Feb 28, 2017
Like many Australian kids, I grew up kicking the footy in the back yard. Having a brother, I heard people comment ‘maybe he’ll be a footy player one day!’ from time to time. (Or, depending on the sporting season, ‘maybe he’ll be a champion fast-bowler one day’.) In contrast, no-one ever said ‘maybe she’ll be a footy player one day!’ about me.
To be fair, I would have made a bloody awful football player, even if the opportunity had presented itself. I was tiny, had terrible eyesight, and a truly astounding lack of co-ordination. But, more significantly, it was the 1980s and for all intents and purposes, women’s football simply didn’t exist. In fact – while Wikipedia tells me that a small State league was established in 1988 – I didn’t hear of women playing footy until the late 1990s, when I was quite astounded to learn that some friends were playing in an inter-university league.
In spite of this, Aussie Rules football (at least, the kind with men) has been a constant in my adult life – I’ve been a member of my AFL club (the national league) for a decade and a half. I’ve slept out in a queue for Grand Final tickets, back in the days when you had to spend a night on the concrete outside the ground to secure a seat at the biggest game of the year. I’ve cheered on my WAFL team (the State-level league) in many finals. I’ve organised my calendar around footy fixtures each year. And occasionally I’ve ventured down the park for a bit of kick-to-kick, especially after a few drinks on Grand Final Day. (Fun fact: one of my little fingers is permanently crooked. I broke it many years ago on a junior-sized ball while attempting to take a mark. I did warn you that I’m uncoordinated.) I think it’s a wonderful game – athletic, often spectacular, occasionally hilarious, and featuring a relatively simple rule set that makes it accessible to new audiences.
But, while enjoying the game as a spectator and occasional tipsy amateur, I’ve long been aware of the many problems that surround it. A lot of these problems mirror those in other highly masculinised sports – for example, rugby league – and are often highly gendered. Off-field behaviour from players that runs the gamut from inappropriate to downright criminal. The patronising and objectifying discussion of player’s partners – collectively, ‘the WAGS’. (That’s ‘Wives and Girlfriends’, if you’re lucky enough not to have heard it before.) And a course, a history of homophobia so entrenched that queer players – of which, statistically, there must have been many – have been made invisible.
Over the last decade, the AFL has begun to make tiny steps towards a more inclusive culture that better reflects the game’s diverse fan base. We’ve seen the introduction of the Women’s Round, which celebrates women in the sport, as well as the AFL’s substantial base of female supporters, and 2016 saw the first Pride Game.
However, when it comes to the issue of women and footy, I’m firmly of the opinion that we need women playing at the highest level to change the culture of the sport for the better. A nod to women’s footy (and footy’s women) in one round a year – one round, that is, of the men’s game – is not enough.
And this brings us to 2017’s inaugural AFLW – that’s AFL Women’s – competition. This year, it’s been very much a testing of the waters. The games have been scheduled before the commencement of the men’s league’s season (with the often-extreme summer heat only being partly offset by a shortened game length). The new teams, somewhat awkwardly, have the same names as the men’s teams – presumably a marketing decision. Most of the games are being played at smaller suburban grounds (many of which have been filed to capacity, to the credit of the league’s supporters). And, importantly, we’re not quite sure what shape the league will take in the future.
But regardless, it’s been absolutely amazing to turn on the TV and see people like me (or at least a more co-ordinated version of me) playing the sport I love. And I can’t start to imagine how much more amazing it must be for the girls in Auskick – our national children’s footy program – to see this pathway rolling out in front of them. Or perhaps even better, it may be that they’re not amazed at all, because they’re about to grow up in a world where they can take it for granted that women play footy professionally – why wouldn’t they?
Now, today, I’m feeling pretty wibbly when it comes to talking about the AFLW, because I know that an AFLW team guernsey – one I was so excited to order – is waiting for me in my PO Box. I was, in fact, so excited to order it that I announced the fact to a couple of my male, footy-tragic colleagues (men with small daughters, no less), because I thought they’d say – at the very least – ‘hey that’s cool!’ What they actually did was shrug at me, and then talk to each other for a bit about the mediocrity of non-male football. And on Monday, when they asked how my weekend was, and I said ‘I had an amazing weekend – watching the AFLW made me so incredibly happy’, they turned away from me, and started talking to each other about how poor the AFLW was, and how it was a ‘novelty event’ that wouldn’t last. (Let’s add ‘failure to read social cues’ to their long list of failures.)
So, I’m off to go pick up my guernsey from the post office now. And fuck those guys. I’m not going to show them, and I’m not going to tell them how delighted I am, because they are so clearly part of The Reason Women Can’t Have Nice Things. What I’m going to do is wear that guernsey down to the game on Sunday – the first ever AFLW game to be played in my State – and cheer until I drop.