Breaking through the AFL media’s glass ceiling

In 2015, Jessica Mendoza became the first female to appear as an analyst on ESPN’s coverage of Major League Baseball culminating in her being added as a full member of its broadcasting team for its marquee Sunday night coverage at the end of 2016.

This move was viewed as groundbreaking and courageous, given she was a female in what had historically been an ‘all boys club’, however her credentials as a silver and gold winner in softball at the highest level meant Mendoza had the profound sporting knowledge to vindicate this decision.

Her addition revived the coverage which had been lacking since the beloved duo of Jon Miller and Joe Morgan departed the broadcasting team in 2010 after 21 years. Her well timed insights and the instant chemistry she forged with fellow broadcasters Dan Shulman and, in particular fellow newcomer, Aaron Boone made it, once more, must-watch viewing.

It made me think of the AFL and wonder whether a female would ever become a full time part of its coverage. Kelli Underwood made a brief foray into the commentary box during Channel Ten’s coverage of the games during 2009/10 but sadly the reception was more about her gender, rather than her merits and insights. The same misogynistic vein ran true when she appeared briefly alongside Rex Hunt in a 3AW call years earlier with it universally scoffed as a ‘publicity stunt’

There seems to be a cultural impasse in the AFL media with women viewed as the ultimate outsiders. A pimply 20 year old male who can barely string a sentence together will garner greater respect on his media debut than a woman, despite her sporting credentials, because “she has never played the game, so what would she know?” Women have a place and voice in AFL media coverage, but it is conditional. They are given access to a certain point but never into the inner sanctum and if they ever dare to smash through into it, or are granted access by a liberal minded person, they are unfairly ridiculed or ruthlessly undermined and cut down.

The aforementioned Underwood highlights this, but think of a real trailblazer in this male oriented domain, Caroline Wilson. She is one of the most astute and thought provoking people covering the game however is granted scant respect and often draws outrageous abuse towards her. These “Caro-crusaders” justify their hysterical vitriol on the basis that Wilson often rattles the establishment and on account of her ‘plain Jane’ looks.

The overwhelming success of the inaugural women’s competition, the AFLW, brought the place of women in the game into focus, particularly from a TV commentary sense. The result was plenty of lip service being paid, underpinned by more female faces appearing on coverages and shows. Such inclusion, however was always on the periphery – as they were seen essentially as ‘barrel girls’, which highlights the conditional nature of their role. A woman working in such a role must always ensure she adapts to being ‘one of the boys’, whilst still adopting a gentle and ladylike manner. She must never correct any male colleagues, offer an original thought that she doesn’t credit a male for and under no circumstances must she ever appear in public in any state less than Brownlow-carpet-ready.

One of the main homes of AFL television coverage, Channel 7 has remained defiant to the inclusion of women, exemplified by their choice of Brian Taylor as the replacement for long time icon Dennis Cometti. Their Friday night coverage, which features the likes of Wayne Carey has the air of a real ‘boys club’. In choosing Taylor, the state of play was perfectly laid bare. Taylor is an incendiary figure with an almost offensive egotistical demeanour, renowned for often providing ill advised views. Despite this and him being older, fatter and uglier, he is male and has played the game, so he is deemed the perfect choice for the most prominent calling position in the game.

In short, the ‘neanderthals’ need culling before the path can be paved well, and while the likes of Taylor, Carey, Sam Newman and Dermott Brereton remain the stalwarts of AFL representation, there will be no room for female commentary that will be greeted with any respect.

Does the 2017 flag rest in Max Gawn’s hands?

In the traditions of Aussie Rules football there is an almost mythical air attached to ruckmen. The biggest kids in the yard, their imposing natures define them as game changers.

It has always left me in stunned awe how lumbering giants could hover several feet off the ground whilst under considerable physical duress from another giant, or several, but still manage to remain in perfect sync with a team mate and flick the football backwards into their lap, all whilst running at full pace. Such is the sublime artistry of their craft, not only do they use their sheer mass to hold sway in contested marking but they can use their right or left hand to tap the ball in a 360 degree gamut, evoking a fear of the unknown with each and every tap.

The role of ruckmen has been redefined in the modern age. There is still a heavy emphasis on the contested elements of play, but the dexterity in taps has become more and more an afterthought. The main focus now is on breaking even in the taps, with ruckmen cast in more of a ruck roving role as they represent a crucial link in transitional play.

Dean Cox, who played as ruckman for the West Coast Eagles in the early to mid 2000’s became a prototype, lauded for his reputation as ‘the fifth mid’ in that strong team. He changed the way ruckmen play the modern game by marrying his intimidating stature with his athleticism, racking up the kilometres as a quasi midfielder.

A more recent example of this hybrid kind of player, is Melbourne’s ruckman Max Gawn. With the unprecedented evenness of the 2017 premiership competition, Gawn, the All-Australian ruckman from 2016 looms large, particularly considering his Demons are sitting just outside the top four despite being without their centre pin for most of 2017.

His return game against the Eagles in Perth showed glimpses of his brilliance and this prowess was again on display in their match against Port Adelaide where he outshone his opponent, Patrick Ryder. In doing this, Gawn addressed one of the main doubts about the Demons being genuine flag contenders. The calibre of their mids is often questioned when matched up against other top teams. Jack Viney aside, they lack the star power of their rivals, but this problem is more then compensated for by Gawn, who gives them an arm chair ride with his majestic tap work.

With the example of Ryder being laid waste, it raises the question of who can limit, let alone match Gawn in finals time. Only Collingwood’s Brodie Grundy, also a talented tap technician with similar athletic abilities, can be mentioned in the same stratosphere as Gawn, but barring a Lazarus-like miracle, the Pies will not come up against the Demons in the finals. The likes of Sam Jacobs from the Crows or Shane Mumford from the Giants can impact physically on Gawn, but they cannot match his rucking abilities.

The recent change in the ruck rules, outlawing third men up, left all wide-eyed and further facilitated Gawn’s dominance; a dominance he is yet to fully exploit due to injury. In response to this rule change, many teams have opted to forego two experienced rucks in preference to playing undersized players who can better exert their presence when the ball hits the ground. One can see Gawn taking full advantage of this on a bright Spring day in finals when he is pitted against undersized and ill-equipped opponents and the effect this will have on clearances.

On returning from injury, Gawn used this racing analogy;

“I like to see it [myself] as a good old staying horse, that needs maybe four or five to get up and going.”

In keeping with the racing theme, at season’s end, I think we might be viewing him and the effect he had on his Demons as being similar to Kiwi from the 1983 Melbourne Cup.