As GWS Giants skipper, Amanda Farrugia (L) was fiercely committed to her team — but she stunned the competition by retiring prior to the 2020 AFLW pre-season. (AAP: Dan Himbrechts, file photo )
It was the bombshell decision that rocked the AFLW competition just a day out from the 2020 pre-season.
Much-loved Greater Western Sydney Giants captain Amanda “Fridge” Farrugia held back tears as she told her teammates that she could no longer commit to the tenuous balance between her professional life and semi-professional career in AFLW, and that she would retire effective immediately.
“I put everything I had physically and emotionally into my elite football career … [but] this isn’t a competition you can do half-hearted,” she said at the time.
Balancing working for an income with the demands of an AFLW career is difficult for many players.
(AAP: David Mariuz)
If the 2020 AFLW off-season was dominated by talk of difficult collective bargaining agreement negotiations in which a significant minority of the players had pushed for a vision for how soon the competition could be professionalised, this felt like the culmination of a crisis.
Subsequent media coverage suggested that a solution could be on its way in the form of a joint collective bargaining agreement between the men’s and women’s competitions — with the AFLPA reportedly canvassing the idea to clubs.
Just this week that conversation reared its head again, this time in the form of 332-game AFL player Leigh Matthews, who told 3AW he would be “livid” if AFL (men’s) players were in the future asked to take a pay cut to help fund the path to professionalisation for AFLW players.
But while the thought of revenue sharing between men and women might be abhorrent to Matthews, it’s common practice in other sports in Australia, with such deals in both cricket and soccer resulting in significant pay rises for the respective national women’s teams, and, critically, providing names like Ellyse Perry and Sam Kerr with the opportunity to pursue their craft full-time.
And, contrary to Matthews’ presumption, such moves have been vocally supported by the men playing those sports — such as Socceroos captain Mark Milligan.
The question inevitably follows: just how soon will AFLW players enjoy the same support, and how many Amanda Farrugias will we have to lose along the way?
‘The women are balancing so much, it’s crazy’
Long-time women’s football pioneer Susan Alberti says comments like Matthews’ are “absolutely unnecessary”, and fast-tracking the AFLW’s professionalisation is a necessary step to fairness and equality.
“The escalation of interest and participation [of girls and women in football] is unbelievable,” she said.
“[But] the women are balancing so much it’s crazy. This can’t keep going the way it’s going.”
Alberti cites Collingwood captain Steph Chiocci’s decision to take a term off unpaid from her job as a school teacher, and says the situation “worries her terribly”.
Collingwood’s Stephanie Chiocci has sacrificed her income from a teaching career for her semi-professional AFLW career. (AAP: Joe Castro)
“Look at Steph — she’s full-time with football now … and she’s by far better [skilled] than she’s ever been. But that’s [because of] a sacrifice she’s made in her professional life. That’s not fair, that’s wrong.
“We’re in a position with AFLW where we have to get it right. It’s early days and we need to get all of it in order.”
Players balancing minimum 40-hour work weeks, night shifts
Like Chiocci, Tiarna Ernst has been down the path of taking leave from work to advance her career in AFLW.
An obstetrician by trade, Ernst — who is also a premiership player with the Western Bulldogs — said she had previously taken annual leave during the season, but after four years in the competition, realised this was not sustainable.
Tiarna Ernst (L) took annual leave from work in order to compete in AFLW but it’s no longer sustainable. (Supplied: AFL Media.)
“I took all my annual leave during the 2019 season … but that meant for the rest of the year I had no holidays or time for a bit of a break, so that definitely took its toll on me.”
Over the off-season, Ernst moved to the Gold Coast in part to advance her professional career. And, since starting her pre-season at the Suns, she has balanced a minimum 40-hour work week (rising to a 45 to 50 hour work week over the Christmas period) with her dedication to football.
“I had night shifts over the January and Christmas period, so often I would leave training and go straight to a night shift, then sleep during the day, get up again and go to night shift again or go back to training.”
Ernst explained that her situation was certainly not unusual, and many women in AFLW maintained such tough schedules because of the expectation that they — despite being semi-professional — should be performing at an ‘elite’ level.
“There’s so much pressure on us to be elite athletes, but we don’t have the resources or the remuneration to be able to give us as much time as we need to do that, so we sort of end up stretching ourselves very thin.
“Over the next 12 to 24 months I think there’s going to be a lot more girls that are stepping away from the game because it’s unfortunately at that level where it becomes too hard to continue that balance with the current setup.
“I’d like to see the competition [professionalised] as soon as possible … [because] every year it’s getting harder. The more awareness people have about what the girls are doing, the better.”
Kate O’Halloran is a sportswriter and former Victorian cricketer. She hosts AFLW radio show Kick Like a Girl 12-1pm Mondays on RRR.