“I would encourage all the women in this room to step up and pursue your passion. Be someone who contributes or lives their dreams or breaks glass ceilings.” Gillon McLachlan, May 6, 2016.
This was a line from a speech given by AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan at the AFL Women’s Industry lunch back in May 2016. It was on the eve of the inaugural AFL Women’s season and the feeling in the room was that we were indeed at the beginning of a revolution.
The call to ‘step up’ was intended and taken as a rallying cry for women to get involved. If women were willing to put their hand up, then the AFL would provide the opportunity. It spoke to the sense of excitement that we were about to witness a dramatic shift in women’s sport in Australia.
This shift turned out to be seismic and as a result we have seen more women in sports media, more women in administration roles, more women in coaching roles and most importantly, more women being recognised as sporting role models.
Despite all this positivity though, the call to ‘step up’ has been gnawing at me. You see, when it comes to football, especially women’s football, women have been ‘stepping up’ for decades. After being turned away by men’s clubs, many women’s football clubs came into existence because groups of women with a passion to play the game decided to band together and start their own.
To say they faced obstacles in an understatement. From finding grounds to play on to finding uniforms to fit them, they persisted. They stepped up. They pursued their passion. Leagues were established, cultures were cultivated and rivalries were born. Through good old-fashioned female ingenuity, they survived and then thrived.
Last Friday, the state football body, AFL Victoria, confirmed that three foundation clubs, Diamond Creek, the Eastern Devils and the St Kilda Sharks would no longer compete in the VFL Women’s competition. Yes, the increasing professionalisation of women’s football can be seen as progress, but in my mind, the erosion of a culture cannot. Yes, these clubs will still exist in community leagues but players and administrators who have – in some cases literally – poured blood, sweat and tears into their clubs now have to find new homes if they want to continue to participate at the highest level in the state.
In the rush to further professionalise, have we perhaps overlooked the women who got us to this point? In the process of squeezing out the foundation clubs, have we unwittingly endangered a culture and competition that could have been celebrated for its uniqueness? Are we pigeonholing women’s clubs as nurturers of talent at grassroots level, by robbing them of the opportunity to show what they can do at the highest level?
For now these questions remain unanswered, but the onus is on the new teams to respect the clubs and cultures that came before them. For this new direction to be the right one, they must honour and provide opportunity to the women who ‘stepped up’ and made women’s football what it is today.
*PHOTO: She Scores