As excitement about the 2019 Australian rules season steadily built in recent days, three words dominated mainstream and social media: “Footy is back.”
For those of us, like me, who are passionate about sport, it’s an exciting time. But those three little words have also been hugely controversial. This is because although the men’s AFL season started this week, the women’s season (AFLW) has been underway since the start of February. In other words, elite-level Australian rules football isn’t just returning now; it’s been “back” for eight weeks.
Australian rules was dominated by another controversy of language last week, too.
Channel 7 and the AFL published a now-iconic photograph of Carlton star Tayla Harris. Michael Wilson’s photo captured Harris suspended in mid-air, in an athletic, super-high scissor kick. Posted on social media, the photograph was almost immediately inundated with sexualised and sexist comments, prompting Channel 7 to remove the image altogether. After the public complained, Channel 7 reposted the photo, accompanied by an apology, and a promise to moderate and remove disparaging comments in the future.
Harris made the point that the photo had been taken in her workplace and called for police intervention. Law firm Maurice Blackburn, which is one of the AFLW’s major partners, also raised concerns about Harris’ rights as a worker, noting that everyone has the right “to pursue their career in an environment free from sexism, harassment and discrimination”.
Homphobic, transphobic and racist abuse
Other athletes in the AFLW and VFLW have endured homophobic and transphobic online abuse, and the first round of the men’s season has already been marred by controversy, after racist comments were posted on social media. All of these incidents raise important legal questions about the obligations of clubs, employers and broadcasters to protect players from potentially harmful and sometimes threatening material.
More broadly, debates about the politics of language in sport aren’t new. In the US, there’s an ongoing discussion about whether team names that draw upon Native American stereotypes should be changed.
The most notable example is the Washington Redskins. Although the word’s origins are contested, many consider “redskin” to be a racial slur. In recent years, five Native Americans even launched a lawsuit challenging of the team’s trademarked name and logo on the grounds it was disparaging. That lawsuit was eventually abandoned, after the US Supreme Court unanimously decided in a separate case the trademarks could not be banned, even if they were disparaging, due to free speech protections in the US Constitution. But the debate hasn’t gone away.
These issues also have renewed significance, sadly, in the wake of the Christchurch massacre. New Zealand’s most successful Super Rugby team is situated just a few kilometres from one of the two mosques that were targeted. That team just happens to be called the Crusaders. The team name and logo conjure images of the Crusades, a series of religious and political wars between Muslims and Christians during the 11th-13th centuries.
Those wars are a potent symbol of incursion and violence. A debate has thus emerged about whether the Crusaders should change their name, as a gesture of goodwill and respect to Muslim communities. That debate is also ongoing.
Views on how much we should worry about language differ. Some people view calls for changes such as these as mere “political correctness” (itself a nebulous and ill-defined idea), while others see it as an important means of fostering respect, inclusion and equality.
The connection of language
There’s evidence that language matters. The organisation Our Watch identifies several key drivers of violence against women. They and others argue that there’s a strong connection between disrespectful and stereotypical language about and towards women, and violence against women.
Language creates an enabling environment for violence. Thus, so the logic goes, small shifts in language can help to reduce violence. They’re not enough, on their own, but they’re not meaningless, either.
Another way language shapes culture is through repositioning the male as the default or “norm”, and women as the “Other”. Such conventions of language can be found in virtually all corners of society, and in many institutions. In our tendency to draw distinctions between “politicians” and “female politicians”, or “sport” and “women’s sport”, we habitually default to men as the norm, or standard, against which women are situated.
The institution of law has historically been at fault, too. When we think of formal discrimination, we tend to think of the ways in which laws discriminated against women. But these practices were also embedded in legal language. Australian laws traditionally used terms such as “he” and “men” when conferring rights and responsibilities on people. Parliaments have since acknowledged the importance of such linguistic practices and moved to correct biases, making it clear that any reference to gender in law is to be read inclusively – as meaning both men and women – even if those who drafted the laws had not meant to include women, or confer rights on them, in the first place.
Nevertheless, many old laws retain gendered language, and serve as a constant reminder of the pervasive and widespread nature of institutional sexism.
The AFL and its media partners need to consider its obligations when publishing material that attracts social media abuse.
All of this brings to mind the classic observation by feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir, who said that:
“In actuality the relation of the two sexes is not quite like that of two electrical poles, for man represents both the positive and the neutral, as is indicated by the common use of man to designate human beings in general; whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity.”
And so it’s within this context that other influential institutions, including sporting organisations, can and should reconsider their use of gendered language. This is an especially important step where that language positions men as the positive, neutral or default, as de Beauvoir would say, and women as the negative, or Other, a symbolic less-than-full citizen. Such practices may not be unlawful, but they can help foster prejudice.
It’s been done before. In 2017, Cricket Australia announced a small but important shift in language, noting that the national cricket teams would be officially known as the Australian men’s and Australian women’s cricket teams, respectively. Cricket Australia chair David Peever explained that “this move may appear symbolic, but it does carry considerable weight”. He went on to say: "Cricket cannot hope to be a sport for all Australians if it does not recognise the power of words, and the respect for women that sits behind such decisions.”
The AFL hasn’t shown any indication it’ll follow suit. But pressure surely must be mounting, especially after last week’s events and the growing call for football to be a safe, non-discriminatory space (and workplace) for women.
The AFL and its media partners need to consider its obligations when publishing material that attracts social media abuse. That’s a complex challenge in a dynamic, fast-moving social media landscape. But there’s also one clear and tangible move that the AFL can make in the meantime.
For some years now, colleagues and I have discussed Australian rules through our weekly Outer Sanctum podcast. We argue that if the AFL women’s league is to be known as AFLW, the men’s league should be recast as AFLM. Until it does so, the AFL is positioning the men’s competition as “the default” or norm, and the women’s as the negative. Even if unintentional, this devalues the women’s game, and women.
We know that the men’s competition has been around for much longer than the women’s, and that it generates more revenue and bigger crowds, but that, too, is an artefact of historic discrimination and prejudice. There’s also precedent for a name change (the AFL was known as the VFL until 1990).
Such a move would also complement the AFL’s historic first gender action plan, details of which were made public last week.
The AFL has nothing to lose and everything to gain by doing so. It would be a bold step forward, but one that acknowledges the transformative power of language. And it would be a reminder that just as discrimination and prejudice manifest in numerous ways, organisations have the power – through simple, meaningful steps – to help address it.