Sexual assault is to sports what a loudmouth, racist relative is to Thanksgiving dinner. Both are common, unwanted, and often ignored rather than confronted. But, in the wide world of sports, rather than sitting an offense out, Aussie Rules Football player Gillian English wrote a play about her sexual assault and she will not be silenced.
The one-woman show tells the autobiographical story of how English loves Australian (Aussie) Rules football (a cross of rugby, soccer/football, and American football) but no longer plays after being publicly sexually assaulted at a tournament party during the world championships. The crime itself was prosecuted in Australia and the attacker plead guilty. According to English, male members of Team Canada were complicit in the attack, laughing and cheering the attacker on, but when she filed her complaint with AFL Canada, the professional organization for the sport, it was essentially ignored for eight months. The AFL Canada team members were not fined, suspended, or disciplined. The one response she got, “It’s being taken very seriously.”
“I drew an ethical line for myself,” she says, “I won’t play for a league that values a man’s ability to kick a football over [addressing the charges.]”
English played Aussie Rules Football for four years and became a member of the B-team for Team Canada. She makes it quite clear that she isn’t a “world-class athlete.” “The A-team are the world class athletes. I play for the B-team,” she explains. Nonetheless, football was her life. Starting in January, her team trained multiple times a week and played games until early-mid October. “It takes over your life,” she says. “It’s not a beer league. It’s not an intramural thing. We take it really seriously.”
The people were part of the sport’s appeal, especially her teammates. “I never played sports before in my life,” she says. “All my friends were comedians and actors. This whole other world opened to me with normal people. It was amazing and a huge part of my life really quickly.”
Of course, part of her outrage comes from the lack of reaction her teammates had towards to the assault. “There were lots of witnesses. It was a very public assault,” she says, explaining how she had to leave the hotel and a friend convinced her to go to the police the next day. “My teammates were dismissive of it. I didn’t want to look at a football and I didn’t want to play, but I had one more game with my club team. I had a devotion to my team, so I went. I told them what happened, and they just stared at me. I just walked away.”
Since that time, some teammates have come round to support her, saying they were “shocked and didn’t know what to do.” Others say they didn’t know. She has received support from the teams in Quebec, Ottawa, Victoria, and the US. “It’s mostly people I played with from Ottawa, Montreal, and Edmonton who are saying ‘Oh my God, what can we do to make it better?’. It’s great, but it hurts that my own team didn’t come to be at forefront of it. It solidifies quitting for me, because I don’t have team to go back to.”
English hoped that AFL Canada would discipline the team members who instigated and cheered during her attack. Two weeks after returning the Canada, she contacted AFL Canada. “I was told there would be an investigation,” she says. The only messages she received in an eight month period is that “it was very serious and was being investigated.” She raises the point that she filed her complaint around the time that playoffs were starting. She believes the delay happened because “[They] hoped I would go away.”
While the best offense is a good defense, sometimes the best defense is a good offense. Rather than wait interminably, English used her other skills as a comedian, actress, and playwright to address her situation. “If I were a musician, I could write a song. If I were a painter, I could paint a canvas. I use my art to try to figure out what happened to me,” she says. She is aware that a play would function as “a big public soapbox” but her goal is “to make it safe for my friends. I would be upset if something happened to them and I knew there was something I could do to stop it.”
The show started touring in February in New York and it was well received. “People connect with it. The details of the story make it about me, but it could be about anybody. It’s not like I’m a special snowflake. This happens to so many women every day,” she says.
After she posted about her show on Facebook she was surprised who responded. “A number of women who I played with messaged me and said, ‘It happened to me too, but I was too scared to say anything,’ or ‘I went to my coach, but nothing happened.’ It happens right across the country.”
“I’m not scared. I’m an actor and a loud mouth and I’m going to keep talking about it until its handled,” she says. Though, it is easier for English to speak about her experiences on stage than in person. “It’s safer for me to say [these things] on stage, because I feel at home and safe there. One on one, I feel scared to bring up this story of my sexual assault,” she says. Also, she is still profoundly affected by the event. “It’s not easy. Some days, I collapse and cry for hours because it’s overwhelming. It happened eight months ago. I’m not fine. I’m still dealing with the fallout. I still have days where I call my mom in tears because I miss playing so much.” She’s tried to find a substitute sport with rugby, but so far, nothing matches her love for playing Aussie Rules Football. “There’s no replacing it. It’s just gone.”
She has several outcomes she would like from her experience.
Her main goal is to get AFL Canada to put rules in place for sexual assault. “A teammate and I drafted protocols for protecting players against sexual assault that would be strictly enforced. Instead, they’re behaving in a way like it’s okay [to be assaulted]. I want [the protocols] to become the norm across the country.”
She also wants to connect with the many others out there who have faced sexual assault and let them know they are not alone. “You can feel very alone when this happens. I have a great support system, and I felt alone too. You can feel silenced and shamed and marginalized. I want women to know that when this happens, they’re not alone. At the very least, they have me.” She adds that both men and women talk to her about their own assaults. “I want my friends and women of this country not to be eaten away because of something somebody did to them that they had no part in. We should stop apologizing for shit we didn’t do.”
Ultimately, though she hopes that we can normalize the conversation about sexual assault. If it happens every day, she wonders why we’re not talking about it more. Of course, she says, “I’d love for there to be a day when I don’t have to talk about it.”
While her message is strong, she wants everyone to know that the show is not all doom and gloom. “It is funny for the first 45 minutes. People don’t want to watch an hour of a girl talking about sexual assault. It is funny and I don’t want people to feel bad for me. They can feel angry and pumped to make things better for women, but I don’t want a pity parade.”
Get Around Me plays May 14-16 at the Mainline Theatre (3997 St Laurent). $15. Click here for showtimes and tickets.