What is the fundamental difference between men and women? Science (and observation) says that muscle mass and body composition are the two key differences between the sexes – men are (generally) bigger, faster, stronger.
“Hence, it is not a question about equality but biological capacity,” says the Brazilian Journal of Sports Medicine in an October 2005 report in a study between the sexes in a sporting context.
So when you take a ‘traditional’ male domain like football and have women play it with the same rules and conditions, the question is whether injury and injury maintenance could be the key that makes or breaks the concept.
The formation of the AFL’s eight-team national women’s competition and subsequent televised matches and drafts has created some hype into what is expected to be a ‘game changer’ of sorts for women’s sport in this country.
The Women’s AFL competition will get underway in 2017. Its fixtures and finals structure are yet to be released.
Women have always had an interest in the ‘crash and bash’ football codes – Australian football, rugby league, rugby union, American football and Gaelic football (I’m excluding soccer as it falls out of the parameters of what is widely considered as true body-contact football in comparison to the others).
Without exception, each of those sports has a sizable percentage of female fans and the respective leagues and their clubs work hard to be an inclusive environment for women to belong.
At community level, women are an accepted part of the football landscape – from taking their sons to games, paying their registration fees, buying equipment, to playing key roles in club administration and the selfless support of their partners as coaches, players and volunteers.
Women playing football is not even a new thing. Records show that in the Northern Territory, there were female Australian football exhibition matches 40-50 years ago. It’s only been the past 15 years that female football competition started to gain traction into the mainstream.
In 2002, for example, the national women’s football championships came to Darwin for the first time. The Northern Territory fielded a team for the first time and despite being soundly beaten in all their games, it was from there that the women’s competition sprung. It’s gone from strength to strength ever since, with growth in player numbers and teams across the grades from seniors to juniors all over the NT.
The recent AFL Women’s draft for the national competition shows just how far female football has come, from a curiosity to almost full professionalism and mainstream acceptance.
However, there are two lines of thought as to whether it is a good thing or not.
A long-time club medical officer (who shall remain anonymous) has served in the NTFL for several years, and she is not a fan. Her reasoning is that, with the same rules in place, women footballers are subject to the same high-intensity body collisions as the men, but that they are more susceptible to longer term and recurring injury. Why? “Because generally women are physically not capable to withstand such sustained physical clashes.”
The counter-argument to this is if there exists similar standards of training and conditioning across a competition, then there won’t be this problem.
Paddy Stephenson, strength and conditioning coach at the AFLNT Academy, champions this cause.
“A lot of injury prevention and maintenance is dependent upon training preparation and conditioning; it’s about the investment into women’s strength and conditioning work. Basically, we need to train women as hard as we train the men. At a local level, the investment is usually not there in equal measure,” he says.
“There is too much emphasis on skills and while that’s important, if you don’t have that core strength you can’t manoeuvre as much, or stand up to the bumps. If their core (strength) fails, so does their fitness and endurance and then they’re unable to brace themselves properly for impact. You learn how to brace, to make yourself ‘hard’ at the point of contact.”
Stephenson is happy with what he sees at national level, with an across-the-board professionalism across the eight teams but it’s at a local (State/Territory) level where disparity exists.
And so for most of us, our experience with women’s football will be at a local level. Here we often see disparity in resources, in training practices, in fitness levels, and on game day ‘cricket scores’ and injuries that some will find hard to recover from.
Let them play, I say. Just don’t expect like for like. Appreciate the spectacle for what it is, just don’t expect what you expect from men’s football.