De Vanna allegations highlight tensions in Australia’s complex football culture

In the wake of former Matilda Lisa De Vanna’s allegations of sexual harassment, abuse, bullying, and grooming inside Australian women’s football, a number of key issues have emerged.

The first — which ties De Vanna’s allegations to the larger moment many sports are currently experiencing — is the historic failure of institutions to recognise, report, and remedy instances of athlete abuse.

As sport catches up to the world’s #MeToo movement, various governing bodies are starting to reckon with the role they themselves may have played in enabling environments in which athletes may have felt unsafe.

In the case of some — such as gymnastics — institution-wide cover-ups were found to have been made in the interests of the sport’s self-preservation and public image.

In the case of others, a lack of independent investigative processes meant that allegations were either mishandled or ignored, with no external accountability or transparency.

The second issue addresses even deeper, more normalised elements within sporting ecosystems. These include unchecked power imbalances between individuals — such as coaches and athletes, junior and senior players, and administrators and teams — as well as what can be termed “old-fashioned” coaching styles that prioritise results and “win-at-all-cost” mentalities over (or at the expense of) athlete welfare.

Further, wider structural elements that disempower athletes — such as contract insecurity, financial stress, communication barriers, a lack of reporting avenues, unclear chains of command, and no union representation (among others) are ow seen as contributing cumulatively to environments in which abuses of power, and therefore abuses of athletes, can occur.

But arguably the largest — and perhaps most unwieldy — issue that is emerging from this moment is that of “culture”.

In the case of De Vanna, her allegations can be separated into two parts: the harassment and abuse she allegedly experienced as part of the Young Matildas set-up in 2001/02, and the wider allegation that the sport broadly suffers from a “toxic culture”, a term used in News Corp’s original headline and appearing regularly in its subsequent reporting.

De Vanna herself used the term in an opinion piece published in the Daily Telegraph this past weekend.

“Football Australia don’t want to admit there is a toxic culture in the sport but 20 years on, what I went through is still happening. Harassment, bullying and intimidation … from grassroots through to the elite level,” she said.

While De Vanna does not provide specifics, the language of the reporting throughout the past fortnight implies that what she personally experienced in the early 2000s is not a one-off incident.

Rather, it is framed as part of a pattern – a culture – of behaviour throughout the Australian women’s national teams and — further — throughout the sport.

That implication is strengthened by the comments made by other former players in the original report, such as retired W-League player Rhali Dobson, who also gestured towards the theme of culture.

“As you get higher up in the levels, when it comes to the national circuit, if you don’t fit in with the crowd, you won’t make it,” she said.

“It’s a world that’s very much still going, in the world at the top levels, and until you start addressing this, nothing is going to change.”

These allegations speak to a different kind of culture in women’s football than the one that has been portrayed publicly by the sport: a culture that is inclusive, diverse, safe, and welcoming.

However, in the ongoing reporting of De Vanna’s allegations, the culture of women’s football is repeatedly presented as “toxic”; a place where “predatory behaviour”, exclusion, and abuse are commonplace.

Matildas’ support for inclusivity

There is tension, too, in the fact that this darker image is at odds with the culture that other players appear to have experienced, seen in individual comments from former players such as Matilda Joey Peters, as well as the recent collective statement by the current Matildas squad.

“We have a strong professional, inclusive and supportive culture that does not condone any of the behaviour mentioned within the numerous media articles about historical incidents,” the squad’s statement read.

“As a group, we represent the values reflective of Australia and that includes acceptance and inclusivity, regardless of sexuality, ethnicity or culture.

“We hold this team close to our hearts and for many, this team has been a safe haven. It has given us strength and purpose throughout our careers.

“We are together like a family in this, from our oldest to our youngest player, and the difficulties we’ve faced in the last week have only made us stronger as a group.”

This is perhaps, in part, why De Vanna’s allegations have caused such controversy both within and outside the Australian women’s football community: the image of the sport De Vanna presents contradicts the culture that many — including other players — have experienced throughout their careers.

Indeed, the Matildas’ statement has also been critiqued, in turn, with some in the community noting that the current team’s emphasis on their wholly positive culture could be seen as invalidating De Vanna’s contradictory experiences.

According to professor of sport and gender equity at Griffith University, Simone Fullagar, the answer lies in the idea that culture is not the same for everyone.

“Team cultures are comprised of dynamic relationships, rituals, norms of behaviour and communication (what can be spoken, what is taboo),” she told ABC Sport.

“Cultures have both stable and shifting patterns as they are influenced by different players, coach expectations, organisational practices and broader societal change.

“People are positioned within team cultures differently, so perceptions often differ in terms of identity, roles, histories and values.

“Cultural norms exert a powerful influence when they devalue different identities (based on sexuality, race, gender identity, etc) in subtle and overt ways as this infuses the atmosphere [with] mistrust or belonging.”

That appears to be the source of one of the major tensions emerging from the De Vanna story: the disconnect between the assumption that women’s football is a single culture versus the reality that it is made up of many.

“Each of us as individuals are part of our social, historical contexts that shape how we see things and how we experience them,” Professor Fullagar told The Ticket last week.

