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Football, diversity and why the AFL can do better

Two weeks ago, I got home from the AFL Grand Final, upset after hearing some awful abuse at the game and, after complaining, being told by a security guard there was nothing they could do about it and “everyone does it”. I was disappointed that, in 21st Century Australia, this behaviour can occur and be tolerated in a public place.

Diversity in sport and in Australian Rules Football, the game I most love, is something that matters to me. I’ve written about it a lot: about Fox Footy Channel ignoring women’s round, about the lack of women in senior roles in football, about Anna Krien’s book on football Night Games. I even did a frame-by-frame commentary on the AFL’s official Season 2013 ad —which featured exactly 1.5 seconds of screen time that included women in a minute-long ad, some of which showed the women folding laundry—which was sadly lost to the internet abyss when I upgraded my site.

So naturally, after the Grand Final, I wrote about the experience and about how disappointed I was, both in the lack of response from security and, more broadly, that this diversity problem still exists. I tweeted that I had written it, wondering if maybe one of my friends who had a bigger sport site than my own blog might be interested in running it, something I have done previously. Instead, an editor from the SMH got in touch with me about it. And by 5pm the next day, my piece was up.

While I expected it would certainly provoke some response, the reaction was truly unbelievable. From death threats to incredible messages of support to conspiracy theories that I didn’t actually attend the match and was making it up, the variety of responses astonished me.

I am not a Fairfax journalist and I did not receive payment for my Fairfax piece. I decided years ago that writing about sport professionally was not something with which I felt comfortable. Instead, I write occasionally when I have something to say. Not because I need the money or am trying to build a profile, but because sport is something I both genuinely love and also feel often escapes the critical analysis it deserves and often needs.

There are definitely valid criticisms of my piece. For one, I did not make the connection between the lack of diversity on television and my experience on game day clear enough. I believe it is an important point, but it’s one that didn’t flow naturally from the rest of my argument in the piece and was a distraction from the rest of it.

Also, some people misunderstood my piece as a particular knock on Hawks fans. While the perpetrators that day were Hawks fans, I don’t think it’s a problem unique to Hawthorn or that there is anything inherent about that club that leads to this problem. I regret that I did not make this clearer in my piece.

But perhaps the response that surprised me the most was from the AFL.

A senior representative of the organisation sent me an email mid-way through the week after the Grand Final, which I have published previously here.

I thought this email was grossly unfair for several reasons. First, on a factual matter, the comments about the antisocial behaviour line were frustrating. While I was lucky enough to have reception at the game, something several of my friends didn’t have, rendering the line useless to them. And despite my reception, I was not able to find the number when I needed it. I googled it, but could only find media releases boasting of its existence that didn’t actually feature the number itself. I even tweeted to ask for it, but by the time I got a response, I’d already complained to security and received the “everyone does it” response.

But it was the last two paragraphs of the email from the AFL that bothered me the most:

My only concern with your piece was that I’m not sure it is fair to characterise large groups of AFL spectators as behaving in this way and nor is it fair to hold the AFL responsible for their actions. The AFL, the venue and police can act when made aware of issues but surely the issue of individual attitudes and behaviour is a broader one for Australian society. The AFL obviously does not condone this type of behaviour – in fact we address it as best we can. Unfortunately I suspect you would find similar things happening at other large sporting events. We will continue to combat these incidents and also proactively promote diversity and inclusion through our words and deeds.

I note that the AFL is also now being held responsible for the appalling social media reaction by some to your piece. Again, I think this is a cheap shot which ignores the broader point about the attitudes and behaviour of a vocal minority who believe they can say and do whatever they like if hidden in a crowd or behind a Twitter account.

The fact is, it was a large group behaving this way. It was a large group who behaved that way throughout the game. The AFL might not condone this behaviour, but the fact is it happened at their biggest game of the season and, despite multiple complaints, security did nothing. Passing the buck to the MCG is unacceptable too: it is the AFL that negotiates stadia agreements and, presumably, KPIs around those. Effective security that polices the values the AFL claims to uphold should be part of those negotiations.

But the line “Again, I think this is a cheap shot” regarding the AFL being held responsible for the social media reaction is the bit that bothered me the most. Specifically, that word again. Implying that the earlier paragraphs were in response to a cheap shot too. As in, I had made a cheap shot.

I found that pretty reprehensible.

But I sat on it for a week or so. I was upset by the response, which I found to be dismissive, condescending and passive-aggressive, but I was unsure what to do about it.
The more I thought about it, though, the more I found both the actions of the AFL representative in sending me that email and the overarching message of “it’s not an AFL problem, it’s a social problem” to be concerning.

Because the fact is, the AFL’s diversity problem— and it’s not just an abuse problem, it’s a diversity problem—goes beyond the cries in the crowd. It goes to the Fox Footy Channel and its dearth of female hosts and the total lack of diversity in AFL Chief Executives and the fact there is not a single openly non-straight footballer. While sexism, racism and homophobia are certainly societal problems, they are expressed uniquely – and I daresay even more acutely — within football. The AFL and its clubs lag behind ASX100 corporations in terms of female representation at executive level and in the board room.

All the theme rounds and policy documents in the world cannot make up for the lack of diversity in real positions of authority and influence in football: in the corner office, behind the commentary microphone, on the field and in the coaches’ box.

So the “what more can we do” messaged irked me, and I decided to see about making it public.

After seeking some legal advice regarding the Not For Publication message, I tweet that I had received the email and that it was “not nice”. The following day, I received another email from the AFL contact:

Erin

I have read your Twitter exchanges with interest over the past 24 hours as it relates to your communication with the AFL.

Given what I believe has been a gross misrepresentation of my email to you, I give you permission to release the content in full.

In fact, I request you to make it available to your Twitter followers and to explain my request. I would however ask that you withhold my personal details.

Regards

So I published the email, with minimal commentary. A few hours later, I received this:

Erin

Not wanting to get into an endless back and forth with you, but to emphasise a few things:
1. I marked the original letter as ‘Not for publication’ because I did not want my communication to be perceived as a ‘PR exercise’
2. My point about a ‘cheap shot’ refers to the fact the AFL cannot and should not be held responsible for individual actions in a crowd, just as we cannot be held responsible for the social media reaction you were subjected to. There is only so much we can do. We are not a Government, we are not a police force.
3. My point about people hiding in a crowd or behind a Twitter account was directed only at those people who verbally attacked you either on the day or via social media in response to your article.
4. Security staff at the MCG work for the MCG not the AFL
5. The AFL continues to work with all our venues to ensure there is an adequate and appropriate response to crowd complaints.

It was so disappointing, this whole exercise: the dismissiveness, the defensiveness. Talking among friends after the game, we came up with a number of things that could be effective ways of improving game day experience and preventing similar events happening again. There were some pretty simple things – for example improving the SEO on the anti-social behaviour phone number so it’s easily searchable and having a single number for all grounds that fans are encouraged to program into their phones.

But rather than saying “we understand this is unacceptable, and we’d like to do better”, this is what happened. And this is exactly what I was worried about when I wrote my piece: that while it has made loud noises about diversity, the code remains complacent about real change.

It can do better. It must do better.

I really hope it does better.

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