The Emperor’s New Clothes is a short tale written by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen about two weavers who promise an emperor a new suit of clothes that they say is invisible to those who are unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent.
They duly mime dressing the emperor, and when he parades before his subjects in his new ‘clothes’, no one dares say that they don’t see any suit of clothes on him for fear that they will be seen as ‘unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent’.
Finally, an innocent child cries out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”
And so it is with AFL Women’s, the juggernaut currently occupying far more space in the Australian media landscape than any rational measure would dictate appropriate.
Of course, sport is about a whole lot of things other than rationality. Passion, emotion, tribalism, familiarity, partiality and power are among some of the more powerful forces at play – forces that entice fans, media and stakeholders to do things or take positions that they would not necessarily do in their business or family life.
What other explanation can there be for this brand-new, semi-professional sport occupying copious space in mainstream print, radio and television – in Melbourne at least – when the actual product is so clearly a work in progress?
Monday night’s 7pm ABC TV news bulletin was a case in point. Three sports stories only: one about the Australian men’s cricket team in India, a mention of a record yearling sale, and coverage of the Fremantle versus Adelaide AFLW match, right down to the obligatory ‘next day’ shot of players coming down an airport escalator.
Whatever else happened in the sporting world over the weekend – bear in mind that this was the Monday night news, so there was plenty – it didn’t happen, according to our ABC.
Individual engagement with sport is undeniably subjective. One man’s synchronised swimming is another woman’s UFC, and code wars which are grounded in where someone grew up or what they were encouraged into by their parents are insufferably pointless and boring.
None of this should prevent the calling out of things that are not what they are made out to be, whether that be the authenticity of Lance Armstrong or the real reason for holding a football World Cup in the middle of a desert in summer – or pretending that AFLW is elite sport worthy of the type of coverage normally reserved for actual elite sport.
A few qualifiers. I’m no Bambi shooter; I enjoy watching a range of women’s sport, in particular golf, where the accuracy and precision of the best players never fail to hook me in. The Australian women’s rugby sevens gold medal win in Rio was a highlight of 2016.
As a qualified physical education professional, I understand the benefits of generating interest and participation in women’s sport, and anything that provides a pathway to encourage the continuation of involvement through adolescence and teenage years into adulthood is unquestionably positive.
In short, my beef isn’t with the AFLW competition itself – long may these women play the game and enjoy the camaraderie, as well as the health and fitness benefits. If they can make a dollar or two along the way, good luck to them.
But as a long-suffering Richmond Tigers fan, I’ve seen enough ordinary football over the years to know when I’m being sold a crock.
To those who cry, “Lay off these girls, they’ve only been going a short time” or, “Be patient, they’re not full-time, they’ll get better”, I say, “Great, let them get better, just keep off my television news every night and off the main sports pages until they do.”
To the other camp, which suggests that the sport is already worthy of its lofty place in the Australian sports hierarchy on merit, I say, “Here’s a bridge I’ve got for sale, great views of the Sydney Opera House.”
One of the difficulties for many women’s sports is that they are forever viewed in the context of the men’s version, to which they are compared directly. This is often unfair and usually fails to pay the sport due respect by not assessing it on its own merits.
The other side of the coin, however, suggests that those comparisons become increasingly valid the more the women’s version models itself on its male version. Note how TV and print coverage of AFLW mirrors the men’s competition right down to the style and nature of the presentation, and the dreadful halftime and full-time player interviews.
Listen to TV commentary of a women’s AFL match and the audio is indiscernible from its male equivalent. The same clichés are rolled out thick and fast.
The pictures, however, tell a different story. The skills are many notches lower, kicks lack distance and precision, the speed of decision-making is yards slower, and – there is no delicate way to say this, but I’ll try – some of the bodies are not those of elite, professional athletes. They resemble more the weekend suburban third-grader whose post-match protocols comprise a pie, ciggie and half a dozen pints.
The competition is so far averaging a paltry 4.3 goals per game, which suggests that the players being touted in the media as ‘superstars’ must all be defenders. One can only imagine how high the hype meter will go when a talented power forward actually emerges from the pack and starts kicking bags of six or eight a game.
To be fair, the AFL has got things right by not modifying the game itself. When women’s cricket moves the boundaries into within touching distance of the wicket block in some misguided attempt to provide audiences with more ‘exciting’ six-hitting, they invite only ridicule.
As it happens, I watched the Australia versus New Zealand 50-over women’s international on Sunday from Eden Park, where the boundaries were set back as for a men’s game and which featured some excellent batting from both sides – all the better for players being able to place the ball into gaps and run twos and threes.
The speed and weight with which AFLW has planted itself on us is not only fascinating and impressive, but it’s also informative. It tells us that this is not a matter of coverage of elite women’s sport finally marking its elevation to equal status; if it was, women’s sports that have failed to gain traction in the media in the past wouldn’t be wondering why their invisibility was still the norm.
The phenomenon we are witnessing is instead about two things: the ability of the AFL to dominate sports media in its heartland states without even really trying and, second, the voracious capacity for Australian rules football fans in those states to at the drop of a hat engage with anything football related.
A third and critical factor is the unwillingness of people to speak in negative terms about the sport for fear of being howled down as ‘sexist’, ‘ignorant’ or, to borrow a phrase, ‘unfit for their positions, stupid or incompetent’.
The AFL indeed has new clothes, and her subjects are enthusiastically and willingly cheering her on, either scared of a PC-inspired backlash if they don’t, or simply because that’s what you do when you’re in the family.
As for me? I’m cheering for the kid, the one who dared call it for what it is.