“And that’s why it’s so important for coaches and sport organisations and teams to be having conversations about what is the culture we want to create? What is acceptable and what is not?

“But giving regard to that historical context — not everyone has been included in sport in the past or treated equitably or fairly.

“And it’s about sport as a microcosm for society; we certainly have seen a lot of change in our society in regard to gender identities and sexualities, massive change in the last even 10 years in terms of how we talk about gender, how we talk about sexuality.

“All of those things are important as part of the context of how we try and understand develop cultures of respect and what respectful behaviour and conduct and care actually looks like in teams.”

Existence of negative stereotypes

This complex understanding of culture also explains why — in a sport that has historically been a safe and inclusive space for LGBTQI women — a discourse has re-emerged that is steeped in negative stereotypes and attitudes towards those same women.

According to Professor Fullagar, this has been evident in the reporting’s language, which used historically loaded phrases such as “predatory behaviour” and “grooming” to refer to a sporting culture in which LGBTQI women have been over-represented compared with other social spaces.

“What’s been really unfortunate is the way these issues have been framed in a discourse that’s very much tied into historical constructions of lesbian and queer women as somehow predatory, as monsters,” Professor Fullagar said.

“It’s such a problematic framing because it doesn’t untangle the behaviours and what might have happened, all it does is reiterate a notion — a very problematic notion — that somehow women’s sport is a site for young women to be influenced in negative ways.

“That discourse has been challenged so much in sport in recent years, and there’s been a huge effort to push back against those stereotypes, which do nothing to help anybody – they’re terrible for heterosexual women, they’re terrible for queer women.

“Sexuality is no longer such a binary. It’s much more fluid, there’s a lot more negotiation about identity, and sport really should be a safe space for everyone.

“So the challenge is to untangle that and really stop and think about the use of language and what it does in media reporting within sport organisations [and] how athletes understand the issues, because there’s a lot of terminology that does get thrown around: what does ‘grooming’ mean in a particular context? What does ‘predatory behaviour’ even mean?”

Retired Matilda Moya Dodd — who served on a previous Football Australia board (when it was known as Football Federation Australia) as well as on the executive committee at FIFA — reiterated this larger point about language and culture on a virtual panel run by Pride In Sport earlier this month.

“It takes us back to a time when it was normal to be afraid of gay people, being around gay people, to sort of demonise them as predators, people who you couldn’t leave your kids with,” Dodd said.

“A sense of there’s something improper about having partners who play on the same team, that people ‘become’ gay because they’re groomed.

“I mean, grooming has a very specific meaning, which is not the same as some kids playing sport in a team together. That word’s got to be used with great care.

“I think there are some real concerns in the community that the reporting, and especially the social media commentary that then follows from all of this, which I’m sure you can imagine, is something that takes us back to a time when fear of gay people was normalised.”

Man in track suit looking straight ahead.
Alen Stajcic was dismissed as Matildas coach in early 2019.(AAP: Lukas Coch, File)

There were echoes of this subtext in the aftermath of former Matildas head coach Alen Stajcic’s dismissal in 2019, when it was reported that he regularly used homophobic language in team camps, including the now-infamous phrase “lesbian mafia”.

Stajcic denied ever using the phrase.

These undertones have also been echoed in the social media commentary following De Vanna’s allegations, which includes abuse directed towards current senior Matildas players.

“We know the impact that social media abuse can have on people,” Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) co-chief executive Beau Busch told The Sydney Morning Herald last Wednesday.

“We have been in constant contact with current and former players and the impact of targeted and coordinated abuse is taking an enormous toll on them.

“These bullies and trolls lack any semblance of humanity and have sought to deliberately target current and former players with abhorrent and vile abuse through a coordinated and relentless campaign.

“This garbage has no place in society and we will continue to refer matters that are criminal in nature to the police and work with the authorities to ensure the perpetrators are held accountable.”

When asked by ABC Sport whether the language in the original reporting and the social media commentary could affect current and former players wanting to report their own experiences of abuse or harassment, PFA co-chief executive Kate Gill said: “When experiences such as abuse and harassment are aired publicly, often it results in others coming forward.”

“To this end, some of the language contained in media reports and the vile online abuse has created less safety for people who have been harmed to come forward.

“Reporting and commentary needs to be undertaken in a sensitive manner and not exacerbate harm or disincentivise people coming forward.

“What is clear from our discussions with current and former players is that some of the reporting and social media commentary is making them feel less safe to come forward and ultimately this will prevent the sport from effectively addressing any past failures.

“Ultimately, that does not reflect the intention of those who speak up in the hope of making the sport safer.”

As the fall-out from De Vanna’s allegations continue, Australian football is facing its own moment of reckoning.

Football Australia, for its part, has already begun to rectify some of the structural barriers that have prevented players from reporting harassment and abuse in the past. From now on, all cases will be referred to the independently-run Sport Integrity Australia, which removes the governing body from the problematic position of investigating itself.

However, FA is not the only party responsible for defining and shaping football’s culture (or cultures). They may set a precedent and lead the conversation, but it is up to the rest of the sport – from players to staff to fans – to implement those lessons throughout their respective sporting ecosystems.

In doing so, perhaps we can begin to address the less tangible, but potentially more damaging, cultures currently embedded within it.

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