On Friday night on February 3, 2017, 32 females played the first football game between Carlton and Collingwood in a new AFLW (Women’s) competition. Enamoured by the navy blue, when one of the Carlton players bounced the ball on the turf and ran into an open goal, my exclamation on the couch at home summed it up: “Good boy!”

Instinctive and spontaneous, my response reflected old-fashioned tradition not the new reality. Smiling and chuckling quietly to myself, it was a different ballgame that beckoned on the field. Unaccustomed to watching females play Aussie Rules, my ‘boy’ comment was actually a compliment to the female team and the player, inferring no gender difference in applauding another goal scored by a united team effort. Conscious of my faux pas, I didn’t however repeat it as the game progressed.

Fifty-three years ago as a skinny, bespectacled, asthmatic young girl, I wanted to play football too, having celebrated male players as heroes and role models for more than seven years since my first excited attendance at a game. Discussing my desire to don shorts and guernsey to kick a Sherrin in a ‘girls’ game with a female school friend, our aspirations dissolved in a field of dreams as no more than adolescent fantasy.

To watch the women’s game now was an inspiring human reality that transcended all my wildest imaginings, reflecting sentimentally how my late mother and father might have felt watching the game with me. It was a moment tinged with soft tears as both my parents loved football and accompanied me to games all my life until their frail bodies could no longer stand in the outer on a freezing, windy and wet afternoon. They knew I wanted to play but had to content myself with just kicking round the Sherrin on the field after the big boy’s game with other kids for fun. And mostly male kids at that!

Momentous, marvellous and majestic as the women’s game was for me, I realised I could never have played with such fearless abandon and put my body on the line with such ferocious, physical intensity as these women did. I would have been terrified of getting hurt, though at 14 this didn’t occur to me, such was my innocent bravado. Congratulating the women’s courage, competitiveness and contest for the ball, they were no different to hundreds of male players I’ve watched in my lifetime, the game developing into an exciting and aggressive match, despite low scores and a lop-sided goal tally.

The piece d’ resistance came at the conclusion of the game when completely unexpectedly for me, the Carlton “theme’ song echoed around the ground similarly to a men’s game when the Blues were victorious. Forming a circle and embracing each other on the field, the women passionately and proudly presented their rendition of the ‘famous old dark navy blues,’ their faces enlivened and endearing with big smiles and sweaty bodies glistening on the screen.

Why didn’t I actually go to watch the game? Boringly, I was just too tired to trek to Carlton and knew I’d see aspects of the game more clearly and visibly on TV. I’m very short-sighted and even wearing contact lenses at games, I have missed players’ facial expressions, the finer intricacies of exactly how they lay a tackle and execute the myriad of other skills demanded. But at the end of the lock-out game which amassed an unexpected big crowd of 25,000, I was angry at myself for not making the effort to attend in person. And to be totally honest, I was also partly shamed for thinking the game would not be as enthralling as it turned out to be. Indeed, I am as guilty as many men of lambasting my male team, Carlton, over the years for playing like a “bunch of women’, denigrating their lack of intensity and aggression at the ball the way I assumed women would play. My ignorance paramount, watching the game I was glad to be so wrong. Regretfully, I also had no sense of the atmosphere, the crowd indulgences or even seeing the strategies employed as they played. TV has always been limited in what it reveals.

When the AFL first announced the inaugural women’s competition, I had the idea to write a book about women in football, contacting a few women who were the first female club board members and a couple of other assorted females involved in the new competition. They were unsupportive and uninterested, but what I had no idea about was that women’s involvement in the game is more than a century old. I hadn’t read it anywhere on google or elsewhere (more fool me!), but last week, a history academic, Rob Hess, at Victoria University, put the women’s game in an historical perspective on The Conversation website.

