After years of being told they can’t, the stars of
the AFL Women’s League are here to prove they
can and certainly will. By Noelle Faulkner. Styled
by Petta Chua. Photographed by Justin Ridler.
It was an otherwise ordinary Friday sunset in February 2017 when a roaring crowd of around 24,500 people were sardined into historic Ikon Park, all there to watch a clash of notable rivals, the Carlton and Collingwood football clubs. The venue, under-prepared and overwhelmed, was forced to execute a lockout at quarter-time due to overcrowding, and by halftime, 2,000-plus people had been turned away and a snaking queue of hopeful blue, black and white jerseys had formed. The match, streamed on free-to-air television, earned an audience of more than 1.1 million people, setting the tone for a thrilling season to come.
Except, this wasn’t your regular footy match – these players kicked like girls. To relay the sheer goosebump inducing emotion and thick, nervous energy involved in the kind of debut experienced by the AFL Women’s League (AFLW), you first have to comprehend the tireless toil behind it.
Imagine these women as children, talented and passionate, living and breathing their beloved game, then at 13, being told: “Sorry, you’re good at this, but you can’t do it anymore, because you’re a girl: there’s nowhere for you to play.” That’s the hard truth and a weight carried by many of the women of the AFLW, forced to give up their boots because a glass ceiling covered their playground. “When you’re that young, you’ve just living in your own fantasy world of playing football. You don’t really think there’s ever going to be an end,”sighs Adelaide co-captain, Olympic gold medallist and WNBA basketball player Erin Phillips, 32, who has returned to Australia from her adopted US home to play in the league. “You love it. Then, as you get a bit older, your parents have to tell you it isn’t forever, and that’s tough for a 13-year-old who doesn’t understand inequality. That was going to be my dream; all I wanted to do was play football like my dad.” Phillips admits the only reason she started playing basketball was to distract herself from the sadness of giving up football.
“Every time someone asks me how this feels, I shake my head. I have no words,” says Adelaide Crows co-captain Chelsea Randall. “At 11 this was my dream, and now at 26, it’s a reality. Incredible. Shattering. Devastating. You just don’t understand why you can’t play anymore.” All sentiments repeated by the six players pictured on these pages over and over again. “There was definitely that feeling during the season, where you’d looked around and think: ‘Wow. Every woman who is here has been told at some point that they shouldn’t be,” says Carlton’s Darcy Vescio, 24, who began playing football at five. “Or they’ve been forced to stop through the system. It certainly hasn’t been an easy path to get here; we’ve had no encouragement to play all the way through.”
There are more than 400,000 girls across Australia playing football at all levels, and with national women’s leagues for soccer, basketball, cricket, rugby union and more, some decades-old and Olympic medal-winning; considering the game dates back to 1896, and the fact that female Aussie Rules teams date back to 1915, you have to wonder: what took so long? “It is a dream come true, which has taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears to finally achieve,” says Susan Alberti, AC, former vice-president of the Western Bulldogs Football Club and one of the AFLW’s biggest advocates. “It took a big push from a very committed group of ‘believers’ to finally deliver AFLW. In 2013 we began a regular representative match of elite women footballers representing the Melbourne Football Club and the Western Bulldogs,” she explains. “They played ‘curtain raisers’ to the men’s games, drawing a lot of interest and support. I think there was a recognition that the standard was actually better than most people expected – we have elite athletes now choosing to play Aussie Rules over other sports.” Alberti, herself a former Footscray cheer-girl with quashed aspirations of playing the game professionally, says the clincher was the incredible corporate support, attendance and television ratings that those marquee games garnered.
The silver lining to the late-to-the-party cloud is, despite only eight clubs in the league so far (with six more to join by 2020), these players are wearing AFL colours – they’re the Lions, the Giants, the Crows, the Bulldogs, the Dockers, the Pies, the Blues, the Demons. They are not a Minnie Mouse lipstick league, like the Carlton Cranberries or something – there is a definite strive for equality. “That first game, where we ran out in our uniforms, it hit home. It was like: ‘How good is this?!’” gushes Ellie Blackburn of Western Bulldogs, 23. “We’re so lucky to be wearing AFL colours, and you look to the crowd and see little girls and boys with our teams on their jumpers – they haven’t seen that before!”
“I adored the ground the AFL players walked on,” says Brianna Davey, 23, Carlton co-vice captain, former W-League soccer player and childhood Aussie Rules player. “There were no female players, so you just looked to the men, which is why it’s so cool to have the opportunity to be that and give young girls a future.”
The clubs themselves are taking on the roles as well. For example, Adelaide Crows runs various football programs for girls across the state, fostering the AFLW stars of the future and making sure no child ever has to put down the ball because of their gender. “We’ve seen around 10,500 girls across South Australia, across clinics in high schools and primary schools,” says Randall, also the club’s community programs officer. “We introduce football and teach these girls the game, the skills and also run positive education programs around body image and wellbeing.” She adds: “We love getting out there into the communities, because they’re the future of our game and we want to make sure there’s a healthy place for them to grow.”
Seeing the league’s trailblazer stars for the fearlesswomen they are, Disney Australia has just launched a #ProudtobeaPrincess campaign with some of the AFLW players (including the six shot here) in the hope to redefinewhat it means to be a modem-day princess, taking back the sexist slur thrown at them along the way. (These women have stories upon stories of that kind of behaviour.) “It’s a powerful thing in itself, that like the Disney princesses, all women are different,” says Western Bulldogs’s Katie Brennan, 25, who fell for the game when she stood in for her brother and kicked seven goals in one game at age four. “I was always that little girl who played with the boys and never wanted to wear a dress. But then you look at characters like Mulan, who doesn’t wear a dress! And you realise she’s a boss who loves doing what she wanted to do. She just does her.” “I’ve certainly been called a princess as a derogatory term,” pipes up Vescio. “It’s just sexism, isn’t it? But we look at it in the same way as what we’re doing with the AFLW where ‘playing like a girl’ is a positive thing.” She laughs. “We’re playing like girls every time we play!”
Like many women, the majority of the AFLW players are multitasking at the highest level – they still have day jobs. There are graphic designers, business owners, musicians, office workers, mothers, carers and even those who have served in the defence forces. Unlike the men’s teams, who can earn upwards of six digits a year, these athletes are balancing work, life, football and training requirements. And if you’ve ever witnessed an AFL game in the flesh, you’ll respect the kind of endurance needed to play at a professional level. So there’s still a road to go before the next generation experiences an equal playing field. “We need to continue investing in the grassroots,” says Alberti of achieving equality. “Participation is booming, with more than 1.5 million people playing the game in 2017 and females making up 30 per cent of that figure. The AFL has a goal of female players making up 50 per cent participation, which will continue to improve the standard of the game in coming years.” Interestingly, notes Alberti, for a lot of young girls it’s not so much a task of convincing them to play, but offering better facilities so that they can.
“Maybe it’s because I’m a mother, but it’s not just about winning or losing,” muses Phillips. “There is a different sense of why we’re really here. Yes, one is we love to play football and to win, but we’re inspiring so many younger females to play this game. Whether they take it on forever is irrelevant, it’s more the fact they’re getting out there, having a go and being fit and healthy,” she continues. “They look up to us. We’re somebody’s heroes. That to me has become the number-one reason to play this sport. I’m just really grateful that I’ll never have to sit my daughter down like my parents did and say: ‘Well, your brother can play football but you can’t.’ To me, that is very special.”
Join the movement: #ProudtobeaPrincess.