Sex scandal rocks rugby league
"If I had a gun I'd shoot them right now. I hate them, they're disgusting. I want them dead."
These anguished words belong to a New Zealand women, whose interview with the ABC current affairs programme, Four Corners, has led to the public shaming of one of rugby league's most popular figures, the former player and Channel Nine commentator, Matthew Johns. Once again, the game itself, along with the misogynist subculture attached to it, is also in the public stocks.
The woman, who was referred to as "Clare" on the programme, told of the night in 2002 when she had sex with a number of players from the Cronulla Sharks, while others watched.
"I only remember one player definitely, it was Mattie Johns," she told the programme. "He laughed and he joked and he very loud and boisterous and thought it was hilarious and you know kept it going."
Five days after this incident at a hotel in Christchurch, New Zealand, the woman, who was 19 at the time, complained to police. As part of their inquiries, detectives interviewed 40 Cronulla Sharks players and staff, and were told that the group sex had been consensual.
No charges were brought, and the names of the players involved in the incident remained out of the press until late last week, when details from the Four Corners programme, Code of Silence, first started to appear.
So last Thursday night, Channel Nine's high-rating Footy Show started with a statement from an ashen-looking Johns.
Alluding to the incident, Johns told viewers: "For me personally, it put my family through enormous anguish and embarrassment. It has once again, and for that I can't say sorry enough."
Crucially, however, he offered no apology to "Clare", nor any acknowledgment of her anguish. As Monday's programme would reveal, she had since become suicidal.
After the normally ebullient Johns had delivered his "mea culpa", his co-host Paul "Fatty" Vautin, another hugely popular figure in the game, patted him on the back: "Alright mate, well said. Alright, let's get on with the show."
This was far from the end of it, however. After watching Monday night's programme - something which until late this week, Johns himself did not do - David Gallop, the chief executive of the National Rugby League, said "a massive question mark" hung over his future.
Condemnation also came from within Channel Nine. Tracey Grimshaw, the host of the tabloid news magazine show, A Current Affair, was excoriating.
"Even though no charges were ever laid," she told viewers, "her experience should rightly redefine the notion of consent, and whether a star-struck 19-year-old could even be deemed capable of consenting to the scenario she ultimately endured.
"Unfortunately a man we all know - and I personally like - Matthew Johns has been heavily implicated in this event, and I believe he needs to step up, face some hard questions and talk properly about it, rather than just a few uncomfortable lines delivered on The Footy Show."
Just 24 hours later, Johns did indeed face some hard questions that were put to him by Grimshaw herself on A Current Affair . That afternoon, Channel Nine had announced that he had been stepped down indefinitely, and Johns had finally watched the Four Corners programme which had brought his career to such an abrupt and embarrassing end.
"Did it distress you to see her condition?" asked Grimshaw.
"Yes it did," said Johns, who was sat alongside his wife, Trish. "I made some comments last Thursday night at The Footy Show that I wasn't aware of what she'd been through and can say now, you know, that any trauma and embarrassment that she's gone through as a result of this incident, I'm extremely sorry for and I'm extremely sorry for, to my wife and my family as well, just the embarrassment and pain it's caused them."
You can read the interview here.
The story is a complicated one. A former colleague of "Clare" has now come forward, claiming that she bragged about the group sex in its immediate aftermath. There have also been calls for the other Cronulla Sharks players and staff who were in the room to step forward and explain themselves.
Not for the first time this season, the game of rugby league has been brought into disrepute. Last month, the former Cronulla player, Greg Bird, was found guilty of glassing his American girlfriend in the face, and then telling police that his flat-mate was to blame.
Rugby league's on-field product has rarely been better - some of the recent games have showcased a breath-taking range of skills. But the cumulative effect of these off-field incidents is testing the loyalty of even its most die-hard supporters.
Last night on the Footy Show, Phil Gould, a former coach and one of the big men of the game, broke down in tears as he spoke of his worries for his mate, Matthew Johns, and his fears for the health of the code: "This to me was the sledgehammer to the back of the head that the game deserved, and that we needed.
"That, for so long, we've been sitting on panels like this and having incidents whether it was drugs, or alcohol, or abuse of women, and we all walk away and say: 'Well, that was a wake-up call, that was a wake-up call', but no-one wakes up."
PS With apologies for the plug, but if any of you happen to be in Sydney on Friday 22 May, and fancy talking US politics as part of the Sydney Writers' Festival, then this might be of interest.