We need to talk about Eddie. A couple of days after some on-air hilarity about gathering a posse of male football commentators to submerge journalist Caroline Wilson underwater (all in good fun, and all for a good cause, of course), Eddie McGuire was heralding Collingwood’s successful bid for an inaugural women’s AFL team by telling his Carlton counterpart it would give him “two more days of the year to hate you blokes”.
The first moment was an all-too-familiar, if particularly ghastly, example of the footy boys’ club. Goading each other along on Triple M’s The Rub, seemingly oblivious to the implications of what they were saying, McGuire, James Brayshaw, Danny Frawley and Wayne Carey sounded like a pack of timid schoolboys, desperately eager to impress and outdo each other, to shore up their spot in the gang. It was disgraceful. And also kind of pathetic.
The second moment was a dispiriting glimpse of what an AFL-sanctioned, AFL-affiliated women’s competition might become. From the “you blokes”, to the “hate”, to the tired old backward-looking rivalries: it had everything it would be nice to run a women’s footy comp without. Awarding teams to Collingwood and Carlton may make good business sense. After all (as the AFL’s own news story noted) they are the league’s “traditional heavyweights”, and the AFL cannot afford this initiative to fail. But promoting women’s footy shouldn’t be a matter of blokey boasting rights and hate-tinged boosterism.
Yet again, women are left wondering, how do we love this game, when the public rhetoric of its most prominent personalities is at best demeaning and at worst dangerous? No amount of white ribbons or pink ladies or women’s teams will change that.
Ask women why they love playing footy, and they’ll usually start with the same two things. Whether first-gamers or longterm players, earnest tryers or champions, they tell you about physicality and freedom. About the exhilaration of throwing themselves into the fray, the adrenalin, the possibilities. About making decisions on the run, taking risks and backing themselves, responding to the ball’s wayward bounce, the game’s glorious unpredictability. And then they’ll tell you about the community, the camaraderie, the team. When you have to fight to be taken seriously, and to keep your team and your competition going, you don’t waste energy in faux wars with your rivals.
I started watching women’s footy regularly in the unlikeliest of places: Boston. We were living in the US, and my daughter, a sporting all-rounder and footy aficionado, had joined the local AFL club, the only Aussie among a small but dedicated group of women. That year they played tournaments up and down the East Coast, and a national championship in Austin, Texas. The best of the women were skilled, sure-footed, daring. The games were often scrappy – there were a lot of new players, and many were playing in unfamiliar combines – but always enthusiastic and committed. It was a great reminder of what an inclusive sport footy can be, with a role for all comers, and so many ways of contributing, both on and off the field.
Back in Victoria, we sought out more women’s footy to watch. My local country team had just added a youth girls side, girls who’d grown up alongside each other, grown up watching football. They’d also grown up playing netball, and watching how they moved as a team, seeking each other out, always looking for advantage, the slick transference from player to player, I wondered if that helped shape their game. Rain drizzled down, and the sky was gloomy, but the girls were undeterred. We sure weren’t in Boston anymore. Victory, in a moment of collective spontaneity, was celebrated with a dash back to the centre and a lot of sliding around in a churned up expanse of mud. There was something so joyful about it all.
Professional AFL players often say they stop enjoying the game. I wonder if the joy of playing, the camaraderie of struggle, will survive this new era of professionalism and media attention, though I’m hopeful. If that’s to happen, we need women to speak for their game, to share their experiences, to shape its discourse.
In readiness for this new season, I humbly offer a few tips for the blokes on watching women’s footy (all in good fun, and all for a good cause, of course).
1. Keep the mansplaining down
That’s when a man takes it upon himself to explain things to a woman that she is likely to know more about than he does. Like telling a female footy fan why they might enjoy the game. Or informing them that women’s footy has actually been around for quite a long time. Or outlining the particular challenges the players will have faced in their quest to play Australian rules footy as elite professionals. Conversation without condescension might take a little practise, but it’ll be worth it. After all, what fan doesn’t love talking about the footy?
2. Keep the perving down
You might not have realised, if you’ve spent most of your time watching male sports, but checking out the opposite sex plays very little part in spectating. Keeping an eye on the ball, sussing out the options, spotting the off-play incidents, matching numbers and new haircuts against the selected names, watching the movements on and off the bench, checking the resting players for signs of injury or distress: this will keep you busy enough, without trying to gaze lustfully upon or otherwise sexually assess the players.
3. Learn about the game
Women’s footy has its own past, its own stars, its own experts. As more stories surface and more voices emerge, our appreciation of the game grows richer, fresher, more nuanced. Women have played the game for a century, but only now are they in the spotlight, and we’re exploring what women’s footy is and might be. What a boon for the stats nerds, the history buffs, the footy trivia champs among you.
4. Embrace diversity
Recent showcase games have revealed how well women can play an engrossing, at times spectacular style of footy. Tayla Harris – she of the sensational marks – suggests that the sky’s the limit. Now imagine more girls drawn to the sport, more benefitting from quality coaching, competition and mentoring. The principle is simple: talent needs opportunity to reveal itself, and encouragement to flourish. The game is poorer when we let lazy assumptions or active prejudices determine who pulls on the boots. And that applies to nationality, race and sexuality as much as to gender.
5. Grow some balls
Admiring, respecting and listening to women isn’t that difficult. But if you really can’t cope with informed and engaged critique, then maybe competitive sport just isn’t for you.