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The myth of the leg-up for women's sports



The saying goes, 'When you're accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.' Sometimes, it's worse than that: when you're accustomed to privilege, even meagre attempts to work towards equality can be interpreted as unfair. This attitude is evident in conversations about affirmative action and quotas. And it's often evident in the way we talk about sport.

Meg Downie joins other AFLW players during a media opportunity in late 2018. (Robert Prezioso/AFL Media/Getty Images)The latest talking head to echo this attitude is former AFL player Kane Cornes, who said on SEN SA Breakfast earlier this week: 'I don't think there's any sport in Australia that has been given as many leg-ups as what AFLW has been given.'

The most basic problem with Cornes' statement is it is simply false. Even a cursory look at Australian sports history shows that, through both direct and indirect advantages, dominant men's sports have had a far more significant 'leg up' than any women's sport. From government funding and public policy, to access to sponsorship through old boys networks, to media coverage, to historical cultural norms, men's sport did not gain its dominant place in our sporting culture through a pure meritocracy or a diverse market of options.

Rather, a number of different structural advantages gave sports predominantly played by white cis men a significant advantage. It is precisely men like Kane Cornes who have benefitted from this massive cultural 'leg up'.

The development of Australia's sporting culture is intimately linked to traditional ideas about gender roles. The place of most dominant Australian sports was cemented in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is unsurprising, then, that the few sports where women's competition approaches men's for popularity are the games and sports in which women's participation was permitted in that era. Tennis and swimming are notable examples of this.

But the 'big four' Australian sports of Australian rules football, cricket, Rugby league and Rugby union were sports that were almost exclusively played by men. While there were some early female competitors, they were often seen as a novelty (see Brunette Lenkic and Rob Hess's excellent Play On! on this history of women's participation in Australian rules football). Cultural and legal forces restricted the opportunities for women to participate in the game.

Meanwhile, the men's games grew. Facilities were constructed, often on the public purse. Media norms were established. Early incarnations of what we'd now call lobby groups appeared to petition for government support and funding. This all happened during an era in which women were specifically excluded from participation. The men's game established its position free from any competing ideas about gender and sport.


"There is a pervading myth that Australia's sport culture naturally evolved, a survival of the sporting fittest, where the only thing that influences how popular a game is is what happens on the field. This is extraordinarily naïve and ahistorical."


My own undergraduate honours thesis looked at the role of a body known throughout history as the Australian National Football Council, the National Football Council and the Australian Football Council. Funded by a proportion of gate takings from (what was, by default) the men's game, the council attempted to promote Australian football's position in Australia's sporting culture.

The organisation battled for things such as which sports were played in teacher's colleges, and funded expansion opportunities. In one of its 1914 meetings, the ANFC minutes recorded 'it would be very easy to push the game from the Murray towards Sydney, and should be able to oust Rugby, because I do not think there is any chance of the New South Wales Rugby League spending much money in a like manner' (the inaccuracy of this statement is a story for another day).

There is a pervading myth that continues to exist among many that Australia's sport culture naturally evolved, a survival of the sporting fittest, where the only things that influences how popular a game is is what happens on the field. This is an extraordinarily naïve and ahistorical understanding of Australian sport.

Administrators of male sports spent financial and cultural capital to establish the dominance of their games. They embarked on campaigns of what they themselves termed propaganda. They petitioned governments for the establishment of facilities and stadiums. And they were wildly successful.

Which brings us back to Cornes' comments. In the immediate past, Australian state governments have spent hundreds of millions of dollars funding stadiums that will almost exclusively be used for men's sport. If the sports were required to self-fund the facilities, the financial viability of the games would be uncertain, and there would certainly not be enough left over for million-dollar contracts.

Cornes supported his argument with an anecdote about media coverage of the AFLW, saying 'There is a story on the Crows' women's leadership group, it is the leading sports story in the paper (the Advertiser) today.' But a more systematic examination of sports media shows women's sport still makes up a fraction of the overall sports coverage. As recently as 2015, women's sport received less than ten per cent of media coverage, while men's sport got over 80 per cent. Perhaps the most damning statistic from the report: horseracing alone got more coverage than all women's sport.

It's easy, if lazy, to believe that men's sport enjoys its position within Australia's sporting culture for its intrinsic values, that it was the hard work of generations past and current that secured its centrality. But such an understanding fails to recognise the forces that shaped Australia and its sport.

Just as in many other parts of life, male athletes benefit from over a century of accumulated social, political and financial capital. To suggest women's sports are getting a disproportionate 'leg up' is to ignore the extraordinary advantages afforded to male athletes who play Australia's most popular games, primarily because they have the good luck to be men in the 21st century.



Erin RileyErin Riley is a sports writer and historian from Sydney. Her writing is focused on understanding the role sport and its institutions play in Australian life.

Main image: Meg Downie joins other AFLW players during a media opportunity in late 2018. (Robert Prezioso/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Erin Riley, AFLW, women in sport



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Existing comments

It was once amusing to talk about Australian football as the local religion, until I noticed that football culture mirrors the attitudes of Australian business more than any religion. This is not even analogy. It is male business men who have run football from the start and male business men who make up the rules, right down to TV rights. The changing rules of football rarely address the tacit use of violence to get your own way, with the umpire stepping in to police things when they get out of had. It's all very much a case of what you can get away with, as the crowds know full well who go to matches. The creation of a national league coincided with the increased commerce between the major cities and easy plane flights. Football is an exercise in male bonding, competition and one-up-manship, both on and off the field.

