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It’s Time For The AFL To Fix Its Women Problem

On Saturday June 29, 2013, two teams of women – one representing the Melbourne Demons, one representing the Western Bulldogs – took to the MCG to compete in what the AFL proudly proclaimed to be the first AFL sanctioned women’s game. During their on-field warm up, the stadium loudspeakers rattled off key statistics: over 136,000 women nationwide are registered players of Australian Rules football, including over 12,000 juniors in the Auskick program. 35% of AFL club members are female. What they did not mention was the number of females directly involved with AFL action in either a playing or officiating capacity: one, goal umpire Chelsea Roffey. A Google search of her name returns her Twitter account, and two Facebook groups dedicated to how “hot” she is.

The AFL has long been a bastion of horrendous gender imbalance. The June exhibition game was the centrepiece of the AFL’s “Women’s Round,” one of many self-aggrandising, back-patting, good-on-us examples of the AFL’s capacity to care for a week. (Others in the roster include Multicultural Round, Rivalry Round, Heritage Round, and the recent Lefty Round – a week dedicated to recognising the efforts of players who kick with their left foot, as opposed to their right). At best, this is lip service from the AFL; a way of recognising, but not including, enormous chunks of its supporting community.

Boys Vs Girls

Let’s look at the pathways in football for boys and girls. Gender intermingling happens on a surprising level in childhood development stages. Auskick does a remarkable job of making no distinction between gender and promoting inclusiveness and participation for children up to the age of 12. But from there, it separates.

For the boys, strong, dedicated junior leagues and talent identification can lead to potential elite players being identified, nurtured, and ushered towards the AFL draft, and an exceedingly lucrative career that, ultimately, has the potential to culminate in premiership glory on Grand Final day in front of 100,000 spectators at the MCG and a televised audience of millions worldwide.

For girls, the pathway ends in the established, but un-heralded, women’s state leagues. Untelevised. Unremunerated. Ranked, by definition, as amateur athletes. The pinnacle of which, as of this year, is an exhibition game played in the bowels of June. The fact that this is the only opportunity for women’s sport teams to play on the MCG is somewhat of a travesty. The fact that, in 2013, an all-female team of cooks competed on the MCG for an episode of MasterChef before teams of women were able to play football on the ground reduces it to farce.

Women be cooking!

Women be cooking!

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What’s The AFL Doing About It?

The AFL, allegedly, has plans in place that will facilitate a nationally televised women’s league by 2020. But why wait that long? The Victorian Women’s Football League has been operating for nearly 30 years; why does it need another seven to integrate with professional bodies, and begin televising? The W-League — the national semi-professional women’s soccer competition — formed a mere five years ago. In 2013, one game per week is broadcast live by the ABC. Clubs carry the same colours, names, and insignia as their male counterparts, and administratively they both operate under the same banner. With participation numbers already in six figures, why then does the AFL — unquestionably the dominant professional sport in Australia — need seven more years to reach the same goal?

What’s to stop the AFL from working with Melbourne-based clubs at the end of this year, to establish a working six-to-eight team competition — all teams sharing colours, names, and brands with already established clubs — to begin operation for the 2015 season? What’s to stop them from running concurrent schedules leading up to September? What’s to stop them from holding the AFL-W Grand Final on the same day, at the same arena, as the men’s competition? What’s the point in denying players like Daisy Pearce the national recognition she richly deserves? Why is it taking so long?

The answer appears to be that the AFL isn’t in any great rush to adjust its current attitude towards rectifying its inherent gender imbalance. If it were, it would take greater strides sooner to fix a system that’s currently failing to discourage bad attitudes towards women.

Change Needs To Start At The Top

For the privilege of playing a game for a living, AFL players are afforded a number of luxuries. It’s an old-world, gentleman’s club kind of environment. The money, the athletic ability; these things grant the average player notoriety and enhanced social privilege. It gets you noticed. It gets you wanted. It gets you laid. (Particularly in football-mad Melbourne.) The Brownlow Medal count, the AFL’s annual best-and-fairest dinner, never fails to begin with a litany of bewildering nonsense as players parade down the red carpet with their partners (and are all quick to point out that it’s “their night”) before the women in attendance are universally posed a bafflingly objectifying question: “WHO are you wearing?”

Men in society are largely expected to atone and reform for misogynistic behaviour if (and only if) they are caught and called out on it. But it’s different in the football world. The St Kilda Football Club has had two extremely similar rape charges levelled against two of its players recently. One  against “club legend” Stephen Milne, and one against the (at the time) recently-acquired Andrew Lovett. Milne was dropped from the senior side for a grand total of three weeks. He has since been reinstated and continues to play top tier football, despite the charges still pending. Conversely, Lovett’s contract with the club was immediately terminated. The difference between the two players? Milne had played some 260-odd games for the club, whereas Lovett, who was cleared of the charges in 2011, was yet to step on a field for the Saints, and had somewhat of a reputation for bad off-field behaviour.

