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eyes on the ball

Some of us love a good tackle. Not the friendly/flirty/familiar type, either. I love watching a good tackle in AFL football. In fact, I adore all aspects of the game. But not everyone loves that I, and other girls out there, are football fanatics. It might not be overt, but the way some Australians respond to girls loving their sport is far from flattering.

2011 hasn’t exactly been a smooth-sailing endorsement for women’s involvement in this national sport. Mainstream media have latched on to tawdry ‘scandals’ and front pages have been splashed with waves of loaded language regarding the manner in which footballers treat women. Various allegations have suggested some footballers mistreat them, form indecent relationships with them and denigrate them through social media platforms.

And yet for many women, young and old, AFL is a career, a life blood, a hobby, and a passion. Ladies are involved in every level of the game except in the actual play. They cheer, administrate, manage, umpire, interview and check your tickets at the gate.

For me, both male and female professional sports have dominated my childhood and family life. My parents are voracious consumers of sports, and as a kid I was told to watch and play whatever I wanted. Basketball, tennis, swimming, cricket – I’ve watched both guys and girls go after their sporting dreams with heated interest.

AFL is undeniably part of that for me. But as a fan of athleticism and competition, like many other women I’m forced to prove to guys that I’m more than a superficial sports fan. That I have some idea of stats, and that I actually care. This is made a little trickier by my passion for academic pursuits and humanities. In countless uni tutes, football is talked about not only as anti-women but also anti-intellectual. I’ve been told, as have other football following friends, that a love of the game seems subversive somehow, like it’s not in line with my personality.

It’s these assumptions about the typical sports fan that highlight significant roadblocks in equality in sporting industries.

It does seem much more difficult to persuade older males that your interest in sport is genuine. This is despite the significant numbers of women and families that consume sport together.

Admittedly the league is trying to combat the perception that ladies are merely along for the ride in AFL. In June this year, they hosted Women’s Week to highlight the contributions that females make to the sporting game on every front. Everyone from singer Paris Wells to Prime Minister Julia Gillard filmed promotional material explaining how they have grown up adoring the sport. It’s a nice idea to highlight that, but is it enough?

Over the past few months, certain articles in print and online media suggest that male sporting leagues are just bad news for the ladies. The implication somewhere in there seems to be that women shouldn’t be interested in blokes running around in short shorts. Yet particularly in the current climate, we need to remember that just because a woman is a sports fan, she doesn’t automatically condone illegal or immoral dealings within the organisation as a whole. In the same way that men who enjoy their footy shouldn’t be identified as condoning the negative cultures of the AFL, female lovers of the sport likewise shouldn’t have to take on that burden.

It can’t be denied that the game has problems, some of which may disgust a feminist living in 21st century Australia. But not only is being merely disgusted not going to change this culture, abstaining from the sport altogether is an even less effective option.

It doesn’t make sense that just because one holds a card for a footy club, they are reversing the feminist cause by passively supporting illegal behaviour or the exploitation of young women. I watch AFL because to me this means family bonding, loyalty, and watching a number of talented athletes who show commitment and persistence every week.

Aside from the underexposed professional womens’ leagues, women are still underrepresented in the ranks of many sporting organizations. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have a passion for the game that rivals that of men, though. You can’t fight institutionalized sexism, if it exists, from the outside in. We should appreciate ladies who make careers as sports journalists, managers, umpires and executives. They’re contributing to paving a way for a more level playing field.

Surely women who support leagues of all sports want to see themselves represented in those leagues in the strongest way possible. Young supporters especially can contribute here. Don’t apologise for loving your sport – but search for ways to pressure changes in sporting cultures by being a part of the positive sides of the game.

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