Within the course of a week, the NRL has been shaken by two separate, shocking allegations involving players who coerced their girlfriends into undergoing abortions.
Except that the NRL doesn't appear that shocked, which begs the question: Is this just part and parcel of NRL culture?
Or is the NRL's cavalier response to the derogatory and disposable treatment of women and children merely a microcosm of a much larger cultural crisis?
The first allegation involved Penrith Panther's Bryce Cartwright who paid his ex-girlfriend ("Miss X") $50,000 to abort their child.
Attempting to avoid contact and responsibility, Cartwright arranged ex-football star Lou Zivanovic to broker the deal, a "footy fixer" whose job it is to clean up players' "messes." Cartwright also repeatedly pressured Miss X to have the abortion, telling her that he wanted nothing to do with the baby and that she would "struggle as a single mother for the rest of [her] life" if she didn't go through with the procedure.
The second allegation involved Wests Tigers' Tim Simona. Simona also pressured his then girlfriend Jaya Taki to abort their baby, similarly telling her that he wouldn't be there to support them and that the child would "ruin his life" and ultimately his footy career.
Like Miss X, Ms Taki is also suffering grief and trauma after the abortion and the way she was treated by Simona and the NRL.
Neither player has taken responsibility for their appalling conduct. Instead, both have sought to downplay their behaviour, with Cartwright lamenting that he thought this was settled a long time ago and Simona dismissively commenting that, "It's a bit sad to get rid of a baby, but it was like three or four weeks old or something like that."
Even more concerning, however, is the nature of response (or lack thereof) from the NRL. When the Cartwright matter became public, Zivanovic tried to protect Cartwright (and perhaps himself) by deflecting blame onto Miss X. Cartwright's managers have also repeatedly emphasised their support and concern for his "welfare" and, like Cartwright, have been intent on denying responsibility. Perhaps worst of all, they actually seem to sympathise with his behaviour.
This reaction is extraordinary and not a little hypocritical, given the lengths to which they have gone, not only to engage a professional adviser on cultural issues such as behaviour towards women, but also to launch a public "Strong Men Respect Women" campaign.
Panther's General Manager Phil Gould bizarrely stated he was satisfied that Cartwright had "acted in a respectful manner and a supportive manner" and had done "as well as any young man could in the same situation." If treating a woman like some disposable commodity and bullying her into having an abortion is considered "respectful," "supportive" and the best a young man has to offer, we're all in serious trouble.
It is curious why the NRL believes that a public figure with an imbalance of power should be able privately to bully a woman into having an abortion that she doesn't want. Not to mention its double standard in relation to its treatment of Mitchell Pearce whom they fined $125,000 for his lewd act with a dog last year.
As for Simona, his incident of abortion coercion has only come to light because of a series of related antics: his illegal gambling on NRL matches, his cocaine addiction and the fact that he ripped off money from charities. The NRL has rightfully reprimanded Simona in relation to such behaviour but has shown little, if any, concern for his treatment of Ms Taki.
Is this really how strong men respect women?
A privileged mindset of superiority and entitlement, where men like Zivanovic are kept around to protect players' interests at all costs, seems rife within the NRL - particularly when it comes to women. However, while it would be easy to dismiss the Cartwright and Simona incidents as symptoms of NRL culture, or as poor and infrequent examples of what happens when men are encouraged to sacrifice decency in the pursuit of fame and money, unfortunately the NRL experience is part of a much broader cultural attitude towards coercion and abortion in our society.
The reality is that women often face some sort of financial or emotional pressure to abort - frequently by their partners. Sadly, many even face violence (the relationship between abortion and intimate partner violence is well established).
However, despite the prevalence of abortion coercion, little importance and attention is given to this issue, except when our celebrity obsession thrusts it into the spotlight. Take for example the Melbourne man who assaulted his pregnant wife after she refused to have an abortion, but was spared conviction last month because it might affect his visa and job. The outcome was grossly inadequate, yet where was the outrage?
At the end of the day, Cartwright and Simona are merely a reflection of a culture that absolves men of responsibility for an unplanned pregnancy. The whole "My Body, My Choice" mantra has given unscrupulous men the excuse they need to force women into making the choice that best suits their own purposes. Then they can exit stage left, perhaps throwing a few dollars behind them, leaving women to bear either the trauma of an abortion on their own or the challenges of single motherhood.
This is not how strong men respect women.
Instead of simply paying lip service to these kinds of slogans, we need to do much more as a society to teach our young men that this kind of behaviour is unacceptable. We need to identify and hold up real role models for our boys: men who are active in public life and yet who love and support their partners and their families instead of treating them as though they were disposable.
We need to train our health professionals and pregnancy counsellors to detect when women are seeking an abortion under duress and to act accordingly. We need to have appropriate penalties, not just a warning and a slap on the wrist, for men who have been violent towards their pregnant partners.
We need to provide women with relevant support and information so they don't feel that they have to raise a child on their own. We need to do more to progress alternatives to abortion so that no woman feels she has no other choice.
Perhaps then we would have a strong society that respects women.
Originally published on Online Opinion, 20 March 2017