vulnerability and exposure

Reviewed by Chris Risker

6 march 2015       archive

Vulnerability and Exposure analyzes exploitation and scandal in Australian Rules Football, commonly known as the AFL. While "vulnerability and exposure" get their due, author Rob Cover highlights numerous footballer scandals, mostly sexual, and mostly non-consensual as his main text. Only a few pages in, the North American reader will quickly see parallels between the AFL and the NFL. Those familiar with the NFL might think of Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, or Roger Goodell's 'state of the NFL' speech "It's been a tough year." Each leagues' scandals are different, but the actions and reactions among the leagues, players, and media are strikingly similar.

Cover supports his analysis of the scandals with well known post modern theorists: Derrida, Foucault, and Gramsci all take their turn. Comfortable in this territory as his impressive list of publications demonstrates, Cover presents and 'locates' essential masculinities. Judith Butler's gender work informs his arguments as do other gender theorists. None are questioned or in the parlance of post modernism 'interrogated,' but accepted to the task of furthering his argument: AFL scandals reflect an out-of-date hyper masculinity fostered by team membership.

Cover's contrast of hyper masculinity with metro masculinity renders a conundrum, however. While he identifies hyper masculinity with individual and group violence, physical and sexual, Cover identifies metro masculinity with grooming, manners and appropriate 'sociality' behaviors. Amid the flurry of narratives and discourses that Cover posits exist around footballer scandals, he fails to explain why some footballers remain loyal to an atavistic masculinity while most others appear to have moved on to other forms. For that matter, few of the many discourses and narratives that Cover claims to surround the scandals are discussed in detail. Perhaps for post modernists Robert Merton's "a way of seeing is also a way of not seeing."

Cover's ostensible reason for writing Vulnerability and Exposure is to offer a remedy for those footballers trapped in hyper masculinity. He acknowledges that in order to do so, he must re-present deplorable behaviors that have already been bashed about in the press and legal system. But it is this very re-presentation that convinces that but relatively few footballers engage in these behaviors. However, in analyzing those that do, Cover manages to land a few punches of his own. He makes clear that organized sport leagues such as the AFL act in their own interest in these matters. They hold the individual(s) accountable for the scandal, not teams, not the sport culture. They often attack the victim to mitigate the allegations and elevate the integrity of the league. And Cover maintains that rather than pursue a larger social understanding, they rewrite rule books for players, or at most, orchestrate disingenuous public relations campaigns to cover for the larger cultural problem, such the "Inclusion and Diversity" campaign promulgated by the AFL and the AFL Players Association.

Players for their part do not individually act much better, take for example the case of Brendan Fevola's gambling addiction (ignoring his sexual misconduct, his drinking and drug problems … why are not some of these men in detention centers or prison?). Fevola gave a paid but apparently very real interview on The Footy Show. The Footy Show is the Australian Rules equivalent of ESPN with men in serious dark suits and grave faces, though to the North American ear, it has to sound like a podiatry reality show. Fevola's confession was considered heartfelt and apologetic to the viewers. His tell-all appearance also raised ratings for The Footy Show. His audience and fans were touched, even moved, until they learned that immediately after shooting the spot, Fevola was seen playing poker at a big casino in Melbourne where he eventually had to be removed by the Responsible Gaming Officer.

As much as Cover may have accurately depicted the roles of players and the AFL, as a media specialist and perhaps secondarily a sociologist, he misses the point athletically. In his zeal to link individual player behavior off the field to the behavior on the field, he puts forth a weak argument. Cover contends that players equate their on-field experience with pleasure, the same pleasure pursued with team members in late night revelry and debauchery. He advances his argument with sound research that suggests that in these moments individual players are more likely to engage in unacceptable behaviors because of the presence of team members. They pursue these behaviors as an extension of the pleasure principle from on the field to pleasure off the field. Unfortunately, he supports his on the field pleasure thesis with a quote from an official AFL promotion of football: Young men should take up football because it will give them pleasure, this from the very organization he soundly criticizes.

High athletic performance, even sound athletic performance, is not slipping into a hot tub with a glass of champagne and someone's girlfriend. There may be distant pleasure after the game in the locker room and beyond, but not in the moment. Performing well is often a silent event when the roar of the crowd and exhortations of fellow players are not heard. There remains just movement: the striking of a ball, a precise header, a flawless pass, a sequence of deft control or a second when lightning strikes. Granted, professional sport is in an era of self-admiration and celebration, but is this the same as hedonism? Moreover, he and other gender theorists (see for example Jockocracy: Queering Masculinity and Sport) harp on the notion that being muscular is largely a trait of hyper masculinity. Like it or not, muscles are how the work gets done on the field of competition. Athletes not only need to be strong, but they need to be strong at just the right moment.

Aside from the post modern tour de force, one wonders why Cover wrote this book. Ostensibly, he wrote it to offer ethical guidance to the footballers and the AFL. Cover offers, working through Butler's work on war, that if footballers would recognize the vulnerability of the other through their own on-field vulnerability to injury, they could generate empathy and compassion for the other. In the case of footballers, this other would be women and gays. Cover admits that his quest is utopian and idealistic, but having conceded this fact, he proceeds to argue how "communicative practices" might highlight the vulnerability of footballers and permeate the thinking of footballers, resulting in the outcome Cover seeks.

As indicated however, Cover does not account for the majority of the players acting otherwise. He does not explain how they learned to embrace a socially acceptable metro sexuality. Or how, even as team members, they do not engage in destructive behavior in order to maintain team bonding or their position in the team hierarchy. The picture Cover paints seems not quite complete. In the end, it is not clear that hyper masculinity is the only culprit enticing the footballers to scandalous acts. Perhaps, for some footballers, Bernard Shaw's observation suffices: "Virtue is insufficient temptation."

Vulnerability and Exposure: Footballer Scandals, Masculine Identity and Ethics. Rob Cover. Crawley, Western Australia: UWA Publishing, 2014. 329 pages.

Copyright © 2015 by Chris Risker

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