The disparity between the punishments demonstrates that the longer the career that a player racks up, the more bulletproof they become in the eyes of both the public and club administration. If Andrew Lovett had been a tenured 200-game player with the club, and a permanent fixture in its best 22, would he have been afforded the same benefit of doubt they gave to Stephen Milne? Based on the evidence down at St Kilda, you’d be inclined to suggest yes.

A football club’s priority number one is to protect its public image at all times, and they know where their supporters loyalties lie. But when a club legend is backed at all costs in order for the club to save face — portrayed as a good and honest man, despite the gravity of charges laid against him — the result is an adoring public that turns its vitriol against the other half of the equation: the complainant.It’s a shockingly cavalier attitude, which breeds a culture of victim blaming and misogyny that goes unchecked league wide. This lack of a strong voice on the issue trickles down to fans. Football players, like it or not, are role models. And if a role model doesn’t provide a model of social equity, what happens to the people who follow them?

What’s The Real Source Of The Problem?

A big part of the problem stems from a fundamental lack of education and support. For young players entering the draft, life becomes a whirlwind if their name is read out by an AFL club. At 18 years of age (and in the cases of players such as Jaeger O’Meara or Jesse Hogan, at 17) they are taken from Year 12 students to professional athletes literally overnight. Playing contracts are lucrative from day one, and become even more so over time. In 2011, a player selected in the first round of the draft was immediately awarded a base salary of $59,200 per annum. This is propped up by senior match payments of $2,900 per match, with bonuses earned for the amount of senior AFL games played in their first year. A first round selected draft pick who manages to play 12 games in his first year (admittedly, no mean feat) stands to rake in somewhere in the vicinity of $102,100. And that’s a figure contractually obliged to grow year-on-year, thanks to the AFL Player’s Association’s particularly shrewd negotiating abilities when it came to the recent Collective Bargaining Agreement.

More to that, it takes young men out of home for the first time in a lot of cases — often from rural and insular communities — and relocates them in big cities that are sometimes thousands of kilometres away from friends and family. That’s not to say that the system merely dumps boys in to the deep end and demands they swim. On the contrary, AFL clubs have long held systems and structures in place that see drafted rookie players live with older members of the club lists, or with more mature mentors who can continue to teach them essential life skills. In the case of Melbourne legend Todd Viney, whose son Jack is a current first year player with the Demons, his house has taken on a number of rookies as boarders, effectively extending the period of time they live in a family environment.

But this program of mentorship doesn’t necessarily equate to breeding better males. After all, it’s young players being taught by established players who only learned from the same broken system. It’s a cut that runs deep. When fielding audience questions during a recent charity luncheon run by the AFL Player’s Association, Hawthorn legend Robert DiPierdomenico was asked by a female member of the audience for a picture. His knee-jerk response? “Clothes on, or off?”

It was a quip made with jovial boys-will-be-boys intentions, but one that smacks of the rampant male privilege associated with this cult of personality. There needs to be education, constant and ongoing, for all players entering the AFL. As much work as the AFL does for the under-privileged, for immigrant and indigenous communities, and for the disaffected, the same needs to be done for victims of sexual and domestic assault support organisations. Along with the requisite media training, clubs need to focus dedicated attention on teaching and developing players’ awareness of the impact of “off-handed” quips, gaffes, and misused language in general. The AFL needs to do more to support and back organisations and movements, and help eradicate a culture of victim blaming and casual misogyny. They need to work towards getting more women involved at football clubs, in administrative, operational, and officiating roles. And they need to do this for the simple reason that they, by virtue of dominating such a vast percentage of the Australian media landscape, are a voice that is impossible to ignore.

Why Not Be Better?

The AFL, with its wide-ranging influence and wealth of resources, could be blazing a triumphant trial in the all-too-important battle to build better blokes and foster a kinder, more tolerant community. Instead, they remain content to exist in a comfortably sexist world that treats rape culture on a scale of relevance, seemingly dependent on how many games the accused has played. In an increasingly progressive society, sport has always had the capacity to be pioneers for more humanist and less inherently privileged attitudes. It’s high time the AFL saw this responsibility as a badge of honour, and not an annoyance.

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Cam Tyeson is a Melbourne-based writer, comedian and Essendon Football Club member. Find more of his stuff at www.camtyeson.com or follow him on Twitter at @camtyeson.