Opinion: The AFL needs real cultural change. Can the new chief deliver it?
The following opinion piece co-authored by Dr Michelle O'Shea from the School of Business was first published with full links on The Conversation (opens in a new window).
A long, competitive recruitment process to name a new Australian Football League chief executive has concluded with the appointment of an AFL insider.
By its own admission, the AFL has chosen a safe pair of hands in Andrew Dillon. AFL Commission Chair Richard Goyder described him as “an exceptional football person who had been involved in virtually every major decision across the AFL for many years”. To be exact, Dillon has been in the AFL for 23 years
Since 1897, 13 men have served as CEO of the AFL or its precursor, the Victorian Football League. All have been white, with an average age of 49 at the start of their tenure.
To be sure, Dillon is immensely qualified, but did the AFL miss an opportunity to transform Australia’s national sport with a history-making hire?
The bold pick: a woman in the role
The AFL had a chance to name a woman to the role, with an excellent candidate in Kylie Watson-Wheeler. She was unanimously appointed president of the Western Bulldogs in 2020 and also serves as senior vice president and managing director of the Walt Disney Company Australia & New Zealand.
The AFL continues to see double-digit growth in women’s grassroots football participation, in addition to sizeable commercial gains and future possibilities emanating from the AFL Women’s League.
Of the eight current serving AFL commissioners, two are also women (Helen Milroy and Gabrielle Trainor). And they are not the first to sit at the decision-making table. Sam Mostyn’s 2005 appointment as the league’s first female commissioner was a transformational moment, but she faced resistance and criticism in the job – highlighting the game’s complex cultural problems.
The AFL’s 2022-24 gender equity action plan set lofty aspirations for gender representation across the codes. But research shows the numbers of female hires often conceal the gendered workplace cultures and informal practices that can prevent women from progressing in sport management careers.
Dillon has refuted suggestions that his appointment is the result of the “AFL boys club”. Reflecting the AFL’s espoused diversity and inclusion strategy, he quickly turned the spotlight to “his talented, diverse workforce”.
Diversity is vital for developing the AFL, but the league needs to consider the structural and cultural barriers to attracting this diverse talent in the first place.
Dillon will also need to be sensitive to genuine equity and inclusion - an enduring problem for the AFL.
It is promising to see that Laura Kane will be the acting executive general manager of football, and she is expected to be among the candidates to fill the role permanently. But only time will tell if we will see real change in the codes’ hiring decisions.
Sexual harassment on and off the field
Historically, AFL House has not been a safe haven for women. Sports journalist Michael Warner’s 2021 book, The Boys Club: Power, Politics and the AFL, unearthed numerous egregious claims about the game’s treatment of female administrators.
As is often the case in male-dominated organisations, women’s voices have been quieted in the AFL through the use of payouts and nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) when they’ve made complaints of sexual harassment or bullying.
There are dangers for women on the field, as well. A 2022 report commissioned by the AFL (but not publicly released) reported that female and non-binary umpires were subjected to sexual abuse, assault and racial slurs at all levels of the game. The AFL offered a formal apology to the umpires.
These allegations came after the 2017 revision of the AFL’s policy for managing complaints and incidents, which sought to address the poor and inconsistent manner in which complaints levelled by women had been managed. The revised policy provides clear supportive processes for those making complaints, together with formal and transparent procedures for complaint management.
The number of complaints is higher now than under the 2005 policy, according to the AFL.
In another positive step, a recent pay deal almost doubled the salaries of AFLW players (albeit under a one-year collective bargaining agreement). The minimum AFLW wage increased from $20,239 to $39,184, though this is still well below other women’s professional sporting leagues.
AFLW players also remain on precarious six-month contracts and most still rely on income from outside sources. While a step forward, the AFL’s commitment to ensuring AFLW players are the best paid female athletes in Australia by 2030 will require much more attention.
Racism and homophobia need to be dealt with, too
In his first comments since being named to the role, Dillon said he had no intention of trying to fast-track or interfere with the inquiry into allegations of historic racism at Hawthorn.
Although he mentioned getting “the right outcome at the right time”, his statement lacked any mention of the deep personal costs and ongoing trauma for the people involved. This is a deeply concerning omission in response to an issue that continues to cast a dark shadow over the league since the allegations were made public last September.
And last month, in a span of less than 24 hours, racial and homophobic abuse was directed at four separate AFL players.
While the outgoing AFL chief executive, Gillon McLachlan, made calls to stop this sort of abuse from happening, it’s clear the sport needs wholesale cultural change.
Is Dillon the man for the job? Will his leadership be bold enough and his team diverse enough to put real action behind the promises? We are hopeful it is.
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