Is the AFL a safe place for women?

Is the AFL a safe place for women?

Despite a considerable effort by the Australian Football League (AFL) to reform its culture in recent years following negative media reports of sexual assault and intimate partner abuse by players, the emergence of a number of damaging leaks and allegations have once again brought into question whether real reform has actually been achieved and the possibility that serious measures are needed.

Details of a report commissioned by the AFL (but not publicly released) detailing the experiences of its female umpires were leaked to the media last week, with numerous stories from female umpires about “sexual abuse, assault and racist slurs against female umpires at all levels”.  The report shines a light on the negative overall experience of female football umpires trying to succeed in a boys’ culture.

One female umpire relayed the following:

“I used to receive messages of nudes that other umpires would send to me,” one state-league umpire told the report, seen by the Herald Sun. 

“And umpires during games would inappropriately touch me, like when we’re umpiring together and things like that. 

“So, that’s what made me quit that level of umpiring because I thought it was too inappropriate and I didn’t know what to do about it at the time.”

Another woman interviewed for the report stated that she:

“...would have felt safer and more comfortable in reporting the behaviour if the coaches didn’t engage in the ‘boys club’ behaviour you see at training, and made me feel welcome.”

Media coverage of the report was followed closely by shocking allegations made by ex-Collingwood player Héritier Lumumba, who claims that an assistant coach showed a pornographic image showing a group of men behaving in a sexually degrading manner to towards a solitary female. This was provided as a jokey illustration of the team “rules” at a 2014 team meeting. Lumumba also alleges that CEO Gary Pert “made sexually inappropriate comments in front of players’ wives and partners during a night out in 2011”.

Veteran AFL reporter, Caroline Wilson, has confirmed that the allegations are being investigated by Collingwood CEO Mark Anderson. Wilson has followed up the claims with the Club:

“Although no one involved is at the club anymore, they believe they need to get to the bottom of this.

“I can’t find anyone at Collingwood today, who was there at the time, who is saying to me that this did not happen. No one is confirming that it did happen, but all the people I've spoken to just said they had no recollection of it. 

“Just horrified to think that this is going on in the last decade, absolutely horrifying to me.

“Collingwood needs to address this and so do the AFL. If that is still going on in the last decade in a competition that has introduced AFLW around that time … it is just so shocking to me.”

The allegations are particularly relevant in the light of the recent revision of the AFL’s policy for managing complaints and incidents in 2017 (Respect and Responsibility Policy) and efforts made to mandate annual education programs for players, including anti-sexual harrasment and discrimination training.

The revised policy emphasises a “broader commitment by the AFL to being leaders in gender equality and inclusion”.

In addition, the policy outlines the AFL’s commitment to:

“...ensuring women and men have equal opportunity to advance and to fully participate in the AFL code as players, employees, volunteers and supporters. 

“A critical element of creating safe and inclusive environments for women and girls is a transparent process of the management of complaints or incidents of disrespectful conduct which includes sexual harassment, sexual or other assault (including threats), violence against women, discrimination based on sex, pregnancy, family responsibilities, sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. 

“The AFL expects that all people connected with the game will conduct themselves in a manner that demonstrates respect for all people, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, and recognises our game’s responsibility to promote and model gender equality without tolerance for the harm of others based on gender.

“The AFL is committed to… promoting a safe and inclusive environment for all, including women and girls within the AFL industry… educating and creating awareness across our game that gender inequality is one of the causes of violence against women and children.”

A detailed complaint and incident management protocol is included within the policy.

However, the recent allegations concerning the use of pornography by leadership in an official capacity sends a powerful message to women in the organisation that allegations of sexual harrassment or demeaning behaviour towards them are unlikely to be taken seriously. How could a leadership structure that condones or tolerates such material being shown to its players in an official capacity be trusted to deal appropriately with complaints relating to sexual harassment of women?

Regarding the treatment of female umpires, the AFL has since released a statement affirming its commitment to a safe workplace and culture for women:

“We are committed to ensuring that women and girls of all ages can take part in our game in a safe, welcoming, and inclusive environment.”

To this end, the AFL has committed to increasing the number of women umpires to 40%:

“In order to achieve that growth, we will introduce a number of policy directives including developing and publishing the ‘Community football guiding principles for equity’ which will comprise initiatives such as umpiring appointments, access to multi-gender or shared space facilities, establishing female mentoring programs to accelerate the pathway for women and girls and helping to achieve more gender-balanced leadership in all community football leagues and clubs.”

Such measures, including increasing female participation and mentoring programs, may result in improved conditions for women over time. The reality, however, is that unless the AFL gets serious and implements a zero tolerance approach to issues such as pornography use by players and leadership alike, it will likely fail to attract and retain more women, because it will not have addressed the root causes of the toxic culture towards women. Acknowledging the proven links between the normalisation of sexual violence through pornography and actual violence against women should form the basis of policies targeted at improving the culture as it relates to women. The tolerance and normalisation of pornography use results in a culture where women are seen as instantly and continuously available for men’s gratification.

These latest allegations expose the extent to which the AFL’s attempts to reform its culture have so far been misdirected. It is clear that the AFL will make very little progress in its stated goals of ensuring a “safe, welcoming and inclusive” environment for women until it tackles the elephant in the room and stamps out pornography from its ranks, whilst sending a strong message that degrading and abusive behaviour towards women will not be tolerated.