Philip Harvey | 23 January 2019  

Excellent article, Erin; and mirrors my thoughts exactly. Also worth noting that much of the success and viability of men's sports, both professional and amateur; was also bolstered off the back of the (mostly) unpaid labour of women: the canteen ladies, the Mum's cutting the oranges, washing the team jumpers, doing the training and match carpools; the administration roles such as Team Manager, and the Secretaries and Treasurers of the Committees. The women organising and executing catering for large-scale functions to raise thousands of dollars for grass-root clubs...the list is endless. Not to mention just the all-round general support and encouragement - for hundreds of years. It's pretty disgraceful when you look at the level of supportiveness that women have always given to men's sports across all codes; and then you see the attitudes of mocking-dismissiveness - and sometimes downright mouth-breathing misogyny - that many men display towards any women's sport. Pull your head's in.

Roo | 23 January 2019  

I disagree with Philip Harvey in that I think AFL, which developed in Victoria, is a secular religion, as is Money. They come together in our current approach to Sport and its administration, which is also about Power, as is seen in the bitter campaign when John Coates defeated Danni Roche to retain his position as President of the Australian Olympic Committee. Australian professional sports administrators at the highest level are mainly, albeit not solely, men and enjoy fabulous salaries, power and perks whilst administering our largest secular religions. Raelene Castle, the CEO of Australian Rugby, is an exception here, although she is not the only one. I sometimes wonder if some Rugby commentators see Raelene as a Lady Macbeth figure. From what I've seen she appears not to be. I think we need to have a good look at how we perceive sport and where it's really going in this country. Is it about fun and fitness for all or is it about what appear to be gladiatorial contests at the highest, incredibly well remunerated level? Can women sportspeople be just normal or do they have to emulate the dreadful on field antics of Jack 'Captain Blood' Dyer to 'succeed'? Australian Sport: quo vadis? What sort of nation are we becoming?

Edward Fido | 23 January 2019  

Cornes’ comments were made in response to Andy Maher’s assertion that the AFL has done very little to promote the AFLW this season. They were clearly made in the context of the support women’s competitions get from their governing bodies, not AFLW relative to men’s divisions of other sports. To pretend they were is disingenuous.

Denise | 23 January 2019  

Why is equality being confused with homogeneity; or, in other words, why do so many females who now play traditionally male sports wish to imitate men in attitude, manner and behaviour? Is it encouraging another form of enslavement?

John | 23 January 2019  

It's nothing but a bloody game for God's sake - not a religion, not a national treasure, not an issue of gender equality. It's not even a game in true sense since, like so much else in our world, the real game was hijacked by corporate greed.

john frawley | 24 January 2019  

The very ideas of Women's Sports and Women's Records are patronising. Consider Olympic "benchmark" events, the 100 metres track record in particular. Compare the Australian Women's 100 m track record with the best times at hundreds of boys' Secondary schools. "Non-gendered" is the egalitarian flavour of the month. Let's have non-gendered Olympic events and selection. Let's have non-gendered Football, in AFL, R.U., R.L. & Soccer. Equal pay, gals, if you can get a guernsey.

james Marchment | 24 January 2019  

Thank you Erin. As far back as the 1980s there was a Senate Inquiry conducted about women's sport and the media. Senator Rosemary Crowley was the Chair. Throughout the ensuing decades the same story has played out literally of women's sport being a tiny percentage of media coverage.. It's taken till very recently that this huge imbalance in male sports reporting to take a dent at all - notably exceptions are when men and womens sport are at the same venue as in tennis or the Olympics. Even today have a look at any capital city newspaper and the odds on will be pages and pages of men's sport ( exception perhaps tennis), and far more photos. As a national women's organisation this month pointed out -if there by chance are women in sports photos they will rarely be action shots. So only posed shots facing a camera. No need to take my word for it. Check out any paper up till perhaps the latter weeks of the womens world soccer and cricket successes. Or any sports TV news section up till the last few months. Particularly in football seasons. RE objections - your first paragraph sums up the situation.

Michele Madigan | 24 January 2019  

I'm not sure whether I agree or disagree with Philip Harvey and John Frawley's comments - but maybe because the premise of their arguments is imprecise: It's not whether sport is a relgion or not - it's the fact that religion is a sport!

AURELIUS | 25 January 2019  

I admire the technical skills of our women cricketers; is there a better technique behind the stumps anywhere than that of Alyssa Healy? Our footballer Matildas play with a grace and skill that is always attractive to watch. Expert swimming coaches tell me that female swimmers excel technically and, consequently, competitively. I see the same at events such as Park Run where the female athlete is such a conspicuous presence. However, when it comes to Australian Rules football, for reasons unknown to me, the ladies do not cut it. The low scores in many matches are products of a general inability to be able to master the skills of this sport. This is where Mr Cornes may have a point. What I see on TV is not what the commentators are calling. Handpasses that miss their marks are explained away by the wind which has not previously been mentioned. My guess is that parts of the media may have been asked to talk the games up. Most of the lady players cannot kick well. Contested marks are rare. Attempted shepherds are easily brushed aside. It could be that a female body just has not the ability to master these technical requirements. The Rugby players have evasive ability that outperforms most of the present Wallaby backline. i see no corresponding gifts in those playing in our national women's Aussie Rules competition.

Terence Oberg | 07 February 2019  

I agree, Terence. In addition I don't think women's football will ever overcome the "ugh!" factor many of us feel seeing such violent and injury-causing clashes between members of the "gentler" sex. Not as bad as seeing women boxing, but still, I think it's better that women stick to tennis, netball, soccer, etc. and leave football to the blokes.

Peter K | 11 February 2019  

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