We all want to feel safe at the footy but the AFL must rethink its crowd security approach

Kylie Maslen
Photograph: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

The AFL currently boasts its highest ever attendance figures to this point in the season in its history, yet the safety of those crowds is currently drawing more debate than ever.

As a young woman who has been subject to misogynistic and homophobic taunts at the football, I am all for increased security. I want my friends and I to be able to attend AFL games without feeling threatened or being abused. But heavily visible security constantly walking the aisles during games is not the answer.

Related: AFL 'devastated' that fans feel intimidated by security measures

On Tuesday, AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan apologised for the increased security measures at Marvel Stadium – which is owned and run by the AFL – over round 13. McLachlan recognised the over-policing of barracking had gone too far and said it “hurt” him that fans feel intimidated at venues. What McLachlan didn’t address is how the league would remedy this and find the right balance between fans being able to cheer passionately for their team, while also stamping out discriminatory remarks and the recent increased crowd violence.

The issue dominated talk shows. On AFL360, Gerard Whateley denounced McLachlan for a lack of leadership, saying the league needed to have addressed the issue sooner. “They lost it really badly. When you don’t speak to your people, your footy fans, this is what it ends up looking like,” Whateley said. On The Couch’s Gerard Healy delivered a scathing editorial calling McLachlan “aloof and uncaring”.

The response from two of the AFL’s club presidents – Hawthorn’s Jeff Kennett and Western Bulldog’s Peter Gordon – could not have been more marked. While Kennett referred to the security guards as “new arrivals” who therefore do not understand the game, Gordon backed McLachlan and the need for increased security, saying, “You can’t look at the Ian Darling documentary on Adam Goodes [The Final Quarter] and not feel shame on behalf of the industry. Clearly, we have to disrupt that sort of behaviour.”

Related: The Final Quarter review – exhilarating Adam Goodes documentary pulses with urgency

In his Tuesday afternoon press conference McLachlan conceded that the “look” of hi-vis vests and such visible security numbers was “a challenge” for some supporters, and that the league needs to continue to refine how it can care for crowds without making people uncomfortable. “[The AFL’s] philosophy on this has not changed,” he said. “We want our fans to come to the footy and be themselves and feel safe in barracking.”

The problem is not the increased security itself – it is the way in which it appeared on the weekend. Consider it similar to a heavy police presence at a march. It sends a signal that just by being there the protesters are considered a risk, even if their intention was always peaceful. The AFL have quickly shifted from ‘we need to do more’ to a message of ‘this space is not safe’ and in doing so have potentially inflamed some sectors of the crowd, and made others feel more fearful than before.

The AFL holds the kind of captive audience that not only other sports dream of, but that many social and political causes would fight tooth and nail for. The 18 AFL clubs together boast a greater membership number than the trade unions hold in the private sector, and the Richmond Football Club alone has more members than the Labor and Liberal parties combined.

The AFL cannot belatedly apologise to Goodes, throw considerable resources at growing female participation in the game, hold marquee games and rounds to support social causes and recognise racial and cultural diversity, and then turn a blind eye to what happens in the stands or discriminatory remarks made by senior officials of the game. Throwing more police and security at the problem alone won’t solve the problem of alcohol-fuelled violence and discriminatory language: real leadership over the game and its constituency is needed.

The AFL needs to lead through communication and action enacted side by side. By publicly denying the increase in security prior to round 13, the league only angered fans who then clearly saw it in action. There need to be sanctions against the Hawthorn president to show that racial vilification cannot and will not stand. And while giving a press conference on making stadiums an inclusive space to all, the CEO of the league cannot say that people “should be able to bring wives to football” without realising the inherent misogyny of that statement.

There are significant factors as to why women and queer audiences feel infinitely more comfortable at – and therefore (anecdotally for now) attend in far greater numbers – the AFLW more than AFL. It is not the game of Australian rules football that inherently attracts violence and discrimination, it is the way in which it is administered.

From the CEO to venue operators, club presidents to security guards, it’s about time the AFL showed real leadership and learned to walk and talk in harmony with its fans.