The Matthew Johns sex scandal has become one of the most divisive subjects of the year here in Australia. The fact I just labelled it the “Matthew Johns sex scandal” is proof that we’re all probably making mistakes on our view of the circumstances.
For those that don’t know, the story goes something like this. Back in 2002, Johns was in a hotel with the rest of the Cronulla Sharks rugby league team after having played a match against New Zealand Warriors in the National Rugby League. He and a team-mate got chatting to a girl at the hotel bar and eventually took her back to Johns’s room for sex. What happened thereafter was a few more team-mates entered the room, and proceeded to line up at the end of the bed and take turns having intercourse with the girl. The facts are it was consensual, the gangbang was never planned by Johns, and while there was a police investigation, no charges were ever laid, and it was not classified as sexual abuse or assault.
The girl, just 19 at the time, was this the main subject of a report about the appalling sexual habits of the professional rugby league fraternity Down Under, with the Johns’s incident the centrepiece. Why, after seven years, we don’t know, but the ABC’s Four Corners this week exposed a seedy chapter in the game that was covered up pretty well for a long time. We can only assume it is trying to force the NRL’s hand in stamping out the too often poor behaviour of its contracted players – and that’s no bad thing. Alcohol and drug abuse is a problem, as is sexual attitudes. It needs to do something.
Johns tonight sat side-by-side with his wife Trish on A Current Affair – made fully aware of the chapter not long after it originally happened – and gave what can only be described as one of the bravest interviews I have ever seen on to a network that only hours before had dumped him as an expert analyst and Footy Show host. Let’s not forget, this all happened seven years ago.
Channel Nine, the network in question, has done the right thing in dropping him, but in leaving it for the better part of a decade, it has revealed itself to be a giant hypocrite. It was quite happy to employ him while the dirty little affair had been forgotten, and went a long way to making Johns one of the most popular personalities in Australian sports broadcasting. Not only that, a friend reminded me this evening that Nine continues to employ and laud Johns’s younger brother, Andrew, as one of its experts, despite his admittance to drug abuse while a player in the NRL. Go figure.
But, I digress. I wanted to try and write down my thoughts on tonight’s interview, rather than go back over the old ground that has been trodden to wet mud by a rabid media here.
What was abundantly clear to me watching Matthew Johns was that he seems determined not to shy away from the catastrophic error of his ways. He was not the only player involved, yet no others have fronted up to share the blame. The Four Corners report depicted a girl horribly distressed and traumatised by what happened, and for that, Johns has shown nothing but remorse and shame. That he still has his wife by his side is surely testament to his honesty and effort to try and put it behind them. He said his priority is his family. His career is in tatters, along with his public reputation, but yet he was able to summon the courage to sit in front of a national television audience likely to be in the millions, and do his best to explain himself.
He gave his side of the story – the girl, he claims, was never in distress at the time. She was asking for the team to have sex with her, calling them up one by one. That she was traumatised after the event is probably only natural, but according to Johns, at the time she seemed nothing but comfortable with the situation she put herself in. Yes – I said she put herself in, because at no time did she run to the door to escape. No charges were ever brought upon Johns or his pathetically mute team-mates. No crime was commited. We have only the police to trust on that score, so let’s not pretend Johns is being done some sort of favour.
I guess at the end of the day, Johns has many regrets. I’ll add one more to his list – a lack of courage. I not one to talk, but if Johns has shown the courage he showed this evening to confront Tracy Grimshaw – a female interviewer with a clear agenda to make him feel even more minute than he already does – he might have stopped his team-mates taking advantage of that situation. He might have explained to the girl that while she was happy to be there, it was a good idea. But nobody thinks straight when lust is in control – and I defy anyone to tell me otherwise.
For Grimshaw’s part, this was not her finest half-hour. She issued attacking questions like parking tickets to a disabled driver, promoted few responses from her subject as a result, and walked coldly away from the scene with a curt thank you and not so much as a glance in Johns’s direction. A handshake would have sufficed, Tracy, no matter what you think of the man.
Great interviewers never allow their emotions to control their line of questioning. For a supposed journalist of her experience to conduct a sensitive interview in this style was unprofessional in the extreme. Perhaps Channel Nine should consider giving her a slap on the wrist. She was terrible.
I guess the fact the next story on her show was about something no more memorable than the taste of a pot noodle is why we should never expect quality from the program.
Ultimately, how do I feel about Johns? I think he made a ghastly mistake, for which he is paying in full. He’s accepted full responsibility not just for his own actions, but also those of his spineless and silent team-mates. He’s apologised unreservedly to the young woman involved in the incident, his wife, his children, his fans. He’s done everything possible to rebuild a shattered family, and appeared to be going quite well until seven years down the line, when it was all dragged up again.
I feel sorry for him, for his family, and anyone close to him who knows intimately what he’s done to try and recover. I feel sorry for the girl, whose psychological trauma must be dreadful to deal with.
Perhaps now Johns has been brought down to the level of the gutter he crawled out of moments after his moral crime, the man will be mercilessley left alone to try again and place the cracked bricks that represent his dilapidated life in some sort of meaningful order.