Underestimation Locks Women Out. Open The Gates, AFL — Or Women Will Rip Them Down.
Footy never held much interest for me. Or so I thought.
It was a sport for the boys. A sport for mates hollering out of cars after matches. For the blokes in the pub, for my old male relatives slumped in front of the telly — while my aunties, mum and grandmother did the washing up. So I decided footy wasn’t for me.
Footy — from my rather narrow view — was a sport of men in tight shorts, corporate advertising and newspapers filled with tales of masculine glory, muscles, bravado and brawn. It was a never-ending parade of daily Herald Sun tales of tabloid disgrace, rapes, domestic violence, drugs and booze.
Admittedly, I didn’t have much direct contact with footy. Footy wasn’t offered as a competitive inter-school “girls sport” at my co-ed primary school, and organised sports almost completely disappeared from my world once my parents enrolled me in an ultra-religious Jewish girls high-school — apart from the state-mandated minimum requirement for physical education.
Footy spilled over into my life despite my feeble attempts to ignore it. Mostly it was a nuisance. Train carriages packed with exuberant supporters in team colours; inescapable Melbourne traffic jams after matches; AusKick children’s events popping up at any time; and the inane office footy tipping competitions, where I was regularly encouraged to bet on teams I knew nothing about, on a sport I hated.
Footy seemed to me as a world of male commentators, misogyny, and footballers wives in heavy make-up, shimmering under spotlights in low-cut backless dresses. Footy was raucous late-night footy shows filled with loud, obnoxious men, foul-mouthed and primed to brawl. It was so-called entertainment of the lowest common-denominator interjected with dirty jokes and the occasional appallingly discriminatory remark.
Everywhere I looked, footy forced its way into my peripheral vision. It was a culture I neither completely understood or wanted to be part of, because its popular representations filtered through newspapers and tv shows thoroughly repulsed me. But football formed a distinctive defining characteristic of Aussie national identity. It was always there.
When I was 14 years old, my father scored tickets to a corporate box at the Grand Final and in a moment of insanity, decided to take me with him. It was a miserable event, sequestered high above the crowd in a booth with my father’s work colleagues. The players on the field were so far down below they were barely discernible. I didn’t know the rules of the game, everyone in the corporate box was three times my age and I had no interest in the caviar and glasses of champagne on offer. I spent the entire match staring at my hands, reading the back of a leaflet I’d picked up at the gate, and swore never to go back to a footy match again.
So over twenty years later when the AFL women’s league was announced, I was somewhat aghast at my unexpected interest. At first my curiosity was casual, flicking through the newspaper, in curious wonderment at what a professional female football player would look like. Surprise, surprise, they looked like footy players. They even looked like some women I knew.
Suddenly, footy was something for me.
Footy was filled with women demanding a place on the field, footy was full of female commentators, footy was women demanding equal pay and work insurance. Footy was demanding women have a place to play and that their fans get seats. Footy was women getting a fair chance at a fair game. And I wanted that fair go for them, the way — once upon a time — I remembered wanting a fair go as well, those rare few times when someone had kicked a ball to me — and I’d caught it, desperately trying to hang on to an awkwardly shaped football in my little hands.
So at the last minute on Friday afternoon I made up my mind to take myself down to the second football match of my life — the very first AFL Women’s opener, Blues vs Pies. Still in my work clothes and make-up, laptop tucked into my oversized bag next to my lunchbox. Drove across the city in peak hour traffic, wondering why my iPhone map kept warning me it’d take half an hour to get five more kilometres to Ikon Park.
And then I hit the traffic jams, bikes and pedestrians weaving between cars, people streaming in towards the oval, taxis honking, a large truck beside my stationary car jamming itself into a car space not quite big enough, crushing cars both front and behind, its male occupant desperate to make it to the oval in time for kick-off…
I missed the first ten minutes of the match, driving in circles searching frantically for a parking space, until finally I found a spot right at the limit of how far my feet could carry me, watching people run across the lawn towards the footy oval as I hurriedly exited my car, and then as I approached the heavy walls, realised the throngs of people outside was hundreds of bodies deep.
Security guards were blocking the first gate I approached, as the crowd searched for an unblocked entry. People began to attempt to scale the fence-line and rip down barriers to get inside.
Still I paced around the edge of the walls — wanting in — and not knowing why precisely. Wanting to be part of a game I’d never really thought I wanted to be part of before, until finally a small yell came from deep within the crowd and people surged forward, carrying me with them. They’d discovered one last open unattended gate, people massing through the gate, hushing each other to be quiet as they pushed forward.
And then we were in. Up through the dark concrete stairwell and out into the warm summer light of the oval, and the roar of the crowd. There in front of me was an empty seat, and the man sitting beside it offered it to me.
I didn’t understand a lot about the game, only that I knew I wanted to be there, surrounded by people celebrating women, cheering them on. It was half time before I managed to get enough mobile phone reception to learn the stadium was full — 24,500 seats fully-filled — and the AFL CEO was outside, apologising to women who’d missed out on getting in.
I spent the match gazing in awe at the size of the crowd, appreciating the goodwill of the people around me: the fathers with young daughters beside me celebrating, and women cheering themselves hoarse as the twilight faded; the blare of the evening lights illuminating the field of athletic footy players, sprinting across the grass, leaping air-borne and ramming each other to the ground. The ball felt almost incidental to the game. We were there to watch the players. We were there for the moment.
It was over too soon, over before I barely knew I was there, before I understood the rules of the game, before I was ready to go home. The euphoria lingered as the masses exited the oval, a warm night’s breeze hinting at something yet to be fully grasped.
The AFL has consistently underestimated women for generations and locked them out of the game. The AFL locked out thousands of women yet again last night, the same way they’ve been locking women out all our lives, because the AFL continues to underestimate women’s interests, talents and force of will.
We won’t put up with being underestimated.
We’ll rip down fences. Scale gates if necessary.
But we will be there.
The AFL can count on it.