Invading the field

July 14, 2016
Some 25% of football players are now women and girls.

Twenty-five per cent of Australian Rules football players are now women and girls, a figure that has doubled in the past five years. From February next year, eight new women's teams will compete in a national, six-round, AFL competition. Announcing the women's league last month, AFL chairman Mike Fitzpatrick said it would “change the game forever, [… uneasy pause …] for the good”.

When the idea was first raised in 2010, former Geelong player turned media personality Sam Newman called it “unbelievably stupid and ridiculous”.

“Someone check the pipes at the AFL to make sure a terrorist is not doing something to try and have people go mad,” he jested. Although “maybe if the women's competition really gets its eye in … they could have a lingerie league.”

Last August, Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs played the first ever women's game to be televised live. It drew respectable ratings — better than many AFL men's games. Captains Daisy Pearce and Steph Chiocci made their obligatory appearance on Channel 9's Footy Show, bantering nervously with the panel about them coming to give their teams a pep talk.

“Don't worry Steph,” said Newman to Chiocci, “I'll come around and give you a private talking to.”

This is pretty much Newman's only joke. He repeats it every week, interspersed with threats of violence against women he judges too ugly or mouthy to sexually harass. (He also has a blackface routine and does the odd bit of poofter bashing.) When people “take offence” he and his mates — like fellow shock jocks Eddie McGuire and Steve Price — doggedly remind us they are joking.

Well of course they are. It has been scientifically proven that sexist and homophobic jokes are the natural defence of the threatened male. Like men's college initiations, military hazings and private school bullying, “footy banter” makes boys into “men”. They cohere a brotherhood and erect a fortress against all things they consider “feminine”: care, compassion, selflessness and humility. They build “leaders”, “warriors” and “captains of industry” capable of domination and oppression. And they shut women up. Or they used to.

Don't you think they are all starting to look a bit brittle? Sam Newman looks increasingly like a biscotti that's been left in the oven too long. And I thought Steve Price sounded kind of desperate on The Project insisting, “I can call it as I see it … I don't need to change my behaviour…”. I'm sure that lower lip was about to tremble. McGuire is clearly sick of Collingwood sponsors forcing him to apologise.

Melbourne feminist comedian — and bane of men's rights activists and pick-up artists worldwide — Kirsty Mac has also noticed the tide turning.

“I don't get disheartened by what a man like Steve Price said this week — I get excited by it. Public opinion is changing on this shit … I'm proud to be part of the culture that is making big changes happen.”

In 2015, there were more than 318,000 women and girls playing footy throughout Australia. They are still fighting for changerooms and the new AFL players' pay will be so low most of them will have to keep their day jobs. But they are marking and tackling and playing to win.

In the US, the national women's soccer team are suing US Soccer for equal pay in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The women's team are reigning world champions and bring in more revenue to US Soccer than the men's team — which has never won a World Cup. Nevertheless the women earn less than a third of what the men are paid.

It's a simple demand, relevant in sport, politics, at work, at school and at home: Respect.

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