The AFL has referred to the AFLW as a ‘revolution’ that would change the game “forever”, but Hess documented the first game women played with 36 players was in 1915 in Perth, albeit with the players wearing modest and cumbersome apparel on the field. Continuing to recite history, he wrote that more than 41,000 attended a women’s game in 1929, almost the total of all the crowds who attended the four games of the AFLW inaugural competition last weekend. By 1950, women’s games were played in more than 20 towns across Tasmania, and just a few years later, there was a four-team women’s competition in Brisbane. The first game in Melbourne was in 1921 with a St Kilda women’s team associated with the men’s team who wore the Saints’ uniform on the field. In 1923, a Richmond ladies team played against male counterparts.

One interesting aspect about the current group of female players in the AFLW is that I couldn’t help but notice the vast majority had Anglo-Saxon surnames unlike in the male competition and more interestingly perhaps too, there do not appear to be any female indigenous players. I am aware many indigenous girls play Aussie Rules around Australia and can offer no theories as to why none are in the new competition, likewise, why Anglo-Saxon names predominate. Suffice to suggest may be those parents with multicultural backgrounds who’ve grown up with soccer and even rugby, are directing their kids into those games rather than Aussie Rules. Hopefully, as the women’s game grows, this imbalance will be redressed.

During debate about how the AFLW would operate, there was some conjecture about the women having only 16 players a side (unsure about what positions were abandoned) and playing with a smaller Sherrin than the men use as well as inevitably their salaries, just around $25,000 for the marquee players which is no comparison to the $300,000 a year most male players earn when they start. The minimum wage is just $8,500. Still having a league of their own portends great promise for females across the country.

As the women’s game ambassador, Daisy Pearce wrote in a new column in The Age, ‘It feels so real that it must be-I’m going to be an AFL player”, adding “it is a dream come true…”, concluding that “the next generation of young footballers will be tuning in to discover their new role models- role models that some of us never had”.

In that perspective, male players were my role models and for nearly 20 years (1997-2011) I attempted to write a book about how I derived my psychology and philosophy for life from the football; albeit the male game. Contacting the AFL, various ex-male footballers, coaches and commentators to co-write it with me and to be based on interviews with past and present players, I got nowhere with my idea except to learn even more about how football had both consciously and unconsciously imbued my life by analysing and thinking it through for myself. Sexism? I cannot definitively say except that not one of the ex-players I actually saw was interested in discussing my idea in any depth, obviously dismissing me as some sort of misguided and mistaken female deluded about myself and football.

Despite AFL CEO, Gillon McLachlan, joining Male Champions of Change, one of several businesses around Australia supposedly working to achieve greater gender equity, there are many contradictions inherent in the AFLW and attitudes to women by many male supporters, coaches, players and club hierarchies. Most club boards are still male dominated as is the AFL Commission and other Aussie Rules organisations. It’s always been ironic to me that in war it’s always been women and children who seemingly come “first’ as victims and those to be saved, yet, at all other times and on a daily basis, it’s men who come first as leaders and power brokers in our world, politically, economically and socially. We listen to men and too often, ignore women. The AFLW seems no different in this regard.

Indeed, one female scribe in The Age, excited by the AFLW, said she was “nervous” at the same time “Because there are people just waiting to tear this competition down”. And predictably, one of the star Carlton players, even before Friday night’s game had started, discovered a pornographic image of genitalia “hacked” into her Twitter account. It beggars belief how simply ‘sick’ some men, and no excuses for my assumption there about the male gender of who posted the image, can be, but how can you stop it? Sex has always been, sadly, a bottom line of sadism.

At the same time, the female chief footballer writer at The Age, Caroline Wilson, penned an article about how the AFL is dragging its feet in its pledged review of its now antiquated respect and responsibility policy. Thirteen months have passed since AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan announced a policy review but that’s yet to happen. In January 2016, McLachlan said: “It is very timely to have it reviewed. We understand our responsibilities to continue to improve our approach to these issues, and I know we still have work to do to hold the respect and trust of the community. We want to continue to change the culture of our game”.

