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Women’s football; an inclusive and inviting environment

11-Apr-2019

Freelance writer and PhD candidate in sport and gender, Kasey Symons, provided the opening address and hosted the panel for Fitzroy’s fifth Women in Football lunch at BSO last Saturday. She told lunch guests that the culture of women’s footy is helping her face her fears. Have a read of what she had to say.

It is an absolute pleasure to be here today to join in the celebrations to kick off another season of women’s footy for the Fitzroy Football Club. I’d also like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we are gathered on today, the Wurundjeri-Willam people of the Kulin Nation, and pay my respects to elders, past present and emerging, and extend that respect to any indigenous persons who are with us here today.

I am Kasey Symons. I’m a writer, a West Coast Eagles fan (sorry!) an academic, and I’m a passionate supporter of women in sport. I did just submit my PhD thesis last week, and since submission, I’ve had some time now to reflect on that work.

My thesis is focused on how some women experience the fan culture of men’s Australian Rules football. My research found that it is common for women to have to perform their gender this space. For example, to feel accepted, women can sometimes excuse sexist comments and threatening behaviour by some men as part of the game so they are not seen to be disrupting the ‘natural order’ of the stereotypical masculine culture. That sometimes they try to appear less feminine so they can be considered to be ‘one of the boys’ to be brought in to that space, rather than appear like those ‘other girls’ who might be at the game for the ‘wrong reasons’ such as to just perve on the blokes. Women do these things to force others to see that they deserve to be in that space too, that women can be ‘authentic’ fans, that they love the game just as much as anyone else.

I began my PhD in 2015. Two years before the first AFLW season. I went to that inaugural match. That historic lock out game between Carlton and Collingwood on Friday the 3rd of February, 2017. I didn’t really know much about women’s footy then. I’d never really watched it before and I thought the fan space would be like what I was used to at AFLM matches. So walking into a Carlton v Collingwood game, from my AFLM experiences of these two teams, I definitely had my guard up a bit! But it quickly fell away. I was astounded by how welcome I felt. It was an instantly inclusive and inviting environment. And everyone was gathered to celebrate more than two teams on the park. They were celebrating women. They were celebrating equality. They were celebrating everyone.

And this sentiment has only grown stronger, much like the competition itself in the last few years. This was evident last weekend at the AFLW Grand Final where we saw a record-breaking crowd for a standalone women’s sports event of 53, 034 fans pack into Adelaide Oval. When they stood in unison when the – I am going to be bold and say, the greatest women’s football player of all time – Erin Phillips, was stretchered off the ground having ruptured her ACL and cheer together while opposition players ran to her side to console her. We saw this when a week before that, a unified community rallied behind Tayla Harris and Cecelia McIntosh when they were the subject of vile online commentary that tried to degrade and deny them the accolades they deserved for being outstanding athletes. Because the women’s football community is more than coming together to watch a game. And it’s more than AFLW. It’s women’s footy at every level. We celebrate each other, we elevate each other and we have created a culture for women to thrive in, which I’m looking forward to discussing more with the panel today.

A common question I get asked when I talk about my media and academic work in the women in sport space is, did I ever play football or am I going to. I always laugh at this and say no. I never wanted to play. I’m so lazy and I hate running. I joke that maybe I could have played in the early nineties where I could have been a Tony Lockett-esque type player who never left the goal square and ate dim sims on the way to training.

But I’ve been thinking about that after finishing my PhD. I wonder if that actually is the truth.

A good friend of mine and fellow writer, Kirby Fenwick has written about her experience of thinking about why she never played football in her youth in her essay in the book, Balancing Acts: Women in Sport.

She writes, “I learned to forge my mother’s signature so that my hastily scribbled notes excusing me from physical education in high school had some legitimacy. I cannot explain, years later, why I was so reluctant to participate, although the statistics and research tell me it’s not uncommon for girls: we tend to leave sport in droves in our adolescence. We do so because our options to play and our access to facilities shrink, and because we’re suddenly no longer allowed to play with the boys and there are no girls’ teams. We leave because we are increasingly concerned with our bodies, with how they look and how we use them; because the world we live in demands aesthetic perfection from us and tells us this is all we have to offer. We leave because we fear being judged, because we fear being laughed at.”

While we definitely have more options and access available to young women and girls today – there are still many of us who missed out that are still finding a way back. I wonder if my jokes about being too lazy to play myself is exactly what Kirby is talking about. They are my excuses to hide my fear of participating because I’ve been so conditioned over a long time to be scared of what people might think of me. Because all I’ve ever wanted is to fit in in the world of football. To be accepted and I thought the best way to do that was just to be a fan of the men’s game and not say anything when things happened there that made me feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. And like my academic research suggests, it is this fear for being seen as an outsider that is causing me to stick to my excuses.

Kirby, herself started playing football last year for the Redan Lions at age 31. I was so proud of her, and her bravery to give it a go, got me thinking.

I was lucky enough to speak with a women’s football stalwart this week. Former player and head of women’s football for AFL Victoria, now national female participation manager at Golf Australia Chyloe Kurdas. I caught up with her at Triple R’s ‘Kick Like a Girl’ live broadcast – the AFLW radio show hosted by the incomparable Kate O’Halloran. I told her about all these deep thoughts I was having – poor Chyloe!

But because Chyloe is amazing and one of the best people ever, she listened intently and she told me to think about the feelings I’ve expressed about the fan community of AFLW. About the culture I have experienced in the stands. How welcome and comfortable I felt to be myself. How inclusive the environment was. How celebratory it was. She said to me that feeling is tenfold when you step onto the field. And it’s not just the game. It’s all the moments that contribute to being part of something that values you. It’s the speech the coach gives you beforehand. It’s running out with your team mates. It’s the beers you have after the game at the pub. It’s something that gives you power and agency and the space and flexibility to decide who you want to be and what you want from the game.

And that is why community football clubs like Fitzroy are so important. They give women the chance to do that. I may not want to be a footballer. I might just really be lazy. But it is because I don’t know the answer to the question, do you want to play football, that women’s football is so important. Because young women now have the option to try and the choice is theirs to make about what they want to do when it comes to football. They can play, coach, umpire, work in media or administration, be club presidents, or they can sit back and enjoy the game as fans in the stands.

Chyloe has encouraged me to go down to a training session at her alma mater Melbourne University. If I discover I’m any good perhaps I’ll come across to the Roy Girls, but I don’t want to inflict what I anticipate to be some horrendous football by me on this great club. I’m going to give it a go and put my fear aside.

But it’s only because of the wonderful culture that I can see women’s football has created that I’m going to do it. Because the wonderful culture of women’s football has already brought me in and accepted me for who I am as a fan, so now I’m going to find out exactly what I want from football and who I want to become.

 


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