Football Australia must learn lessons from past in Lisa De Vanna abuse investigation
Political scientist Ivan Krastev has said “transparency is not about restoring trust in institutions, transparency is the politics of managing mistrust”. He was referring to democracy, but the statement also makes for a remarkably appropriate description of the modern sporting landscape.
Allegations by Lisa De Vanna that she was subjected to sexual harassment, indecent assault, grooming and bullying from senior players throughout her career elicit two distinct reactions. The first is visceral, containing all the expected feelings of unease, sadness and despondency generally accompanying such subject matter. The second is more intellectual, a kind of here-we-go-again sentiment preceding yet another investigation followed by another set of findings that, more often than not, serve less to provide information and more to highlight how much of it remains hidden.
Internal and independent investigations have become as commonplace in sport as have allegations of historical sexual abuse, racism and corruption – which is, to say, the numbers are growing. Some have been laudable in their approach, others have a propensity for tokenism – do just enough to calm the rabble-rousers and say the rest is in the pipeline.
Football Australia has responded swiftly to De Vanna’s interview with News Corp – in which another player, Rhali Dobson, also claims she has been a target of predatory behaviour – by urging them and others to make formal complaints. It also said it is developing a joint initiative with Sport Integrity Australia so the latter can “receive, assess, and manage” all complaints independently of FA. SIA chief executive David Sharpe said the process would ensure “nothing can be swept under the carpet”.
FA chief executive James Johnson released an emphatic video release on Wednesday night. “We must acknowledge that at the centre of this, we have two players who have shown great courage to speak about and to share their personal experiences,” Johnson said. “Lisa and Rhali, we see you and we hear you.”
What action FA takes from here will reflect the direction of the new administration, and offer insight into whether it has learned lessons from the past. Football Federation Australia’s own mishandling of Alen Stajcic’s sacking would be well worth an internal revisit, as would probes in other Australian sports since then.
In July, Swimming Australia conceded it “could have done better” in facilitating complaints from athletes after two-time Olympic silver medallist Maddie Groves withdrew from the Australian Olympic swimming trials citing “misogynistic perverts” in the sport. SA committed to transparency and set up a panel to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct and mistreatment, though there have also been calls for SA to engage the Australian Human Rights Commission to undertake an independent review, as the statutory body did for gymnastics when it revealed “systemic risk factors” within that sport in May. Leigh Russell, the former chief executive of SA – which is yet to adopt Sport Integrity Australia’s National Integrity Framework – said “it is time to listen and learn rather than continue to speak and spin the wheels”.
AFL club Collingwood, meanwhile, was dragged kicking and screaming into an independent review after Héritier Lumumba’s allegations of racism, which the Do Better report found to be “systemic” in the club’s culture. Eddie McGuire’s PR disaster of a press conference contributed to his standing down as Magpies president. At least, though, it released its report in full.
In March, Hockey Australia pledged to fix its self-described “dysfunctional culture” in the women’s program following a three-month review sparked by player complaints and ending in the resignation of a number of senior staff. HA’s then chief executive Matt Favier and president Melanie Woosnam labelled the findings – the result of interviews with more than 100 people – “confronting and distressing” but declined to make a summary report of said findings public.
Any revelation is also an obscuration, any disclosure also a concealment. Until, of course, there is another leak, or another person comes forward with allegations. Or, in the case of Cricket Australia and the sandpaper scandal of 2018, until Cameron Bancroft does an interview three years after the fact saying it’s “self-explanatory” that tampering with a ball benefits bowlers. If issues are not dealt with openly and in totality as they occur, they will always be there, on the tip of every insider’s tongue, patiently waiting for a retired David Warner to pen his memoir.
These are only choice examples of selective transparency, which was a primary feature of the Stajcic affair, during which FFA’s board sacked the Matildas coach in January 2019, ostensibly for presiding over a “poor culture”. Stajcic’s dismissal was not related to De Vanna’s claims and he was not accused of any misconduct or impropriety, but the failure of FFA to offer explanations as to the reasons for his sacking at the time fuelled confusion and mistrust which took a heavy toll on Stajcic himself.
At the time, chairman Chris Nikou offered no details, aside from vague references to a survey around team culture. What followed was Exhibit A of how not to effectively manage mistrust. FFA attempted to avoid public questions while Stajcic himself said he was unaware of the reason for his sacking and denied being aware of any issues in the team. Ultimately, director Heather Reid “apologised unreservedly” for fuelling “speculation and innuendo” by sending private messages to journalists and FFA eventually clarified that misconduct was not the reason for his sacking.
A subsequent review into the management of national teams found no bias or agenda behind the termination of Stajcic’s employment. Football Coaches Australia questioned how the panel was able to reach its conclusion without the input of Stajcic himself. The report is scant on detail and focused on recommendations around “athlete centricity” in the management of national teams and “strong governance to support procedural improvements”.
In this respect, FA now has an opportunity, especially considering that 2019 report found that the voice of the athlete “is not consistently listened to by administrators and those governing the sport”, and acknowledged “this is particularly acute in the women’s game”.
De Vanna, the second-most-capped Matilda of all time and Australia’s second-most-prolific goalscorer, has always been a refreshingly candid footballer. There are no airs and graces – she did not attend the Global School of Media-Trained Rent-A-Quotes from which so many athletes are polished graduates. Even she, though, waited until after her retirement to speak publicly about abuse she allegedly suffered some two decades ago.
Until now, too many investigations have failed to restore our trust in sporting institutions. Rather, they have tried to politically manage our mistrust, which has only made us all the more mistrustful. With the right approach, FA can help change this.