This is what the AFL calls respecting women? Looks like patronising moralism to me | Gay Alcorn

It’s clear the AFL takes its perceived role as a leader on social issues seriously. But the assumptions made about the affairs saga have sexist undertones

  • Gay Alcorn is a Guardian Australia columnist

The AFL takes itself terribly seriously, doesn’t it? To hear its agonised chief executive Gillon McLachlan trying to explain the forced resignations of two senior officials for “inappropriate” relationships with “young” women – their youth seemed to be critical – I wondered if I was listening to the head of the Presbyterian church rather than the boss of a football league.

It was head-scratching, no doubt a sign of the “journey” McLachlan said the league, and indeed the whole country, was on to “respect” women. Honestly, I couldn’t see much for women, or men for that matter, to celebrate. In a perverse way, this confusing episode is a sign of how supposed progress can be so unintentionally regressive, so patronising to women, or just plain odd.

Why did football manager Simon Lethlean and head of commercial Richard Simkiss lose their jobs? From what has been revealed so far, they had consensual affairs with two women who also worked for the AFL. McLachlan has said neither woman complained about her treatment. There is no suggestion of sexual harassment and, as far as I am aware, neither men directly managed either woman.

Did it impact the men’s work? “No not to my knowledge,” said McLachlan, “they are both high-performing executives”. In his sad way, McLachlan spoke of “allegations” and “admissions” as though this was comparable to a criminal offence. The two men had to go because they “had inappropriate relationships with two younger women who work in the AFL industry”.

“The AFL that I want to lead is a professional organisation based on integrity, respect, care for each other and responsibility … We are committed to a process of change, and I am confident that that change is being seen and felt across our industry.”

It hardly needs to be said that people have affairs with work colleagues. I know of numerous long-term partnerships that began that way, and many flings. Some of them ended badly and painfully, some of them forged lifetime relationships. Some involved people of different ages, too.

Some are clearly wrong, especially if there is harassment or the affair impacts a person’s ability to do their job or if it means one party is given opportunities denied to others, a toxic situation in any workplace. And we all know that when there is a clear difference in power and an affair goes bad, it is the person in a weaker position – often the woman – whose career is most affected.

But, as far as we know, none of these conditions are relevant here. Instead, the affairs were “inappropriate”, a dry, hollow word beloved of people who can’t quite say what they mean. Tease it out and it appears the affairs were considered immoral.

McLachlan knows relationships in the workplace exist – indeed, he said there were “relationships going on in my office”. Pushed as to the difference, he came up with: “They go to the relationship status of the men, they go to the fact that the women were younger women in the organisation, (it) talks to their position on the executive” and other “stuff” that he wouldn’t divulge.

Central to this view is that the two men were married. McLachlan acknowledged that his predecessor, Andrew Demetriou, was in a relationship with a younger colleague at the AFL at the time of his appointment 15 years ago. The Age sports commentator Caroline Wilson wrote about this too – Demetriou was a senior executive having an affair with a younger woman. But Wilson said that “both were single at the time”, as though that explained the distinction. And they got married. Phew.

What year are we in? If married people having affairs was cause for dismissal, newsrooms around the country would be half empty. Yet sports commentators love nothing more than judging the morality of others. It’s a strange, tribal thing and can be enormously entertaining. The Herald Sun’s Mark Robinson took to his keyboard.

“There are never winners when affairs are exposed and families are ripped apart. And always it’s the innocent who suffer the most,” he told us.

“You feel sorry for the wives of both men … Yes, it takes two to tango, but Lethlean and Simkiss shouldn’t have been on the dance floor in the first place.”

This is about the innocent, wronged wives? Perhaps, but I’m not sure that if I were married to either of these men, I would be thrilled with how it was handled. As well as having to deal with my husband having an affair with a work colleague, now he’s lost his job as well. Great! And I’m not convinced I’d be pleased that my husband’s affair was the subject of a livestreamed press conference, or that the photos and names of the “young” women were published by newspapers.

Perhaps I’d rather deal with it in the old-fashioned way – lots of yelling behind closed doors, perhaps even an ultimatum to end it or get out. But privately, because it’s nobody else’s business.

The other factor seems to be that the two women are “younger” than the men. I can’t see any purpose in naming the women, but one was an official for AFL Auskick and another was a lawyer for the league – hardly office temps.

The assumptions here are sexist. They imply that that somehow younger women need to be protected from older men, that they must inevitably be victims of an illicit affair, that they are not equal partners to a mistake.

I’m not pretending this isn’t complicated. McLachlan has struggled to explain it, too. He said the league would consider a formal code that spells out what relationships are allowed and which are not, “[but] when you try to codify what we know what is right or wrong, and when there’s all this nuance, you can potentially create a rod for your own back”.

“All this nuance” doesn’t mean that we can’t do anything to treat women equally at work. There must be zero tolerance for sexual harassment. People can’t have relationships with someone they directly manage – the power differential is too great, although whether that means the person should be sacked doesn’t always follow.

Women need equal opportunities to gain experience and get promoted, good parental leave that doesn’t impact the careers of men or women. And there are subtler cultural issues, like tackling the “blokiness” in some workplaces and the assumptions that the male style of leadership is the natural style.

But in the 1960s and 1970s, women fought to have sexual freedom too, to make our own choices about who we slept with without our morality being judged.

We make adult decisions and are responsible for those decisions. Affairs can be messy and end badly. Women are not “innocent” wives or “young” female temptresses or victims of male desire. To treat them so isn’t “respecting” women. It’s infantilising them, giving men special responsibility to look after women.

The AFL is terribly earnest in its desire to do the right thing, and sees itself as a leader on all kind of social issues from racism, LGBTI rights to domestic violence. Mostly, its influence is benign, and occasionally inspiring. But please, Gillon, stay out of the bedroom. Women – and men – don’t need you there in 2017.


Gay Alcorn

The GuardianTramp

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