It all seems so glamourous – the flash of cameras, the glitz of the red carpet, the adulation of the fans – but peek behind the façade of professional football and you’ll find a grubby undercurrent of misogyny and male entitlement.
It’s a toxic culture that infects both codes, both NRL and AFL. In this heady world, players are the alphas, and women are seen as disposable, existing only to please men.
Throughout the season they’re lauded as gods, but over the summer, cashed-up and with no games to play, many footballers live to raise hell.
For the NRL last year, the madness started the moment the regular season ended. First came a succession of domestic violence cases, then a series of explicit sex videos started doing the rounds.
The NRL doesn’t deny there have been problems. “We’ve had a terrible couple of months,” NRL CEO, Todd Greenberg, tells Sunday Night’s Steve Pennells. “[It’s] done enormous damage to the game, the brand, the reputation of the game. It’s been a terrible off-season, the worst I’ve seen.”
For the NRL, kick-off couldn’t come soon enough, as football administrators struggled to bring the focus back on the field. And what has characterised all the various off-season scandals has been the treatment – or more precisely, the ill treatment – of women. But the AFL can hardly feel smug; its track record is also shameful.
What’s too often forgotten amid all these salacious stories and gut-churning videos is that behind the headlines are real women – women with real regrets, like Belinda Medlyn. She became a sexual plaything for an entire team.
Belinda’s downward spiral began as a casual hook-up with top rugby league player, Bodene Thompson. It turned into a series of orgies with handpicked teammates.
Belinda felt used by their relationship. She says she was treated as “…an object. Just a toy amongst his friends. To show off with. I knew what I was doing so I understand my part in all this.”
Now with the latest round of sex scandals, Belinda has decided it’s time to lift the lid on what happens behind locker room doors. It’s a courageous move because she knows she will be judged – and likely very harshly.
She admits she was a former stripper and a Penthouse Pet. She also says people will have preconceptions of her because of this. She’s worried they will believe “…that I deserved it. That I put myself out there.”
Belinda’s story began six years ago when she was on tour in Townsville promoting her appearance in Penthouse magazine. She met Thompson in a nightclub, and later texted him with a raunchy proposition: a night of sex with him and another player.
Thompson began sending Belinda photos of potential sex partners. His messages were explicit and blunt.
Belinda and Thompson eventually agreed on which players would join their tryst.
Thompson stage managed every moment of the encounter.
“It was all going on what he would say,” recalls Belinda. “He would give directions, come over here, you know, get in mate. It wasn’t all sex. I think it was about showing off.”
The relationship between Belinda and Bodene Thompson was certainly consensual.
Whenever Thompson was in town and he wanted sex – whether one-on-one or with his teammates – he contacted her.
The final time, and with a teammate trying to sleep in the next bed, they didn’t use contraception – and the inevitable happened. Belinda found herself pregnant to an NRL player she had only met a few times.
Still, Belinda wanted to be sure, and ordered a paternity test. The results were inarguable – “that Bodene was 99.999% the father of my unborn child.”
If you’re a footballer – no matter the code – there’s never any shortage of women.
Cindy Carino and her friends are trophy hunters. The big game they’re after are football players.
Cindy is very open about her actions and those around her. “From all the girls I’ve ever met since I have been around these kind of circles, I haven’t met one from the age of twenty to about thirty who would say no.”
Cindy understands that having fun in football circles comes with risks. Just last weekend, she and a friend were partying with a group of AFL players. “We ended up just with two guys at the end,” she claims. One of the two was married.
The party continued at one of the player’s homes when the night took a disturbing turn. “We entered the door and I don’t know why, but these two guys just straightaway started taking off their clothes,” Cindy reveals.
After being there for around an hour, Cindy and her friend realised the players were filming the two women. Even more alarming, Cindy knows that the video was shared. She claims she didn’t consent to the video being taken, nor does she know who it was sent to. “[It] could have been to the whole AFL team,” she says.
In a football-obsessed culture, these guys are gods. They live in an unreal world where they are handsomely paid, pampered, and pumped up. Women are little more than accessories. But it’s not just players who are to blame – the entire system is geared to discount and consequently degrade women.
