What’s the point of Women in League round?

Mary Konstantopoulos Columnist

By , Mary Konstantopoulos is a Roar Expert

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    This week the NRL celebrates Women in League Round.

    Throughout the week and among the celebrations, one question I’ll be asked is ‘what’s the point?’

    The people who ask this question often think the round is tokenistic. That it’s unnecessary. That it gives the NRL and the clubs the chance to play in pink jerseys, serve champagne at games and pay lip service to the role women play in our game.

    Underlying this question is a belief that the NRL fundamentally doesn’t care about women – and it’s a view with which I vehemently disagree.

    While people may be able to point to sports like AFL and cricket that have established their own women’s competitions, there is no sport that is doing more to actively promote and encourage women to feel part of a sporting family across the board (in whatever capacity they would like to be involved) than rugby league.

    So we may not have a women’s competition yet. But this year, for the first time, an unbroken pathway has been established to make sure that girls from age six all the way to 18 can play rugby league. Todd Greenberg has made it clear that he wants to make sure there are the numbers to ensure a sustainable women’s competition before it is launched. These pathways will go a long way to making this talent pool a reality.

    In the last two years we have seen the Australian Jillaroos broadcast on television as part of an international double-header and this year when the Rugby League World Cup takes place, it will be the first time that the men’s and women’s tournament have been played concurrently.

    Think about the people that are involved in the administration of our game. Women like Cathy Harris who sits on the Australian Rugby League Commission, Raelene Castle who is CEO at the Canterbury Bulldogs, Helen Wood-Grant on the board of the Men of League Foundation, Maria Sykes who is COO at the Rugby League World Cup, and the countless women who sit on rugby league boards like Rebecca Frizelle, Vicki Leaver, Katie Brassil and Marina Go.

    There is no other traditional, male sport in Australia that offers the same opportunities for women in media like rugby league does.

    Thanks to trailblazers like Debbie Spillane and Margie McDonald, women like Yvonne Sampson, Hannah Hollis, Lara Pitt and Erin Molan are frequent and welcome fixtures in our coverage.

    Yvonne Sampson

    (Image via Channel Nine Style)

    And I haven’t even mentioned the droves of female volunteers, fans and members, and Kasey Badger and Belinda Sleeman, who you can spot running down the touchline on any given weekend.

    But the elephant in the room when we talk about Women in League round is, of course, the men taking the field each week who have been convicted of offences which involve violence towards women.

    Violence toward any other human being is completely unacceptable. But this is a very difficult issue to navigate.

    I often reflect on the players that have committed offences before they embraced the opportunity for a second chance. It’s one of my favourite things about our game is that we do give people a second chance. Most close to home are Manu Ma’u and Danny Wicks, who wore the blue and gold and used that second chance to educate others and support change in their communities.

    Which offences are serious enough that it warrants rubbing a player out permanently from the game? Equally challenging is who makes that call?

    They’re issues that the NRL grapples with, particularly with violence towards women, and the code’s strong relationships with organisations like the Full Stop Foundation and Our Watch reflects this. But I know the NRL takes this issue seriously. So seriously that on the weekend it was announced that, in what would be a first in Australian sport, the NRL is discussing new enforcement measures for players found guilty of violence against women.

    The truth is that women remain underrepresented in almost every facet of Australian society. As at March this year there were only nine female CEOs and ten women that were chairperson of companies which feature in the ASX 200. Women face a 23 per cent gender pay gap and at least one Australian woman is killed every week by a current or former partner.

    Rugby league does not have the answer to these problems. But it can be part of the solution and it can use its powerful voice to drive and initiate change in our communities.

    All the things I’ve set out in this article tell me that the NRL is serious about making the rugby league family inclusive for everyone.

    Our code is not perfect, but nothing is. We need to keep holding our game accountable and recognise that there is plenty more work to be done.

    But we also need to celebrate how far we have come.

    I hope you all take a moment this week to celebrate the role women play in our game. I want to thank the women involved in footy who inspire me each day and remind us there is a place for everyone in the rugby league family whether it is as a fan, player, referee, advocate or administrator.

    Thank you to women like Yvonne Sampson, Catharine Lumby, Helen Wood-Grant, Marina Go, Kezie Apps, Stephanie Crockford, Raelene Castle and Kasey Badger. You can’t be what you can’t see and these women serve as role models for the next generation of talent coming through. Young women who will grow up in a world where the barriers to gender equality will be even lower and fewer.

    I also want to leave you with a challenge. Apart from celebrating the women in your life who are involved in rugby league this week there is one very simple thing you can do to champion diversity.

    This Sunday morning at 11am, the Interstate Challenge will be played between the New South Wales and Queensland women’s teams. This is the first time that NSW have had the opportunity to win the series two years in a row.

    The game will be broadcast live on Fox League. So if you are someone that thinks that the NRL should have a women’s competition, do more than talk the talk, walk the walk and tune in so that the code understands that there is a keen interest in women who play footy. We all know how effective power in numbers can be, so let’s make sure that this game is closely followed.

    To all the women out there who are part of the rugby league family – this week is about celebrating you. Thank you for everything you do to make our game the greatest and thank you to rugby league for always making me feel like my voice is a welcome part of the conversation.

    Mary Konstantopoulos
    Mary Konstantopoulos

    Mary Konstantopoulos is a lawyer, sports advocate and proud owner and founder of the Ladies Who empire, including Ladies who League, Ladies who Legspin, Ladies who Lineout and Ladies who Leap. You can find her podcast on iTunes and find her on Twitter @mary__kaye and @ladieswholeague.

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