The case for banning Daisy Pearce from AFL changerooms doesn’t stack up

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Morgan Hancock/AAP</span>
Photograph: Morgan Hancock/AAP

This week I did something I haven’t done since high school: I went to footy training. It was a classic Melbourne March night and we kicked into biting wind, light rain tending to moderate, a sky mountainous with grey clouds. The ball was slippery and so was the ground, and I woke the next day covered in bruises and full of joy.

The women on the team were serious. Every drop punt hit its target. Each shot for goal was true. And they had this one thing in common, with one another and with so many women Australia-wide: they love the game.

The AFL’s problem with women is vast and multi-faceted. It’s evident in the way players stood down “indefinitely” after assault return to the field, while others have been given a seat in the commentary box on retirement. The league has been the target of a gender discrimination complaint that went all the way to the Australian Human Rights Commission, and let slide “jokes” about drowning a female football journo.

Related: AFLW trailblazer Daisy Pearce retires from playing ahead of move into men’s coaching

The undeniable sexism is there in salary discrepancies that force AFLW players to sustain other careers, and repulsive social media comments when a woman has the nerve to kick the ball while wearing shorts.

Despite what Twitter guys with Fight Club avatars might have you believe, women have been part of Australian rules football for a long time, first as spectators and then players. When the first AFLW round started in 2017, almost a hundred years had passed since the inaugural professional women’s match in Ballarat. Women have now successfully barracked, commentated, coached, umpired and reported. And it’s overwhelmingly your loss if you’ve never sat next to a nanna with a Thermos at the MCG. Many of us know a lot about football.

This week’s target is Daisy Pearce. She’s not only one of the best and most committed – perhaps the greatest – woman player to ever pull on the boots; she also has an incredible footy mind. Listening to her commentary reveals an ex-player who can see ahead of the play, who can take in the entire ground in a glance, who understands the strategy as well as any other caller. It’s no surprise she’s been snapped up for an assistant coach role with reigning premiers Geelong, a club I happen to support.

She’s also now been barred from multiple AFLM clubrooms. Richmond and Brisbane have given her the boot, with the Lions coach Chris Fagan later complaining, “ Who knows what she might see or hear?”

As anyone who’s ever been in a men’s footy changeroom knows, there’s certainly a lot of exciting post-match activity. Men taking off boots. Men drinking electrolyte drinks. Men with years-long high-paid contracts. And, at each broadcast, a smattering of journalists to capture the post-match review.

Many of these reporters are ex-players, using their knowledge of the game to ask the right questions and enjoy a matesy rapport with the teams. But this media training starts early. Alongside on-field drills, current players are subject to rigorous off-field coaching, not necessarily for a future in reporting but to become great representatives of their clubs.

Fagan says his concern is with Pearce’s coaching role, perhaps implying that she may discover information that will give Geelong a competitive advantage. But younger recruits are articulate, insightful and self-aware. Rarely does a post-match interviewee mumble or find themselves at a loss for words, even after four hard quarters. They’re trained to know exactly what to say when someone like Pearce sticks a mic under their chin.

So, to answer Fagan’s question, what she might hear or see are polished young men toeing the club line. Leaks aren’t part of the syllabus, but giving the right answer is.

As Richmond great Matthew Richardson has pointed out this week, men have been performing this dual function for years. Jimmy Bartel, a former Cat himself, is both present in the commentary box and a director of GWS. Luke Darcy, a wildly visible sports presenter, is a director at his old club, the Western Bulldogs.

Even Eddie McGuire, a former Collingwood president and longtime commentator – who has publicly feuded with women in the sport in the past – has come out in defence of Pearce, calling her a “woman of integrity”.

“I understand the situation that she’s an assistant coach, but I used to ring up coaches and get the inside mail before I called a game,” he said, “because they trusted me that I wouldn’t go and tell Nathan Buckley or Mick Malthouse.”

So, the problem isn’t being a commentator who’s also part of the administration. It’s not that players are standing around in clubrooms sharing their innermost tactical secrets. And it’s certainly not that women don’t know enough about the game. But with AFLW players reporting poor integration with clubs and a lack of respect from senior administration, it’s easy to imagine where the real problem might lie – and it’s not at Daisy Pearce’s end of the microphone.