Cassie Lane is a former model and ex-AFL WAG who used to date Collingwood superstar Alan Didak. She experienced the warped, macho world of football first-hand. “I felt like I had no voice. I felt like I had no say. People were calling me all sorts of names – a slut, a skank, a stripper, all of these things,” she recalls of those times.
“There’s this toxic masculinity within that culture, and I think that it encourages this idea of being very manly and very strong. Part of that power is about disrespecting women or dominating women. It just reflects society, but on steroids.”
When Cassie first met Alan Didak, she was bedazzled by all the glamour and attention. “It was kind of exciting at the start. It was thrilling. Then [it] very quickly became a bit overwhelming.”
Soon Cassie discovered that going out with a footballer was a contact sport. “He definitely got attention from women,” she recalls. “There was a few times where women offered to do certain things to him while I was there, like in the toilets.”
But the players are hardly innocents in all of this. “They would go out drinking and just not come home for a whole night,” tells Cassie. “They would just go out and turn their phones off and disappear.”
Then came the Brownlows. Walking the red carpet should have been Cassie’s Cinderella moment. Instead, the footy world laid the slipper in; she was voted worst dressed at the event.
“Everyone had an opinion about [the outfit],” says Cassie. “Which is awful anyway, because I’m literally just going to an event with my partner. I’m not a celebrity, I’m not a sports star. You were literally an object to be dressed and to be criticised.”
“As long as you play by the rules and you do everything right, you should be very happy that you’re in this world. Just do what you’re told. Keep your mouth shut and be grateful, and don’t create a fuss.”
Eventually Cassie had enough of the WAG life. She broke up with Didak.
“He was upset about it,” Cassie recalls. “Then I got a phone call two days later from the Collingwood sports psychologist – essentially begging me, asking me to get back with Alan, because obviously he was upset and there was a really important game that weekend. They wanted to make sure he was feeling okay.”
Back out on the town, Cindy and her mates are still pursuing their goals, unfazed by the risks that come with hanging with the footy crowd.
“I’m looking for Mr Right,” says Cindy. “I’m ready to settle down. That’s what I’m looking for. But you know life is short, so if we meet someone else and he makes us laugh and we can have a good night, then why not?”
Football of all codes has always been beset by scandal – and very often, it’s a woman at the centre of the drama.
Within the AFL, there was the recent Dane Swan and Travis Cloak sexting scandals – and of course, the infamous St Kilda school girl controversy.
But in recent years, it seems the NRL has taken up the running, with more frequent and ever more disturbing headlines, from sexual assault claims to drunken misbehaviour to the latest video scandal that’s engulfed the Penrith club.
Rugby League CEO Todd Greenberg has one of the toughest jobs in town right now. “I don’t think the sport will ever not have issues for it to confront and it would be naive to think otherwise,” he says. “We have 500 young men aged between 18 and 35 who play this sport. If you look at that breakdown in a microcosm within society, we will always have issues. But… we’ve got to get better. We’re not hiding away from our challenges; in fact, we’re confronting them face on.”
Belinda Medlyn has faced her own challenges, after falling pregnant to Bodene Thompson. She gave birth to a little boy called Hendrix, who is now three years old.
At first, Thompson maintained sporadic contact with his young son, but as time went on he withdrew from the boy’s life – both emotionally and financially.
“He didn’t want it to be real. He didn’t want to have a child with a woman he didn’t know,” Belinda believes.
When Belinda reached out to the NRL for help – copying it in on an email she sent to Thompson – she was ignored.
Eventually Belinda did hear back – but not from the NRL. It was Bodene Thompson’s lawyer. “I was threatened that if I was to go forward with this that I faced jail. To tell my side of the story, that I would face jail.”
“They didn’t want this to be exposed.” Belinda claims it was all about protecting themselves. “Their team, their teammates, their teammates, their image. Not my welfare of my son.”
The NRL and the AFL are trying to make their games more female-friendly. They’re even getting women out on the field. But for the NRL at least, any goodwill is being sabotaged by the appalling off-field behaviour of the male players.
“There’s a range of [problems]. A number of them I call absolute stupidity. If there was a charge for stupidity, it would be on the highest level. There’s no doubt that rugby league needs a cultural shift. The game’s got to grow up, and that includes our players.”
Reporter: Steve Pennells
Producers: Taylor Auerbach & Rebecca Le Tourneau