It would be a gross understatement to say the AFLW has changed the Australian sporting landscape. While slow to field an elite women’s competition, since its inception, the league has punched above its weight in flying the flag for diversity and inclusion, particularly in the LGBTIQA+ space.
Since AFLW Pride began as a standalone match between Western Bulldogs and Carlton, the Pride banner has risen in prominence across football, culminating in the AFLW Pride Round. But when a campaign is so visible and focused on public image, there is always a risk it is providing cover for a lack of more substantial structural change.
Carlton champion Darcy Vescio and the Suns’ Tori Groves-Little came out as non-binary in the lead up to this year’s round, one of many powerful stories gifted by players and families, coaches and fans, all of whom identify women’s football as a safe place for the LGBTIQA+ community. The flood of individual and collective pronouncements about childhood dreams, family pride, and a sense of belonging would melt the hardest of hearts.
These statements and gestures are not just about the players. The AFLW has always had a strong sense of community and connection with the outer. Collingwood super fan Andy posted a Twitter thread articulating the importance of including the transgender flag on the Pies’ Pride jumper. “Today, footy and Collingwood feel like they’re for me,” he wrote. “I can own this. I can wear it, and show up, and scream ‘ball’, and be my truest unfiltered self, and belong.”
The importance of this campaign and what it represents cannot be overstated.
However, given the inextricable relationship between gender, sexuality and the AFLW, the conversation around inclusion and diversity must also acknowledge the agonising crawl towards gender equity and other glaring gaps in the equity conversation across Australian football.
Given the inherently political nature of women playing what was traditionally a “man’s sport” – with anyone not identifying as male forced to fight for a chance to play – it is not surprising women’s football has fomented a culture of activism and progressiveness. It is equally unsurprising that AFLW players and supporters are finding their voice and actively calling out inconsistencies and inequity between the men’s and women’s games. This has been cast in sharp relief by the AFL’s response to Covid.
In an Instagram post lamenting the postponement of a second match due to Covid, Western Bulldogs player Nell Morris-Dalton said: “It’s devastating and a reminder of the inequalities that still persist in our league compared to the AFLM.” Noting the AFL’s shift to hubs in 2021 that allowed the season to play out in its entirety, she acknowledged the impracticality of hubs for the AFLW, given the players’ part-time contracts.
Ironically, these women suffer a double whammy of disadvantage in Covid times. Their unliveable wage forces them to pursue outside work and careers, which increases their exposure to Covid in the community, which, in turn, increases the likelihood of bringing Covid back to their club, jeopardising their team and their opponents – many share houses with opposition players – and potentially threatening the entire competition.
Adelaide Crows champion Erin Phillips has described indefensible limitations imposed on the women’s teams to make way for the men’s, including restricted access to training facilities and soft-capped medical support. Despite the significance of including the trans flag on Pride jumpers, the AFL’s policy on trans women playing at elite levels remains contentious and inconsistent, as noted by another longtime AFLW super fan, Alfie. The original AFLW Pride Carlton v Bulldogs Pride match, postponed due to Covid, has not yet been rescheduled, nor has the round three Bulldogs v Suns replacement match.
On Friday, when questioned about the West Coast Eagles’ lack of a Pride jumper, coach Michael Prior said: “We’ve done the pride stuff to death.” The club later apologised “to everyone who was offended”, a textbook non-apology. As one of the richest AFL clubs, their argument that they couldn’t manage a Pride jumper and an Indigenous jumper in the same season is difficult to swallow. Their focus, they said, was on football.
Perhaps this was their biggest error. Women’s football has never just been about football. Women’s footy has been playing and advocating for generations. In the end, the Eagles lost to the Crows 1.3 (9) to 6.6 (42).
There is no question Pride Round carries enormous weight in cultivating positive and inclusive attitudes among players, fans and the sporting community. However, it is important to acknowledge these campaigns deliver far more in terms of goodwill and positive public image for the AFL and its clubs than the movement gains on the ground. The risk is that such visible and public celebration of diversity and inclusion can substitute for the hard work and structural change that isn’t happening at the level required – in the AFL and the broader community.
For real change to take place, the AFL’s efforts to advocate for inclusion and diversity must reach further than creating an impressive shopfront, and must confront some uncomfortable truths. Whether in reference to sexuality, gender, cultural difference, First Nations or disability, diversity and inclusion must be entrenched structurally and culturally in order to generate the sort of change that will bring us closer to true equity and fairness.