It is now wait and see what ensues in 2017 with a women’s league despite no review and some men still ‘porning’ about women players. Moreover, I ask one question: Do women play that differently to men? Indeed, while I applaud their physicality and aggression at the ball, it seems “violence” is as much part of the women’s game as it is for men. After the first four weekend games in the AFLW, three female players were reported, copping one match suspensions after what The Age called a “fiery opening round”. Their crimes? One player was booked for front-on contact and the other two for rough conduct. In Round 2 of the competition, one player received a two-match suspension for a “head-high hit” that left the opposition player unconscious before she hit the ground. What else is new? Women seem no demonstrably different from men. Yet, there has been little comment about that, indeed, not one scribe has analysed or explored that violent instinct in women players. Only the father of the player who was unconscious and suffered from concussion has been reported in the media calling for the “guardians of the game top keep violence out of the competition.” He said: “Violence is banned in the men’s competition so they shouldn’t allow it in the women’s game…(adding) a balance had to be struck between matches being physical without descending into violence.” Indeed, while violence is not sanctioned in the AFL, some players cross the line and I was not surprised some female players seemed to do likewise. Maybe we need to appreciate there is a fine line between physical aggression in the game and violence as I wrote in my blog White Line Fever. And as is wont in the men’s game, the women’s games are on camera, too, seemingly irrelevant that they can be singled out after the game.
As well, following on from the blog I wrote “In A League of Their Own” in June 2016, about being gay in football, two women players came out just before Round 2 to announce themselves as lovers and a couple. One of the players said she imagines a time when there will be no taboo around male or female AFL players discussing their sexuality. “And I just hope one day that young girls won’t have to go through what a lot of us have had to endure. If this helps (coming out as lovers) get that in motion and educates people that we’re just footballers that happen to be in a relationship outside of football and that doesn’t make us any different that’s just amazing”.

A week later, Bob Murphy, the captain of the male AFL team, The Bulldogs, premiers in 2016, announced publicly that he’s “confident” his team would embrace any player who identified themselves as gay. “I know in my heart that if someone laid themselves bare like that and were vulnerable enough to talk about it, we would put our arms around them and if we felt the need to protect them from the noise outside we would.”

Moreover, one letter writer to The Age, a female, Jennifer Santos, of Regent, wrote: “Two AFL blokes declaring their love for one another-I’d like to see that!” Football writer in the Herald Sun, Mark Robinson, on February 18, wrote that “some players in the AFL women’s competition are gay. Does anyone really care? One player told the Herald Sun this week she estimated only six players at her club weren’t gay. That’s six of roughly 30.” He reported that academic Kate O’Halloran asked this week: “Will the AFLW herald changing times for gay players in the men’s game?” He continued “the fact that gay women dominate the environment and apparently no one cares if they are gay or not”. This was indeed my point in my June blog last year.

On one level, the AFLW has already generated some change in opening a dialogue about women in sport with all its complex ramifications and I can only hope that change continues to engender meaningful and worthwhile social discourse about women as the potential equals of men by according them due respect for the games they play, the people they love and the lives they lead. It is still early days but since I lamented not being able to play more than 50 years ago, it only portends well for future generations of females who not only want to play football, but also want to love who they do and live how they choose with respect and without fear of abuse or recrimination.

The final words, albeit pessimistic in some ways, go to another letter writer to The Age, a female, Patricia Wiltshire, of Montmorency, who wrote: “ Perhaps it’s not surprising that two articles in The Saturday Age (Talking Point and Saturday Reflection, 11/2) equating the rise and popularity of women’s football with “equal; opportunity” and “bravery” were written by male journalists. Opportunities to celebrate such things as nurturing and the feminine side of our dual natures are becoming few and far between as we strive to attach most importance to “masculine heroics” and rough tactics. We have only to read Homer to understand that “bravery” included “lying with the wives of the enemy” in order to win a war. Whether it’s politics, literature, art or football, it’s still “a man’s world” setting the standard and dictating the goals”.

I don’t concur with her extreme protestations and I believe the AFLW will actually manifest change in attitudes to being gay, but it takes time for new attitudes to percolate through our social milieu, particularly in football. I have experienced dismissal myself and I’m not even gay; being female was reason enough for rejection. It may have taken more than 100 years for an AFLW and I hope I live long enough to hear male footballers acknowledge being gay without anyone caring about their sexuality. Hope springs eternal!

It’s for you to think about!

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