Aussie rules has the highest spectator attendance and TV audiences of any professional sport in the country. But it’s a sport that has long been the brunt of barbs over a culture of misogyny and racism.
This is despite the growing number of women involved in the game as players, staff or officials, and despite strong rates of female fans and spectators.
Women have always made up a significant proportion of attendees at games, with a Roy Morgan poll conducted just prior to the launch of the AFLW showing slight increases in the number of women who had taken out memberships at nine footy teams.
Julie Tullberg was a female sports reporter in an era when the term female sports reporter was considered an oxymoron.
She remembers the days when her presence at post match press conferences would be commented on, or facing uphill battles to get more coverage of women’s sport.
To its credit, the AFL recognised that aspects of the code had to change.
It made a concerted effort to engage parts of the community who had felt sidelined by the sport’s hyper-masculine, monocultural environment.
The league’s diversity program continued to expand, while some of its clubs delivered award-winning programs with migrants and refugees, systemically engaging disenfranchised young people.
This year it kicked off the AFLW – its premier professional and national women’s footy competition – a competition that by every objective measure (spectator attendance, media coverage, broadcast viewership) could be called a success.
The diversity program and the AFLW were ways of showing the sport was serious about gender equality and multiculturalism.
Now, three AFL executives (two of who were instrumental in these areas) are gone.
Chief executive Gillon McLachlan announced on Friday he’d accepted resignations from two of his senior managers, including the one widely seen as his second-in-command, general manager of football operations Simon Lethlean, who oversaw the AFLW in its inaugural year.
Lethlean and Richard Simkiss (the league’s commercial boss) stepped down over what McLachlan described at a press conference as ‘inappropriate relationships’ with younger women who were fellow workers in the footy sector.
The resignations capped off a turbulent fortnight for the sport’s governing body, coming straight off the back of the departure of former AFL diversity manager Ali Fahour who stepped down after an on-field incident that led to charges being laid.
Now an academic at Melbourne’s Monash University, Ms Tullberg applauds the changes that have taken place in the footy world.
“In recent years, the AFL has shown it has a progressive workplace by appointing women to senior roles and acknowledging the competitive and athletic needs of women by developing the AFL Women’s competition relatively quickly,” she says.
Ms Tullberg believes the incidents show that a boys’ club mentality still exists in many industries and commended the way the AFL has handled the matter.
“Women in the workplace are not there as objects for men’s sexual gratification,” she says.
“Gillon McLachlan’s leadership in accepting the resignations of these executives reinforces that these old-time behaviours are not acceptable.
“Generally speaking, women work harder to achieve significant outcomes in the workplace because of the roadblock of sexism.
“McLachlan’s hardline stance is important and I hope men who exhibit skirt-chasing behaviours are fearful of the consequences of their inappropriate behaviour.”
Fahour’s recent resignation over an on-field punch won’t stop the league’s efforts in the multicultural space, nor should it take away the inherent value of the diversity program he ran at the AFL.
Similarly, the resignations of Lethlean and Simkiss over inappropriate relationships shouldn’t derail the organisation’s efforts in support of the inclusion of women in its game.
- Nasya Bahfen is a journalism academic who has worked with football clubs and the AFL on diversity and multiculturalism.