White men, AFLW and survival of those best able to adapt

“Sport has the power to change the world”
-Nelson Mandela, 2000.

 

“I’d be a fearless leader
I’d be an alpha type
When everyone believes ya
What’s that like?”
-Taylor Swift “The Man” (2019)

 

Hi. I am a white male born into a patriarchal society, itself built upon colonial ideas of white supremacy. For me and my fellow white-skinned, testicle-swinging comrades, the world runs pretty well. And that’s just how it is.

 

Almost every option is open to us.
We are well paid.
People-like-us sit in most powerful places, ruling us. Ruling you.
We are expected to rise to the top.
We have the luxury of dismissing challenging opinions.

 

And yes, many of us get violent; often at home.
And yes, we may say it was all a joke.
And yes, women die at our hands.
And yes, we may tell people we have mistreated to “get over it.”
And yes, we may cast judgement on others; particularly women.
But even so, we white men rule the place.
Our power remains pretty much undimmed.

 

It is a patriarchal colonial world. I get that.

 

Power structures on Earth are challenged all the time. Those without power often seek it. Those with power often seek to maintain it.

 

When an existing power structure is challenged, two things can happen.

 

First, the incumbent and the challenger fight for it. Here we can think of two male saltwater crocodiles. Without much cognitive capacity, these reptiles act on instinct. When an established male is challenged for his patch of river by a usurper, the challenge is resolved by a fight. Such examples from nature are often seen as representing Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” idea. (My understanding is that in Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859), he proposed the idea of natural selection, which has been unfortunately and inaccurately shortened to four words: “survival of the fittest.” Much of the nuance in the idea has been lost. A more subtle, more correct, but still very short summary would be: “survival of those best able to adapt.”)

 

Second, we can think of a scenario in which power is voluntarily handed by an established party to a new party in the interests of justice; or in the interests of the Greater Good. Examples here come less readily to mind.

 

White men have occupied a position of power for a very long time. But things change.

 

Change brings pain to some. Because when change takes place, some win, some lose.

 

In 1965, Martin Luthur King Junior said that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  (Our God is Marching On (How Long, Not Long) – 1965, via Speakola).

 

Change doesn’t just happen. Justice does not happen all the time. History is littered with examples of tyranny, corruption and abuse. Slavery was still a going concern until recently. Gains for justice involve consistent hard work by many.

 

In the footy world, these past few years have seen the Australian Football League introduce a competition for women that they decided to call “AFLW.” It would be very easy to be cynical about the Australian Football League’s motives for starting AFLW. Footy for women already existed at the highest level. That’s the thing about competition – there is always a highest level. What the Australian Football League did was to bring players from various state leagues into one competition. As such, the AFLW is now the highest level of women’s footy in the country. And a significant language and labeling issue has emerged around the acronyms AFL, AFLM and AFLW.  In that debate it is important to remember that the Australian Football League is not a sport – AFL is simply the name of just one league (Nobody ever “played AFL”).

 

This week Kate O’Halloran had a piece at ABC online called “Should AFL be rebranded AFLM to reflect equal status with AFLW?” To me, it is a straightforward question to which a logical argument can be made. Still, for many this issue is about power. Emotion comes with a challenge of that power.

 

Also this week Kasey Symons had a piece in the Guardian called “AFLW is a ‘political’ competition but that is not something to be afraid of.” That headline troubled me a bit. It troubled me because I like to think of the AFLW as a footy competition. For Round 1 I wrote a story about the Collingwood v West Coast game as a footy and life experience. I could have written about how wonderful it was to see women playing. How great it was to see young girls in club colours. But I chose not to. Why? Because I have the feeling that politicising the game is driving a wedge between supporters, rather than bringing them together.

 

To appreciate the perspective of women, I understand that we white men need to listen to women. We can try to empathise. Indeed, I like to think that I listen well with an open mind. But at the same time, I am aware that my upbringing has cloaked me in layers of unconscious bias. Every experience of mine is from the perspective of a white man in a white man’s world. So can I ever truly understand a woman’s perspective? The unconscious bias argument would say: no.

 

So I try to listen to and read and appreciate a wide, wide variety of female perspectives. It goes without saying that not all women would agree with Kasey Symons or with Kate O’Halloran. Just as not all men would agree with me. Yet I appreciate that for moral justice to occur, the power dynamic will have to change. We are all going to have to adapt.

