I’m in the open of Optus Stadium, my eyes cast over this modern dome donned in my team’s colours.
I feel like breaking down and crying and I don’t quite know why. It’s overwhelming but I pull myself together. My years of conditioned fan behaviour still automatically pull me into line. I have never been to this place before. I haven’t been to Perth in seven years. But I feel like I am home. I feel like I belong. I post a photo of myself at the ground on Twitter.
“I’m here. I can’t believe it.”
Sitting at a press table at the inaugural AFL Women’s draft on October 12 in 2016, I followed all the names being called out and felt and heard the joy in the room as each name was read. Women were cheering and celebrating each other as they were rewarded with the chance to pursue their dream of playing Aussie rules at the elite level —drafted into teams to play in the first national women’s football league in 2017.
I was working for the Western Bulldogs at the time and I was there on the day to assist coach Paul Groves in delivering each of the draftees with a special, personalised text message to welcome them to the club. It was such an amazing experience to share in that joy with those women who the club selected to form their inaugural AFLW side.
I felt like I thrived sitting at the media table and throwing around some footy banter with my colleagues. For most of the early picks, I could reel off who they had played for in the year’s exhibition matches, and what local teams they had played for before this. I made comments to the people near me in the room like Risky they picked a ruck this early and Another club would’ve grabbed her with the next pick, they will be filthy she went early and Great hands, she’s very underrated but she’s going to be amazing. I was so excited to be in the room for that historic moment. I knew the women’s league was coming, so I had been following the build-up for the past year: watching the exhibition games, especially paying attention to those donning the Bulldogs jumper in the early days, learning players’ names, deeming myself the expert. Performing this type of fan, of media commentator who knew everything, but nothing really. Making sure I knew enough to rattle off some facts if anyone ever questioned me. Forcing myself into a mould of who I thought I needed to be to fit into this new sports space.
Fandom is a strange thing.
We often feel the need to exert our fan-ness over someone else—that we are more ‘fan’ than they are. We are often determined to make ourselves feel like the bigger or the better fan. This is true of most shared cultural experiences, and it is especially true in sport, where displaying your authenticity as a fan can be as important as displaying your team colours. It’s representative of who you are. Your team, your club, your fan-ness is an extension of you.
Dr Stacey Pope of Durham University has extensively researched female fans of elite male sports, and some of her work considers the way the concept of authenticity operates in fandoms for women. She notes that in this space “female sports fans are typically depicted as ‘inauthentic’ in their support and are assumed to have little sporting knowledge.” To counteract this, she suggests that “female sports fans of male team sports are required to ‘prove’ their status as authentic fans in a way that is simply not required for most male fans.”
Pope outlines how one might attempt to ‘prove’ authenticity, stating that it “may include putting on a ‘blokey façade’, so to speak—drinking beer, reeling off stats and facts, swearing at the opposition and umpires and laughing along when male fans call out sexist remarks. Showing they are ‘one of them’ is a way to prove their fandom every bit as authentic as their male peers.”
Dr Katherine Jones of Philadelphia University says that “women sometimes downplay their gender identities to reinforce their fan identities.” They see calling out sexist comments and behaviour by male fans in conflict with being a sports fan and excuse it as being part of the game.
This is the research I engaged with during the writing of my PhD thesis. It showed me the type of fan I was when I was supporting my men’s team. I became so complicit in so many different behaviours to buy myself a sense of belonging in some sort of social currency bartering system that I lost myself. I lost what kind of fan I was, or more importantly, what kind of fan I wanted to be.
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 other than my draft cramming, but I thought the fan space would be like what I was used to at men’s matches.
So I brought the fast talking, cliché dropping fan who sat at the press table at the inaugural draft. I was ready to perform the fan I was used to being. Ready to activate this shield I had never realised I put up to allow myself to believe I intrinsically belonged at the footy.
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 the two teams on the park. They were celebrating women. They were celebrating equality. They were celebrating everyone. And they didn’t care if I couldn’t name every athlete on the field, their prior club, their position, their number and what they had for lunch that day. I didn’t need my fan amour; I didn’t need anything, and I had never realised how much I needed that feeling.
I am always asked if I ever wanted to 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.
I thought a lot about that after finishing my PhD. I wondered if that was actually the truth. Fellow Siren co-founder, 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.”
I wondered if my jokes about being too lazy to play myself was exactly what Kirby is talking about. They were my excuses to hide my fear of participating because I’d been so conditioned over a long time to be scared of what people might think of me. Because all I’d 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. To put up my fan shield.
