Earlier this year was the inaugural Australian Football League Women’s (AFLW) season. It was an 8-week season, with eight teams from across Australia competing. The Grand Final was a close and exciting game, won by a narrow margin by the Adelaide Crows over the Brisbane Lions.
For those unfamiliar with the game, Australian Rules Football has been officially around since the 1850s, when it was first codified, with the first league founded soon after in the 1870s. It is a highly skilled game, and is played with a uniquely-shaped ‘prolate spheroid‘ ball. Australian Rules Football is the world’s oldest football code, and is particularly beloved in its home town of Melbourne where huge crowds flock each week to watch the game, and newspapers regularly have football ‘news’ stories splashed across the front pages… followed by football ‘sports’ stories in the actual sports pages. Even during the off-season! There is now a public holiday prior to the Grand Final, and it is quite acceptable for Melbournians to wear their football scarves to the office in the finals season.
The history of women playing AFL football goes back to the early 1900s, and women have been able to play football as juniors for quite some time. As a high school student in the 1990s, I played for my school’s women’s team against other local schools. Playing the game was very physical and hard, but it was a lot of fun, and I still have very vivid memories of the games I played in. But it never occurred to me that it was something I could play outside of school – I wasn’t aware of any local women’s leagues at the time. There was certainly no visible profile of the sport as something that women could play. Instead I played basketball and later, in my twenties, got involved in road cycling. Playing football was more of a novelty at the time, and it was a great honour to play for my school team, which was known as the best in the region.
This year, I watched several games of the AFLW, including the Grand Final, with a mix of excitement and pride, but also wistfulness. All the games were free to attend, and the crowds were beyond the AFL’s expectations. As a viewer, what delighted me the most was the normality of watching the women play. The players wore the same style of uniform as the men (no skirts or bikinis here!), and the games were very physical and tough, with hard tackling, exciting goals and thrilling marks. There was no attempt to make the game ‘sexy’, ‘cutesy’ or a novelty – to me it was just watching fit, skilled people (who happen to be female) playing a good game of football.
The inaugural season has inspired more women and girls to get involved in playing the game, with new regional leagues starting up, and plans to expand the national league in 2019. Over time, as the players become more professional and are able to devote more time to training and playing at a high level, and as the game at junior and amateur levels develops, the pace and skill of the women’s game can only increase.
The wonderful normality of the women’s game extended into the post-season celebrations in a way that men’s league is yet to achieve. The Best and Fairest Awards were held after the Grand Final, with the players and other attendees dressed in their finest for the dinner and speeches. When Adelaide Crows premiership player Erin Phillips was announced as the winner of the Best and Fairest award, she leaned over and kissed her wife, Tracy. Erin Phillips became a professional basketballer after being told at the age of 13 that she couldn’t continue to play football with the boys. Being able to return to football all these years later – and win the Best and Fairest award – made for a sporting fairy tale, which the media loved. The fact that Erin attended with her wife, and thanked her in her speech, was treated in the media as normal, and was nothing to be surprised or shocked about. Perhaps one day soon there will be AFL male players who feel comfortable enough to attend the Brownlow Medal awards (the men’s equivalent best and fairest awards) with their male partners as well.
BIO: Lyndsey is an ecologist from Melbourne, and enjoys walkies with her dog Watson, bike riding and bush walking… and watching the football.