By Patrick McTague.
Edited by Jessica Sutton.
This month in New Zealand, Sevu Reece re-signed with New Zealand Rugby and the Crusaders until 2022. This comes after a breakout rookie year for the rugby star in 2019, as the top try scorer for the competition and a call up to the All Blacks. And all of this less than a year after his domestic abuse conviction was thrown out of court in 2018, partially due to a pending rugby contract, continuing a long tradition in New Zealand, and around the world, of excusing criminal behaviour in young men because they may be international sports stars.
Sevu Reece case
In Reece’s case, there were several mitigating factors the judge took into account before discharging without conviction the case of Reece beating his girlfriend in public while drunk (technically one count of male assaults female). It was his first time before the court, he had pleaded guilty, he acknowledged a problem with alcohol and had been three months sober, he was undergoing counselling with his partner and she had forgiven him, and conviction may have meant an end to his career. To be clear – this is not an acquittal. Reece was guilty. But he was discharged without the corresponding punishment.
I can understand where the judge is coming from, wanting to give this young man a chance to turn his life around. However, this ruling does not punish a serious offence, as there is no accountability after the fact. While a person who is truly repentant should have the opportunity for rehabilitation, concerns arise when the sporting potential of a man is a key factor in a decision not to punish him for violence against women.
The Latest in a Long History
While legally there are no special rules in our courts for sports stars, and that “this apparent preferential treatment is nothing but a “perception issue”, it’s fairly clear that we have a problematic history of dismissing cases of sports stars because it would impact their ability to pursue their career. This is especially evident when related to rugby players and violent offences in New Zealand with at least 10 instances of conviction being avoided since 2004, four of which were assaults against female partners. Discharges without conviction in particular may allow a cycle of abuse to go unchecked, without any real accountability, apparently because the perpetrator has the good fortune to be a sporting star. What this tells young men growing up in New Zealand is that if you’re good enough at sport, and want to make it your career, you are above the law.
The justification most commonly given for excusing this kind of behaviour is that it would affect the ability of the men concerned to pursue their chosen career. However, what our legal system is really saying is that a career in rugby is more important than public safety. We have built a society that is willing to excuse violent behaviour in the people who are meant to inspire the young men of tomorrow.
If all these players had been convicted and lost their ability to play rugby in New Zealand, their places in national sides would go to players who were not violent offenders. New Zealand would be teaching young men that if you want the privilege of playing rugby for a career, you have to hold yourself to high standard, particularly in interactions with innocent partners or members of the public.
Scott Kuggeleijn case
Kuggeleijn is a cricketer who was found not guilty of rape in a 2017 retrial, after a first trial in 2016 which resulted in a hung jury. He was selected to play for New Zealand a month after he was found not guilty. While the accused was found not guilty, the outcome and subsequent appointment to the Black Caps are reason for concern because of the substance of the case.
This case was largely a “his word against hers” story. Both sides say that they went to the victims home together where, that night, he tried to have sex with her, she told him no and he stopped. The disparity comes the following morning; the victim says that she told him no dozens of times before he succeeded in pulling her underwear down, pinning her arms down, and raping her. Kuggeleijn says that “he did not hear a “no” and he did not pin her arms down.
The defence also brought into the trial the facts that the complainant had been “provocatively dressed” and “looking for male attention”. Attention was also drawn to the amount of alcohol she had been drinking in an attempt to discredit her statement. Many readers of this site will likely have already spotted issues with this judgment. For those wondering what the problem is, allow me to explain.
Kuggeleijn conceded himself, that the complainant said no multiple times the night before the incident in question. Then in the alleged rape, he claimed he did not “hear a no”. Yet, absence of a “no” does not mean a “yes”. Unless a person gives full and free consent, sex is not consensual. Furthermore, what the victim was wearing, whether she was “looking for attention”, and the amount she had been drinking, are completely irrelevant to whether or not she gave legal consent. Rape myths such as this are documented as likely to confuse both judge and jury and make a not guilty verdict more likely.
Nevertheless, Kuggeleijn was eventually, after two trials, found not guilty. Even if we look at this verdict in isolation from the impact of rape myths, on the facts Kuggeleijn undisputedly treated the complainant aggressively and without respect. While it is not possible to know whether his status as a top cricketer for New Zealand played into the jury’s decision, we do know that New Zealand Cricket seem not to view this type of behaviour as impacting a man’s worthiness to represent our country. One could argue that to represent our country, a higher standard than “have you been convicted of rape” should be met. I think that knowingly having sex with a person without their enthusiastic consent should be a disqualifying factor regardless of conviction.
And why should our national representatives be held to a higher standard than the (flawed) letter of the law? Because again, they are role models to all of the other young men out there who want to become national representatives. And if we teach them that their behaviour can be excused, then we are going to perpetuate a cycle of violence and harm that destroys too many lives already.
And if you think I’m going a bit too far, then just look at the update in the NZ Cricket Players Association’s handbook made after Kuggeleijn’s trial to include guidelines on consent. It seems that New Zealand Cricket thinks the same, even if they’re not willing to admit it publicly.
Our national sports stars are New Zealand’s heroes, whether we like it or not. And so it stands to reason that our heroes should not be held to a lower standard than the rest of the public when it comes to violence, particularly against women. When asked about Reece’s signing to the All Blacks and his history with domestic violence, Steve Hansen said, “It’s a big part of our society unfortunately… so rugby is going to have people within its community that are involved in this”.
The suggestion here is that domestic violence is inevitable, and not a good enough reason to bar men from the privilege of being sports heroes. It’s this kind of attitude from the top name in rugby, that allows the sport and community to protect perpetrators of violence instead of punishing them. Instead of teaching young men that “it’s not okay, it’s never okay”, we’re teaching them that if they’re a good enough sportsperson, they can beat their partner and still represent New Zealand at the highest level.
Hansen also said in the same interview “And having been a policeman, I’ve seen plenty of it. And I know it’s not just restricted to males assaulting women, women assault males too… It’s not a gender thing, it’s a New Zealand problem.” I would say that it is both a “gender thing” and a New Zealand problem. Violence which disproportionately affects one gender over the another is considered gender-based violence. And statistics show that domestic violence in New Zealand, not to mention worldwide, disproportionately affects women and girls. Remember 82% of people killed by their partner are women. 137 women are killed by their partner worldwide every day. So yes, Steve, domestic violence is a “gender thing”. To say otherwise is minimizing the cause and impact it has on our society and especially on the women in our society.
It’s a shocking look at the placement of sport in our society’s hierarchy, when the people who create, protect, and profit from our heroes won’t acknowledge simple truths that domestic violence is gendered, or that sex without consent is rape whether or not a person is convicted. Yes, redemption is important, rehabilitation is how we move forward, but simply sweeping crimes under the rug and hoping these men will regulate their own behaviour is not how our judicial system should be run.
If we want our society to teach men that their actions will not be excused regardless of their standing, we need our national representatives to reflect that. Until the letter of the law changes, we must demand a higher standard from New Zealand’s “heroes”.