 

The power of white men will be challenged in all aspects of life as the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. However, it would be great if the power shift does not follow the saltwater crocodile method. Rather than fighting a winner-takes-all battle for power, it would be great if powerful white men recognised that justice is served when women are in positions of equal power; and adapted accordingly. Thereby, both men and women would not only survive, but thrive. We would all exhibit “survival of those best able to adapt.”

 

Sport has an important role to play. Footy has an important role to play. Agitators, thinkers, men and women – all have roles to play in shaping the curvature of the arc of the moral universe.

 

Nelson Mandela recognised that sport could change the world. In light of gender issues, it is worth reading his comment from Laureus Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech (2000) (via Speakola) and replacing reference to racism with reference to gender inequality.

 

Sport has the power to change the world,” Nelson Mandela said. “It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.

 

Change is here. Change is always here. May we all proceed with care and respect.

 

 

 

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About David Wilson

Living is easy with eyes closed. Noodling away at The Footy Almanac since 2013. Twitter: @e_regnans

Comments

  1. John Butler says

    Adaption. That would seem a very well chosen concept here.

    Thoughtful as always, ER.

  2. Yvette Wroby says

    Great work David. Adaption coming from a level of thoughtfulness and your pieces are always that. And the Almanac and it’s writers have always struck me as a place to observe and comment and add to change. Thanks JTH.

  3. Really deep stuff here ER! I agree whole heartedly with these words:
    “…it would be great if powerful white men recognised that justice is served when women are in positions of equal power; and adapted accordingly. Thereby, both men and women would not only survive, but thrive.”

    But this throws up huge questions. What does equal power mean? Sameness? Or equality in difference? Women and men are different. But equal. At least that’s my view of the world. It seems to be that the push is to make men and women the same. I really struggle with that. I should mention that I have had this debate with my own daughter!!

    And the question of power is huge. If we change the world by simply replacing one flawed power base with another then we have failed.

    I am currently struggling with women’s footy. Not the game but the narrative. Sadly Kasey is right; its political and it shouldn’t be. It’s just a game. If gender isn’t important why do we keep talking about it? Why do we highlight it? I disagree completely with the AFL putting a “W” at the end of the women’s game and I would be pretty dirty if blokes footy all of a sudden had an “M ” inserted . Its not women’s footy or men’s footy, its simply footy. The “W” is the wedge. Us and them. Its absurd. Footy is footy. And probably damaging.

    I’m going to read this piece again. These are my preliminary thoughts. Thanks for opening the discussion.

    PS – Taylor Swift and Nelson Mandela sharing the same platform! Interesting!!

  4. G’day & thanks J Butler.

    Y Wroby – I agree – I feel lucky that we have The Footy Almanac to air these ideas.

    Dips – Yes. Many questions. Change is always here.
    I share your concern in that footy is footy. And I am also aware of a wedge element..
    But also, the whole unconscious bias minefield is significant.
    (e.g. Why are you able to say “it’s just a game”? What position and life experience allow you to form that opinion? And so on…)

    I’m feeling my way through the unconscious bias labyrinth.
    Until recently I was unaware of its existence. (Of course I was).

    Happy to bring T Swift and N Mandela together as natural allies.

  5. ER – we all worship. For me footy is just a game (probably a bit more!) and for others it is everything. But I’m not a fan of the idea that footy is a platform for anyone or anything.

  6. Frank Taylor says

    Once again Tall man you have nailed it.
    I fully agree with all of your observations, cultural conditioning and conclusions.
    Yes, (as Mandala noted) sport has has a massive impact on society. It has here – the AFL has engineered REAL social change in the past. The initial one that stands out for me is the Monkhurst/Winmar incident at Vic Park in the ’90’s and how that was a force for change that the AFL embraced (rightly) at the very highest level, and, flowed right through Australian society.
    Recently, the Adam Goodes Affair, club and association revenue from the gambling (so called) “industry” and the establishment of a national Australian Rules competition for women are all current issues that must be dealt with intelligence, consideration, logic, transparency and forcefulness.
    My personal view is that the current leadership of the AFL is not up to the {cultural} challenges of the present.
    I hope that I am wrong and the AFL lifts it’s game, because, as Mandala noted, sport can (and does) change society.
    Cheers
    Frank
    PS Dips, sorry, I beg to differ. Footy reflects society and, by inference, as a platform for change it is pretty powerful.
    Mandala again.

