“Unbelievably stupid and ridiculous” was the response from Sam Newman, sexist stalwart of Channel Nine’s The Footy Show, to the floated prospect of a national women’s AFL competition in 2011. Fast forward five years to the recent announcement of a national women’s league beginning in 2017, and it appears that thankfully no one paid too much attention to Newman’s sexist commentary.
It is an incredibly exciting time to be involved in women’s AFL, with the national league representing a significant step forward for the sport as a whole. Yet as with most incursions into male dominated arenas, the rise of women’s AFL has not been without controversy.
The classic sexist trolls have come out to play in response to these recent developments. A Herald Sun letter writer shared a witty suggestion that the league should be called “the Dulux Cup as it will be like watching paint dry”. Graham Cornes writes in The Advertiser that women playing football just doesn’t “look right”, and suggests they get more flattering uniforms to improve his viewing pleasure. The opposition is genuinely mind-boggling. For many indignant men it appears to be deeply confronting to imagine a woman playing football, let alone being good at it. We’ve made progress as a society in terms of treating women as people (letting them leave the house, and even have jobs), but the blokey arena of sport remains resistant to involving women in anything other than a cheerleading capacity.
The commonly floated idea that men are inherently better athletes and produce more interesting sport is just not true. The average woman may not be physically able to sprint as fast as a man, but the ability of women to exert their total physical capacity ought to be admired. Even more importantly, sports aren’t interesting or good because of the brute physical force of the athletes; it’s the skills of the players, the cohesiveness of a well-trained team, and the top-notch competition between players of similar physical capacity that makes the game interesting.
It is deeply offensive to see people bigoted enough to dismiss a sport they would otherwise love, because they can’t bear the thought of having to acknowledge the talents of female athletes. It’s also pretty bizarre, given that those complaining about women playing AFL would probably be completely humiliated if they had to try their luck against a women’s team.
The bad news for men wanting to keep women off the field is that it’s too late. Many major teams run women’s academies, and have been incredibly supportive of developing female talent. Unfortunately some clubs, including the Sydney Swans, have been unwilling or unable to bid for the rights to a team in the fledgling national competition. But this won’t deter the continued development of women and the further expansion of the national talent pool. On a more local level, Sydney AFL women’s leagues support considerable levels of female participation.
Last Saturday was the Sydney University AFL Ladies Day, an event designed to celebrate and encourage women’s involvement in the sport. The day involved markets, raffles and gourmet food whilst the various rounds of the men’s division played on the No. 1 oval. The culmination of the day’s activities was the Women’s Premiership match which saw the Sydney University Bombers bringing home a commanding 47-point win over Macquarie University. The women who play AFL are genuinely inspiring athletes, some of whom have represented Australia on the international stage in other sports. Several of the Sydney Uni Bombers also play for the Sydney Swans’ women’s team. And the enthusiastic crowd at Ladies Day certainly didn’t seem bored.
Football may not seem like an important frontier of feminism. But we should question why a national activity involving hundreds of thousands of people has an almost exclusively male face. The fundamentally sexist roots of opposition to women’s sports have no place in the 21st century and must not be tolerated. Many have predicted that a national women’s league would be a complete failure. It will be satisfying to see them proved wrong.