AFL must be cautious of FIFA-esque gender disparity

Imagine you are a female football player, you’ve been playing your whole life and you’ve worked yourself up through the local and state levels to become one of the best players in the country.

You love the game with the passion of a thousand suns – or possibly thousand Suns supporters – and you can see it shaping your life and your career path.

Brian Barrish (left) is keenly invested in the growth of women’s Aussie Rules.
Image provided by USAFL.

Your ascendancy into the elite realms of your sport comes at a very opportune time; the interest and potential in women’s football is booming. Preparation and anticipation is in full force for a professional women’s league and it’s almost certain that you’ll be amongst the new league’s stars.

In order to be a part of the group that will make up the historic founding players in this new league, you must maintain a level of fitness and skill that befits the highest rung on the footballing ladder.

Training and physical therapy takes time, energy, and money. Maintaining a diet costs more money. Travelling to events locally and beyond does, too. As do club fees.

To support this passion, this dream, and yourself, you have to have a full-time job. That’s eight hours of working, two hours of travel to get to and from the job, five days a week, all shoehorned around training and keeping yourself healthy so that when the time comes, you can perform at the expected level.

This is a difficult situation; you may be young, but you’re also human. Injuries happen, as does exhaustion, and you also have to make sure you can put food on your plate and pay your rent while otherwise maintaining personal functionality.

You feel confident that you can succeed as a pro footballer, but what is your reward?

The season is only four months long, however. You’ll have to quit your job because your employer can’t afford to be short one person for that long. Chances are you’ll have to move thousands of miles from home with your only source of income being paid during the season, which can only cover so much outside of the support that you are getting from the club and league.

When the season is over, you’ll be back at square one: no job, little money in the coffer and no support from the establishment that raised you up on the pedestal of a white hot national spotlight.

All this for a game, albeit one that burns bright in your heart. What do you do?

With the AFL women’s league roughly a year or so from finally becoming reality, the best players in the country are pondering exactly that question. Is it really worth it to sacrifice so much when it’s possible you’ll get little in return?

Jessica Wuetschner is one woman who faces this dilemma, as she mentioned in what was a very brave statement on this very website. Like many other players who are anticipating taking part in the league next year, she has to make a decision on whether or not to put her livelihood and future on the line to achieve her dream of becoming a professional footballer.

Some players have the benefit of coming up through AFL academies, but not all do, and so they fight for themselves – nothing is certain.

As a fan of women’s footy and a supporter of women’s sport in general, I am eager to see this take hold and grow over the years. As an American footy supporter, I am also eager to see our women contribute to the growth of the game in Australia and abroad through this competition.

As I type this, two of my compatriots, Katie Klatt and Kim Hemenway, are in Sydney right now for the AFL talent combine with the hopes of getting into an AFL academy. If they succeed, they too will have to uproot their lives for the game they love.

The AFL is trying, at least from the outside, to cater to the popularity of women’s footy and the rightful belief that there should be a professional competition that takes place alongside their male counterparts.

The league has dipped its toe into the water over the last couple of years with the women’s exhbition series between the Western Bulldogs and Melbourne Demons, and after last year’s overwhelmingly positive TV ratings and responses to the Demons-Bulldogs clashes, they decided to finally go ahead with a full-blown season.

Earlier this week, the AFL announced that the best players can expect to make about $20,000 for the duration of the season. There wasn’t a minimum salary given in the statement, but let’s say, for the sake of argument, that $10,000 would be the league minimum. That’s about $600-$1,200 a week, which isn’t bad.

But that goes away when the season is over. If a player doesn’t have a job or other support to fall back on, what do they do? How do they keep themselves ready for the following season while supporting themselves throughout the year when they have to do so out of their own pockets?

Is four months of pay and an uncertain future worth taking the chance of possibly playing professional footy?

The problem with this setup is a micro-chasm of a large inequity that is happening on a global scale. While potential players for the new women’s league are scrapping to make this a sustainable career, male players all the way down to the amateur ranks are fully salaried and have year-round support from their clubs and leagues.  That doesn’t exist in women’s footy right now.

This imbalance extends outside of footy. In just about every sport, men are paid more, have a clearer path to elite levels, have more opportunities and are taken more seriously. However, more and more female athletes across the world are getting more traction with arguments for a level playing field. That said, there are still major issues.

While there are issues affecting just about every sport, football/soccer is the shining beacon of how ridiculous the disparity is right now.

FIFA forced last year’s Women’s World Cup to be played on artificial turf, something it would never allow to happen for the men’s tournament. When the players threatened to sue FIFA, the threat was largely ignored and the tournament went forward on plastic grass.

The Matildas refused to tour the United States after their demands for, among other things, pay equity and a clearer career path in their collective bargaining agreement were not met.

Worst of all, the American team, the world champions, got paid a fraction of what the men’s champions from Germany received. Their own federation forced them to play exhibition matches after the World Cup on low quality turf fields, including one in Hawaii that was so bad the team refused to play on it, causing the game to be cancelled.

The AFL has to be watching what is happening in soccer, seeing players revolt against the lack of equal treatment, and will need to be mindful of the consequences. If they’re not seeing what’s happening, then they’d be completely out of tune with the needs of the players they’re looking to promote and profit from.

If all the AFL is doing is giving a token effort to the demand for a pro women’s football league, they should either scale back their plans or step aside and let someone else with a clearer vision take control.

Like any other startup, there is going to be caution with how money and resources are spent, considering that the longevity of league is paramount to the vision. There will be lean times, like there have been in any other league just starting out; I understand that, and I know that the players understand that too.

I also understand that this is a business and those that run it must exhibit good stewardship which is going to lead to unpopular, but necessary, decisions.

But the AFL is going to have to be very careful about making sure its athletes are taken care of. If this doesn’t happen, the Wuetschners, Tayla Harrises, Daisy Pearces and Katie Brennans of our great game are not going to want to sacrifice their futures on an unstable system. If they leave, the product will weaken, become unattractive and fail.

If that failure occurs, those that run the league will shrug their shoulders and say, “we’ll try again soon,” with ‘soon’ meaning five or 10 years. Critics of women’s sport – footy and otherwise – will guffaw at yet another setback and say that women’s football is a failure when it was in fact the system that failed.

The women that will take to the grounds of Australia in 2017 will do so because they love the game; the least the AFL can do is see things from their perspective and ensure that it’s not an unrequited love.

Brian Barrish is the media manager for the United States Australian Football League, which operates men’s and women’s leagues accommodating teams across the country. Brian is a passionate player and support of all things Australian Rules, with a particularly keen interest in women’s sports. You can follow Brian Barrish on Twitter @BarrishUSAFL.