  7. Thanks, ER. I love the phrase “unconscious bias labyrinth”. There’s a bloody fascinating memoir to be written about your exploration of it. Unless it’s a PhD instead?

    You probably won’t be surprised to know that I’m interested in the role we white males with our straight flush of privilege have as parents in relation to all of this. How do we want the bias labyrinth of our children – particularly our boys – to look by the time they are adults raising children of their own?

    As you point out, sport plays a magnificent role in this too, of course. And however we feel as adults, watching kids react to modern women’s sport gives me hope. My 8 year-old has only known a world in which he can watch women play his favourite sports of footy and cricket on tv. He has only known a world in which half of the players in every pack of cricket cards are female. He has only known a world in which Roger, Rafa and Novak are magnificent, but Serena has won more than all of them. All a bit different from when we were kids, huh?

  8. Hi Dips – Yes, we all worship in a style (maybe we worship appearance, intellect, money, stability… whatever). And I recognise a desire for footy to be game. Fair enough.
    But yes, footy does play a wider role. It is a platform for many things.

    F Taylor – thank you. Eyes open.

    EPO – thank you. The labyrinth is a real conundrum. Is it a known unknown? I’m not sure.
    I , too, am happy to see times change, and for our children to be exposed to a “new normal.”
    New normals don’t just happen.
    So well played to everyone for making it so.
    Still so much work to do.

    I do worry a little about the idea that a man cannot appreciate a woman’s view.
    The logical extension is that NO ONE can ever appreciate the views of another.
    That would make us together, alone.
    As Crowded House named their album of 1993.
    Though “Together Alone” does seem fitting for a place populated by individuals, shouting their opinions at one another.


    Addendum:
    Yesterday in a very public act of domestic violence, a man of public and sporting notoriety allegedly killed his wife and all of their children. In the introduction to this piece published yesterday, I wrote that women die at the hands of powerful white men. I am very sorry that yet another man committed an act of domestic violence against his family. I am sorry if the words I wrote there are troubling. Sadly and scandalously and criminally, acts of domestic violence occur every day in this country. I am sorry.

  9. Much I agree with here. I am a language pedant though, and I find the acronym alphabet soup dispiriting and debasing. “Accuracy” at the expense of “meaning”.
    For me “gay” is fine and broad. But the whole LGBTQI thing leaves me cold. Like a frill necked lizard display.
    It’s “footy” for me. Women’s footy is fine. Same as we have always had league footy; reserves footy; colts footy to differentiate levels and standards of competition. “Footy” means the Australian game and separates it from world football/soccer and the rugby codes.
    Australian Rules is ponderous. AFL is a corporate brand but as such has become the dominant language. I avoid it (and them) whenever possible.
    The “Footy” Almanac gets it right (as on so many things).
    Be inclusive by all means and aware of our position and biases. Change requires disasters. Trump and toxic masculinity are bending the moral universe – and not in the direction they preach. But MLK also said “long”.

  10. Thanks Peter_B.
    I like your eye for condensing things.
    The need to be “aware of our position and biases” nails it.
    These were highlighted to me by both documentaries concerning the treatment of Adam Goodes.
    And also pretty regularly highlighted to me by many women in my daily life.

    The name “footy” continues to work well.
    As do everyday language variations.
    “I’m going to the women’s footy on Saturday” works well.
    “I’m looking forward to the men’s footy starting” works well, too.
    Maybe that’s the best way to go.

  11. Enjoyable, thoughtful and interesting read, e.r.

  12. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Thoughtful and insightful stuff ER. Love your work.

    Change has been quite rapid this century…for some.
    For others, it can’t come quickly enough.
    It’s not like the ‘AFL’ has been around for 200 years and has a tradition to uphold.
    Language is so much about definitions.

    Definer vs Defined. Who are the definers and who are the defined ? History and traditional institutions like religion, politics and sport indicate that mostly white men have been doing the defining.

    Thankfully, that is changing thanks to the great work of writers like Yvette, Kate, Kasey and the commentators/fans on the Outer Sanctum Podcast.

    Adapt and prosper fellas !!

  13. I think we shouldn’t have gone with the name AFLW. The women’s league should have a unique name, which doesn’t specify its gender. Totally understandable that Kate O’Halloran et al take exception that it does and the mens league doesn’t.

