In a league of their own

Watching the Hampson-Hardeman Cup, the AFL Women’s All Star Match, last weekend you couldn’t help but notice how good it was and how well it flowed. Women have played football for 100 years – we just haven’t seen them.

We’re watching something new. And it’s proved a TV ratings success, with over a million viewers nationally tuning in to watch the Saturday game, and a record for any Saturday night AFL match.

Culturally, Australians are not accustomed to seeing a team of strong women play high profile sport. We’re used to tall and agile women make a name for themselves in netball or basketball. Swimmers and tennis players make front-page news, often more for their looks than their skill.

Sure, there’s women’s cricket and soccer teams that rate a mention now and then.

But AFL is different. It’s Australia’s game and a contact sport, reflecting a unique culture. It’s fast, tough, and calls for skill at kicking, hand-balling, marking and tackling. Until now, women mostly made news for being glamorous wives – ornaments not equals – certainly not for kicking a goal from 55m, as the Demons’ Tayla Harris did.

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The genie is out. Women who love to play footie will no longer struggle to be noticed or have a voice. They have a league of their own. The inaugural national women’s league kicks off in February 2017.

Last weekend, the Western Bulldogs and the Melbourne Demons ran onto the Whitten Oval wearing smiles. There were blondes and brunettes, ponytails and headbands. No one even cared if they were wearing makeup or not because their passion and talent was what mattered. What they came to do was what counted. No mention of hip measurement or cleavage. This is what happens when women are treated equally and respectfully.

One reporter observed it was all commentators could do to keep up with the play, at first stumbling over terms like “ruckwoman”. Soon, it will be the norm.

Our Watch (part of the government plan to reduce violence against women and children) partnered with the AFL for last Saturday’s game. They’re onto the value of this, while sponsors are also beginning to sit up and take interest.

Our Watch CEO Mary Barry said, “Sport has an influence way beyond the field it is played on. Providing opportunities and pathways for young women and girls to play AFL at an elite level normalizes the role that women play in our sport – on the field, in the clubroom and in the boardroom. Gender equality is at the core of healthy, respectful relationships.”

While men have often hidden their emotions behind the game, there’s something different happening with women players. We know already Moana Hope, who scored 6 goals for the Bulldogs and was best on ground on Saturday, is from the school of hard knocks. And Katie Brennan is a former bulimia sufferer who now sees beauty in and harnesses power from physical strength.

“Strong is the new pretty”, said Brennan memorably.

The new code marks a continuation of a necessary evolution for the AFL. Racism and sexism have long found common ground, on and off the field. Just as footy fans are being challenged to focus on the player not colour, this goes for women too, being recognised for who they are and what they can do, not what they look like.

Bulldogs vice-president Dr Susan Alberti is at the heart of the revolution. She was one of many signatories to a letter of complaint to Channel 9 about their treatment on The Footy Show. Sam Newman called the signatories liars and hypocrites and Alberti fought back, suing for defamation.

An apology from Channel Nine was read out in court, saying the network had not intended to impute Dr Alberti was a liar. She received $220,000 compensation, ironically helping to fund the women’s league.

Alberti told Australian Story, “I believe the culture of any organization, particularly AFL, it comes from the top. And I was making noises behind the scenes, albeit ruffling a few feathers, saying this is crazy, why haven’t we got women playing AFL football? It’s not a privilege, it’s a right.”

Racing Victoria should consider itself on notice, using topless models alongside horses and men in suits to advertise the upcoming Spring Racing Carnival. It was only less than a year ago Michelle Payne became the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup.

The AFL said that amongst the final total of 6,365 at Whitten Oval were “little girls sporting the unusual combination of over-sized footy jumpers and fairy dresses”. Now that’s a look. And, in a second-quarter televised interview, Bulldogs President Peter Gordon proudly said, “I see a future in which girls know that they can not only watch the game and love the game but play it at the highest level. It’s fantastic to know that half the population, the female population, get to play this game, get to start up a league of their own.”

The Hampson-Hardeman Cup is named in recognition of female football pioneers Barb Hampson and Lisa Hardeman who developed the first women’s championships in 1998.

 

First published in TasWeekend, September 10, 2016

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