I was 16 and playing senior football for my local team the first time I doubted whether it was the sport for me. At training, the men's talk turned to the various ways they liked to 'take' their wives. They spoke as if the women in their lives were of a different species.
I looked at my friend, also a teenager in this man's world. We were stunned. We had girlfriends and had never spoken to each other about them in this way.
That was in 1984. The abuse of Marc Murphy's wife in the Carlton vs St Kilda match last Saturday shows not much has changed.
Regardless of the AFL Women's competition, female umpires, women in administrative roles — even CEOs at Hawthorn — the problem of sexism in football isn't going away without legislation to stop it.
The reason is that in a hyper-masculine and highly competitive environment like the AFL, femininity, personified in women, is seen as weakness. And any weakness will be exploited in order for clubs to achieve their ultimate aim: to win.
It's similar to the way in which clubs play 'on the edge' of the rules; they try not to cross them because it will involve penalties that will affect their ability to win. Laws against taunts that are motivated by race, religion or sexual preference have been instituted and have proven successful, and there's no reason why one against sexist talk can't succeed.
There has been a lot of blather over the past few days in regard to whether legislating against sexist slurs is political correctness gone mad, as well as players knowing where the line is in terms of 'banter' and being usually good at not crossing it. Others say it will be impossible to delineate what is sexist abuse and what isn't.
I say all three arguments are baseless. It's not political correctness to ensure people aren't slandered because of their gender. Players clearly don't know where the line is, otherwise Saturday's events wouldn't have unfolded. And a starting point delineation line is easy: if sledging involves disparaging a player's female family or friends then it is wrong and will be penalised.
"Real men play the ball, not the man or woman."
Some might argue that the new law should include disparaging remarks toward a player that focus on gender, i.e. 'you're a girl', 'you're a woman', etc. But I'm not sure it needs to. Because a man worth anything in this period when patriarchal society is being called powerfully into question won't take that as a sledge. They'll take it as a compliment.
If I was compared to the women in my life — my strong mum, my wise wife and my emotionally mature daughter — I'd think I was well on the way to being a man whose masculinity and femininity are integrated. These are the men our society needs and they are the men we need playing AFL football. Because real men play the ball, not the man or woman.
Paul Mitchell is a Melbourne writer. His novel We. Are. Family. will be out via MidnightSun Publishing this year.
Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.
19 May 2017
Great article Mitch. Not much hope though when the US President talks and behaves in exactly this sexist manner.
Christine Judith Nicholls
19 May 2017
Fantastic & important article Paul: it should be mandatory reading for EVERYONE involved in the AFL, no matter what their level.
With thanks, Christine
19 May 2017
We don't need more laws, Paul. All that needs to be done is to kick the offender out of the club and dock the Club CEO's salary by a few thousand bucks and that would sort it out in one hit.
19 May 2017
Having arrived on these shores over 50 years ago with my parents I never took to Aussie Rules despite going to two great footy playing schools. Fortunately I could play Rugby. I remember the late, witty Keith Dunstan and his 'Anti-Football League'. Despite having started with a match between Scotch and my alma mater and a few real gentlemen, like the Cordners; the late great Ted Whitten and Ron Barassi, having played, AFL exudes an atmosphere of yobbery, rife with racial vilification and general bad behaviour amongst its followers. It's not just misogynist. That would be bad enough. It's worse.
20 May 2017
A good article! However, I do not think that legislation is the answer to respecting women. In Australia and most other countries; women are not treated equally. Most men, including upper middle class and working class men are anti-feminist and misogynist. Most Australian men have a poor knowledge of feminist philosophy, especially classic books such as Simone De Beauvoir's 'The Second Sex' and Germaine Greer's 'The Female Eunuch'. Most footballers from all codes and competitions are only interested in women as sexual partners. Most of these men are also racial and religious bigots and have little respect for indigenous people and culture and homosexual people and members of the Islam religion.
22 May 2017
Re Mark Doyle's comments: with respect I suggest most Australian men are not misogynists but I think that there are some very nasty chauvinists out there and they are encouraged by what passes for a 'blokey, matey atmosphere' in various places, such as footy clubs. It's very much the same sort of atmosphere you would find among similar groups in the UK or USA, such as soccer hooligans or 'Archie Bunker' types. I agree that legislation is not 'the answer' although I do need to point out there is already appropriate legislation against sexual harassment and violence of all sorts which people are sometimes loath to put into practice. It needs to be. That is something all young boys and girls need to be taught. I think the best place for that is in the family and by example. I am vastly encouraged by the sort of atmosphere which exists in the Scandinavian countries where they have a far healthier attitude towards women and are much more truly egalitarian in this regard than we are. We can learn much from them. I don't think we are 'hopeless' here but I think we could be marked 'needs improvement'.
22 May 2017
For better or worse, sledging is part of the sporting life. Nothing will stop it. I copped it playing footy and cricket as a kid and soon realised my best response was to ignore it simply because I was no good at it. I would always think of a great response 18 hours later. Flippancy aside, sledging only works if it gets under the skin of the opposition. That's why they do it. It's easy to say "don't let it get to you" but much harder to do when you are the target. I doubt it can be regulated out of sport. That would be asking too much and impossible to police. A good rule of thumb came from a TV sports journalist on the weekend. If you can't say it on the street, you can't say it on the sports field. That rules out vilification on racial or sexual orientation grounds and anything else that is illegal but still leaves a wide opening. Maybe we need to start with kids and teach them respect for their opponents and also for the referee/umpire/officials. Parents on the sidelines should set a high standard as well so as people grow up sledging becomes the exception. On the other hand, the behaviour of our political "leaders" in Question Time makes me wonder if sledging on the sporting field is such a big problem after all.