Kirby started playing football 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 about my thoughts on this to try and gain some clarity. Last year I had a chat with former player and head of women’s football for AFL Victoria, now national female participation manager at Golf Australia, Chyloe Kurdas.
Chyloe was amazing. She listened intently and she encouraged me to go down to a training session at her alma mater Melbourne University. She said I had to give it a go and put my fear aside. Because I needed to know how I actually felt about football without all these preconceived ideas about how I should be at the footy.
Did you know footy ovals are really, really big?
I’m running a drill along the wing. I’m exhausted. It’s drizzling ice rain at Melbourne University Oval in late May, 2019 and it’s dark and like 4 degrees and I want to lie down, but it’s muddy and I can’t bend my knees to lie down anyway because my legs hurt so much.
I look over at the other groups training across the oval. There are groups in the goal square, on the other wing, inside fifty. They all look so far away. I’m dying running within my small group, in our small area of the ground. I make a promise to myself to never scream out ‘ruuuuuuunnnn!!!’ at any player when they’re chasing down someone or going into space because footy ovals are really, really big and running is really, really hard.
I’ll be forever grateful to Chyloe for getting me to give it a go. I would never have gone to a training session if it wasn’t for her. I now know. I know I’m no footballer and most importantly that I don’t want to be. I can see how people love it. While it killed me, I didn’t hate that session. It was amazing to have, if even very short lived, the camaraderie around those drills, the yelling out of names and high fives when you nailed it. The feel of the footy burning against the palms of your hands when you pull down a mark. The sense of achievement. But it wasn’t the connection to the game I needed.
All I ever needed from football was to feel some sort of love back from the game that recognised me for who I was. I never really knew that. Or knew how to get that.
When the West Coast Eagles announced that they had signed Dana Hooker in the lead up to their inaugural AFLW Season and posted a photo of her wearing the guernsey, it all seemed to click for me.
While seeing a woman, a powerful woman and elite, expert athlete like Hooker, wearing my club guernsey because she was going to represent my club in a national women’s football competition was enough to bring tears to my eyes and give me chills down my spine, it wasn’t just that that made me understand what AFLW gives me.
In that moment, in that small moment of seeing a woman representing my club, representing me, I realised how much I’ve come to love the broader competition in how I now see so many women representing me.
And it’s not just the athletes on the park performing like superstars. It’s women like my Siren co-founders who I wouldn’t have met if it weren’t for AFLW. It’s many friends that I’ve met, both at games and online, that I can share in an experience with and feel seen with.
They all represent me in some way. They all bring me more into the game by allowing me to be myself in this space, by giving me the chance to figure out who that is by teeing up a training session for me, by asking me to sit with them at a match, by messaging me to catch up during halftime just to hello, by inviting me to write about the game on their platform or chat on their radio shows and podcasts, by giving me a voice and allowing it to be my own.
In The Women’s Footy Almanac 2018 Deb Waterhouse-Watson, an academic who has done a lot of research work on victim blame culture and the representation of professional athletes who are accused of sexual assault, wrote of the end of her fan relationship with men’s football. Waterhouse-Watson recalls that, ‘I was once a massive fan of AFL men’s, but we went through a bad breakup in 2008, when I found out about a sexual assault case involving my team and I avoided pretty much anything to do with sport of any kind’.
I can only imagine the toll her extensive research into sexual assault allegations by elite footballers took on her, which (among many other things) might have led her to maintain her separation from the game. Yet Waterhouse-Watson notes that it was the advent of the national women’s competition that brought her back to following football in emotional detail.
‘I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a game of football so purely and thoroughly as I did that game. I don’t remember who took the marks and kicked the goals. Not one moment stands out for me, except the one where I found myself in tears, with an overwhelming sense of coming home, of joy that this, this was what I had been waiting my whole life for’.
My relationship with the men’s game isn’t quite as damaged as Waterhouse-Watson’s, it’s been challenging, and it’s complicated as there have been terrible things happen where I maybe should have walked away and taken a stand against some of the behaviours that were against my moral code. But I still love the men’s game and my team. What I want to tear down is the fan relationship I had with myself when it came to how I participated in that fan space. I was contributing to so much of the toxicity that needs to be removed from that fan culture. It keeps people out of the game and it’s not OK.
The AFLW showed me that.
At Optus Stadium on Saturday afternoon in Perth watching history unfolding with 35, 185 of my friends, the game almost didn’t matter (almost, we need to get better West Coast!). But I understood what Waterhouse-Watson meant. I felt an overwhelming sense of coming home. Home to the game, home to my team that I love so much, and home to the fan that finally I feel I am able to be.
I’m here and I finally can believe it.