether a court finds Milne guilty or not, and regardless of the police investigation.
Indeed, the narrative of the "mate", of the good bloke who is a friend to his teammates, who doesn’t rape, isn’t original to this incident. It’s terribly common and predictable.
As a society we need to figure out how to end rape. Focusing the response on discussing Milne "as a mate" makes it more difficult to do so. It obscures the problems we face. And this is why the response from the St Kilda players, and the primary reasons given by the Saints hierarchy for Milne’s being put on leave, were so troublesome.
Sport can be wonderful. Players, codes, teams and sporting institutions build vibrant communities and societies. Sport can lead the way in changing how we think about the world and what language we use to describe it. We were reminded of this—and of the role that St Kilda can play in this—recently, for instance, in the celebration of Nicky Winmar, that photo and that moment in 1993 at Victoria Park. Through such moments, relations can be changed.
At moments like this, however, when the conversation focuses on the alleged perpetrator rather than the damage he has done or the victim who is affected, sport can break communities.
The players want to stand beside Milne because either they believe he is not a rapist, or they don't care that he is: he's still their mate. As a life-long fan of the Saints, as a member of the club, I feel bitterly disappointed by their actions.
When they stand beside Milne they are making a clear statement to all the women out there who have been raped that a man's mates will stand beside him. And when they do so, these men forget that one in three women has been raped or sexually assaulted. That's a lot of women. A lot of Saints members.
The conversation underway in the media needs to be changed.
Our primary concern should be for the victim: for the trauma she has potentially suffered and what can be done to remedy that. The focus should be on the prevalence of rape and sexual assault. When St Kilda representatives talk in the way they do, they make a clear statement to women in the community, and women amongst their fan base, that the mental wellbeing of the players comes before anything else. It’s a clear reminder to women that our concerns are not taken seriously; particularly if our concerns involve a man in a powerful position.
We need to continue to talk about rape and sexual assault as a structural issue, as a political and social issue which needs responses from the whole of society. St Kilda could have taken the lead on this. As a Saints fan, it's incredibly disappointing and angering that they haven't.
The police have done a disgraceful job in handling this case for the last nine years. There seems to be no reason why we should trust that the police are now handling the case appropriately. This is, surely, something that should be prominent in our conversations about the case: that the police and court processes are not the best places to look towards for justice or healing.
It is not clear to me what Milne should face from the club or from society: it seems dangerous to be embracing character tests for who should be a part of the community. Milne’s welfare, and whether or not he’s a good bloke and friend to his mates, seems to me to serve not only as a distraction but is also a dangerous narrative to prioritise.