As one of the 24,500 fans that packed into the AFLW’s opening match at Ikon Park on Friday, February 3, I was privy to the comments of spectators around me.
While most were overwhelmingly positive – concerning the bursting crowd, the dogged determination of the players, and some spectacular grabs – a few carried a more negative undertone.
“Gee, the skill level isn’t that great,” one man seated beside his four mates exclaimed. “Hardly like the men.”
I felt my face twist in frustration.
Of course it’s nothing like the men. Want to know why, middle-aged man dressed in a Collingwood scarf? Because some of these women only picked up a footy for the first time three months ago.
Perhaps that’s why I felt similarly irked when Australian netballer Natalie Medhurst admitted to News.com.au that “The standard (of the AFLW) is being questioned”.
“The standard at which we play at, the professionalism and the skills of the players are second to none. That’s one thing I don’t think the women’s AFL has yet. That’s going to take time,” she said.
Later in the interview, Medhurst went on to say: “An off-season is non-existent (for netballers). Because you’re an athlete, you stay fit 12 months a year,” the 33-year-old captain of West Coast Fever said. “They (AFL players) only have nine contact hours a week and then you can say, ‘Well, how many things are they doing when they’re not being watched?’
“Whereas you ask all the netballers and their dedication, their commitment to being in the best condition possible to play and perform day in day out is second to none.
Admittedly, Natalie Medhurst is not entirely wrong. Of course the skill level of the AFLW players does not meet that of our top netballers – how could it? These women have been given very few (if any) avenues to participate in the sport they love since they left Auskick.
Once they embarked upon their teenage years they were turned away. They were bluntly told to pick up another sport; there was nothing for them in footy. I would argue it’s very difficult to prove your “dedication” and “commitment” in that position.
Meanwhile, Australian netballers are nurtured like no other women’s sport down under. From the age of 10, they are thrust into representative teams, academies, ‘netball schools’, and training programs. They train in wonderful facilities, on high-tech equipment, with expert coaches.
I know this because from the age of 13 to 20, I was on the netball ‘player development pathway’.
The programs are immaculate. From strength and conditioning to skills and drills, Netball Australia, and its respective state divisions, go above and beyond to grow the netball stars of the future.
Now let’s juxtapose that with the reality for women like Melbourne’s Daisy Pearce.
For decades, footy abandoned its female participants. It ignored hopeful young girls who wanted to play the sport they loved. It didn’t give them state academies, or children’s books about their sport’s female sports stars; it gave them nothing.
That comparison is why this follow-up comment from Medhurst struck such a nerve:
“... You have a lot more respect for where the game’s gone to rather than just walking into something where it’s given to you with bells and whistles.”
CEO Gillon McLachlan righting the AFL's wrong doesn't mean female athletes have 'just walked into something given to them with bells and whistles'. They're finally being given the dream they were deprived of as young women - an opportunity Aussie netballers were given as kids from the moment they turned on the telly and watched Liz Ellis soar to new heights, or Sharelle McMahon sink another match-saving goal.
I understand Nat Medhurst's comments about skill level have merit. Any logical person would admit that finesse and mastery come with time and endless practice.
But in a world where women's sport is finally getting the go it deserves? We need more female athletes championing the efforts of the women who were told 'No' for far too long.
In 2017, Mamamia is committed to covering all aspects on women's sport. Check out more of our sports stories here.