  14. Good stuff DW. Plenty to chew on in this thought provoking piece.

    I thought Kasey’s essay was spot on. Sport and politics have always been entwined. Women’s footy coming on to the national stage has been besieged with political commentary. Books that have examined the history of women’s footy record that every attempt women have made to just play the game, let alone start and maintain competitions have been met with resistance. The history of women’s footy is political.

    As Kasey notes in her essay, “being political in sport is not something to be afraid of. The issues that arise out of sport should be talked about so solutions can be found and this perfect ideal of what sports should look like can be achieved.” I agree. And I think we can enjoy the game being played for what it is and be aware of the barriers we are part of breaking down.

    Working in disability employment, I know a bit about unconscious bias. There’s a lot of heated, evidence based discussion about breaking down stigma, unconscious bias and discrimination. If you support human rights as I would think readers of FA do you support breaking down these barriers.

    People with disability will say that that is just one factor. The bigger factor is accessibility. Inclusion means accessibility. The social model of disability says it is not a person’s disability that is holding them back, it is society (attitudes and man made structures). You can apply the social model for all groups who do not have access in the same way the majority (largely but not exclusively what you call white males) does. Indeed when Age Discrimination Commissioner, Susan Ryan launched the AHRC report into discrimination of older Australians and people with disability in employment (2015) she referenced the decades long struggle of women to achieve basic rights men had been granted all those decades before. That women had to fight for every step of the way.

    I apply this analogy because awareness is fine but action is what is required. And that starts with access. As many junior footy clubs are becoming aware, they don’t even have change rooms for girls at suburban footy grounds. It was never considered. Unconscious bias and lack of access.

    We saw the film Emma, (based on the Jane Austen’s novel) on the weekend. It is a ripper. As I watching it I was thinking of how when we praise Shakespeare or Hemingway, we talk about their insight into the human condition. When we discuss Austen or the Bronte’s we remark on their insight into females. Unconscious bias is the actual fabric of our attitudes, social constructions and behaviours. It is going to take all our willpower and political conviction to smash through that barrier to true equality. As they say at the start of a footy match, bring it on!

    Cheers

  15. Thanks Smokie, Phil, MJ & Rick.

    So much to consider.
    Rick – you remind me that I have lived with the idea of unconscious bias in relation to disability.
    This week I did not think to apply the unconscious bias idea to disability.
    But I should have. I have some life experience regarding acquired brain injury, assumptions and barriers – for another time and place, perhaps.
    There is much to learn.
    Starting with the view of MLK or Nelson Mandela or that of universal human rights seems like a reasonable thing.

    ==
    I saw “Emma” with Bud Oon (14y.o.) and we both loved it, too.
    That’s a telling observation you make about attitudes to writers.

    ==
    Thank you all for engaging with this and for adding your own insight and perspective. As is common, the comments under this piece add much to the original.

  16. Thought-provoking piece ER. Can women sometimes suffer from unconscious bias due to their history of experiencing a male-dominated world? For example, could the AFL have created, without any sexist sinister intent, the name AFLW merely to assist in differentiating the competitions for ease of promotion and for fans to select what they want to attend and/or watch on the AFL channel? In relation to promotion, the AFL Commission use branding (trademarks etc) to promote and protect commercial aspects of the league. For example, they enforce their trademarks to keep copy merchandise out of their market. No doubt they would have debated what ‘name’ to call the women’s competition while retaining “AFL” in the name. There is precedent in the WNBA (no MNBA), NWSL, NWHL, LPGA (no MPGA), WTA (no MTA) competitions overseas and internationally, and we know the AFL commission seems to have an eye on the USA for ideas. Rather than fight the naming, I’d like to see the AFLW name embraced as a differentiator and women to proudly forge a great competition that fans can easily identify as theirs. In terms of the AFLW, I’d be more upset with the season scheduling, the creation of an uneven draw with conferences and continual dilution of talent by expanding the teams so quickly. Yes, I am a white, middle aged man, I am not a fan of the commission, I accept women get a pretty crappy deal in society and this needs to change, but I also like to think not everything is a conspiracy and try to view both sides of issues.

  17. PB, the use of ‘gay’ to categorize all those who fall within the acronym LGBTQI, even if it is unwieldy, is not appropriate. I don’t think the bisexuals, transsexuals and intersex would appreciate being mislabeled as gay. It would be like calling you a lesbian. btw, I like frilled-neck lizards :)

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