When my hockey linemate, Big Cat Place, was a boy, he played footy for a while, like most Victorian kids who are marched down to the local oval by footy-made fathers (guilty). He was roughly 12 when he decided the sport wasn’t for him, and announced before a routine mid-winter game that it would be his last for the Kew Comets. The coach tried to discuss it, but clearly hadn’t spent much time with Big Cat, because then, like now, once that kid’s mind’s made up, that’s it. In the end, the coach shrugged, said fair enough and arranged for Big Cat to be chaired off the ground by his teammates, as though he’d played 300 games, instead of about 20. Which was a nice touch.
One of the kids chairing him off was a girl, whose name, I think, was Megan – it’s a while ago and I’ve had no real reason to remember, until now. She was a gun footballer. In a team of ambitious boys, some of whom were the drilled and burdened with expectation sons of Hawthorn’s Eighties premiership players, she stood out. She was slight, with her blonde hair in a ponytail, but she ran and ran and ran. Megan went in and got hard balls, emerged with them, dished it off and was somehow then a downfield option. She was a midfielder who could play inside or outside, racking up dozens of possessions every week and was quiet, unassuming and humble in the rooms. She could play tall, tackle, do it all. Megan was a runaway Best & Fairest for the team in Big Cat’s Under 12s year and probably went on to win it again in his farewell season. Again, I’m not sure of this but I have a feeling she might have won the overall league’s Best & Fairest too.
I can remember feeling desperately sorry for Megan. Because I knew and she probably knew that she only had a couple more years of footy to enjoy before it would be over for her. Standing on the boundary, clutching takeaway coffees, the freezing-our-arses-off parents would sigh that she couldn’t graduate to elite AFL levels like the better boys hoped to. Back then, a decade ago, the options for a girl wanting to play into her teens weren’t great. There were female leagues but they had a certain air about them, almost underground, more roller-derby demographic than eastern suburbs parklands; not particularly welcoming to a 15-year-old schoolgirl. Change has been slow but in recent years, I’ve noticed Fitzroy has an all-women’s team running around on the Brunswick Street oval, and now the whole thing is set to go up another notch.So, of course, I thought of Megan yesterday when the AFL announced the eight teams to start an official women’s league under the AFL banner. If only she’d been born a few years later. While she would only be 23 or so now, potentially in her playing prime, I’d be surprised if she’s managed to stay motivated for the years when it looked like her footy dream ran into a dead end.
One of the things I’ve really loved about playing hockey has been the unisex nature of it. My team, the Cherokees, is coached by a member of the Australian women’s team, the feisty Georgia Carson (Note to coach: ‘feisty’ is a compliment), and features several women. I can honestly say that mid-game, it makes zero difference whether you’re chasing a puck or battling for it against a female or male opponent. In fact, in five seasons, I have yet to be part of an Ice Hockey Victoria-sanctioned team that has been all-male, which I like. I prefer teams where potential dick-swinging testosterone is dissipated by some feminine controlled aggression. Sure, we’re playing Division 3 – a lower level and firmly non-checking – but several of the women I’ve played and trained with have kicked on to higher divisions. At least two of the women who took up the sport around the same time I did have played in the AIHL’s women’s competition. Sometimes at Wednesday night training, we’d scrimmage and the coaches would join in, allowing Shona Powell, captain of Melbourne Ice women’s, and Australia, to effortlessly dominate.
Likewise, in boxing training, one of my favourite gyms was Mischa Merz’s Boxing Central. I’ve written about Mischa before; a journo mate who fell in love with the allegedly sweet science and ended up winning an Australian welterweight title, as well as international belts. Her gym is perfectly balanced between encouraging men and women to work on their skills and fitness, without some of the rampant testosterone that can dominate other dank sweaty rooms full of heavy bags scattered around a square ring.
I covered a lot of women’s sport in my time as a newspaper reporter. In tennis, especially on grasscourts, I found women’s matches more engaging because they didn’t hit the ball quite so hard (this was pre-Serena). Tennis is better with more strategy required than just two lanky giants seeing who can land the most 200 kmh serves. I was lucky enough to cover most of Steffi Graf’s career and her mix of power, balance, skill and strategy was breathtaking. (Then again, so is Federer’s, so I guess I just love the artists, whatever their sex.)
Any idiot who thinks women can’t ‘bring it’ to sport hasn’t watched Australia’s women’s field hockey team in action. Again, I covered that team for a while as they were en route to winning Olympic gold, and holy crap they played hard.
A few weeks ago, I went to a Melbourne Vixens netball game and was dazzled by the speed of the passing and the amount of physicality in what’s supposed to be a non-contact sport. The Vixens’ full back Geva Mentor, who is basically a female Alex Rance – one of my favourite Tigers – was magnificent, prowling and yelling encouragement to the team up the court and ensuring the opposition forwards earned every touch, as much as you can in a sport that seems to heavily discriminate against the defenders.
So, the point of this blog? Just to say that an official pathway for women to play football is well overdue and that I’m proud that hockey is way ahead of the AFL on this one. Women playing sport, either against one another or against/with men where possible, like non-checking hockey, is good for the world, good for everybody involved. Now we just need Richmond to be given a license next year so I can have a team to barrack for.