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HomeAustraliaThe AFL needs real cultural change. Can the new chief deliver it?

The AFL needs real cultural change. Can the new chief deliver it?


A long, competitive recruitment process to appoint a new Australian Football League CEO has been completed with the appointment of an AFL insider.

In its own words, the AFL has chosen a pair of safe hands in Andrew Dillon. Richard Goyder, chairman of the AFL committee, described him as “an exceptional football man who had been involved in virtually every major decision in the AFL for many years”. More precisely, Dillon has been in the AFL for 23 years

Since 1897, 13 men have served as CEOs of the AFL or its predecessor, the Victorian Football League. They have all been whitewith an average age of 49 years at the start of their tenure.

Sure, Dillon is hugely qualified, but has the AFL missed an opportunity to transform Australia’s national sport with a historic appointment?

The bold choice: a woman in the role

The AFL had a chance to nominate a woman for the role, with a prime candidate in Kylie Watson-Wheeler. She was nominated unanimously president of the Western Bulldogs in 2020 and is also senior vice president and managing director of the Walt Disney Company Australia & New Zealand.

The AFL continues to see double-digit growth in participation in women’s football, in addition to significant commercial profits and future opportunities arising from the AFL Women’s League.

Kylie Watson-Wheeler was in the running for the top job in the AFL.
Brendan Esposito/AAP

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 appointment in 2005 as the league’s first female commissioner was one transformative momentbut she faced resistance and criticism on the job – emphasizing the game complex cultural problems.

The AFL’s Gender Equality Action Plan for 2022-2024 lofty ambitions for gender representation in the codes. But research shows the number of female hires often obscures the gendered work cultures and informal practices that can prevent women from progressing in careers as sports managers.

Read more: ‘Jobs for the boys’: women are not given a fair chance in sports administration

Dillon has refuted suggestions that his appointment is a result of the “AFL boys club”. Reflecting the diversity and inclusion strategy embraced by the AFL, he soon turned the spotlight on “its talented, diverse workforce”.

Diversity is essential to the development of the AFL, but the league must first and foremost consider the structural and cultural barriers to attracting this diverse talent.

Dillon will also have to be sensitive to true equality and inclusion – an ongoing issue for the AFL.

It’s promising to see that Laura Kane will be the acting executive general manager of football, and she is expected to be one of the candidates to fill the role on a permanent basis. 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, exposed numerous blatant claims about the treatment of female drivers.

As is often the case in male-dominated organizations, female voices have been silenced in the AFL through the use of payouts and non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) when they have made complaints of sexual harassment or bullying.

There are also dangers for women on the field. A 2022 report commissioned by the AFL (but not publicly released) reported that female and non-binary umpires at all levels of the game were exposed to sexual abuse, assault and racial slurs. The AFL offered one formal apology to the referees.

Read more: It’s not just about gender or ethnicity: A blind spot in diversity programs is holding back equality

These allegations came after the review of the 2017 AFL’s Policy for Handling Complaints and Incidents, which sought to address the poor and inconsistent way women’s complaints had been handled. The revised policy provides clear support processes for those making complaints, along with formal and transparent complaints management procedures.

The number of complaints is now higher than under the 2005 policythe AFL said.

In another positive step, a recent wage agreement nearly doubled AFLW players’ salaries (albeit under a one-year collective bargaining agreement). The AFLW minimum wage rose from $20,239 to $39,184, though this is still well below other women’s professional sports leagues.

AFLW players also remain on precarious six-month contracts and most still rely on revenue from outside sources. While a step forward, the AFL’s commitment to ensuring that AFLW players are the highest paid female athletes in Australia by 2030 will require much more attention.

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Top level AFLW players are now paid $71,935 – far less than the men’s league average salary of $372,224.
Jason O’Brien/AAP

Racism and homophobia must also be tackled

In his first comments since being named in the role, Dillon said he had no intention of trying to speed up or disrupt the investigation into allegations of historical racism at Hawthorn.

While he talked about getting “the right result at the right time,” his statement lacked any mention of the deep personal cost and ongoing trauma for those involved. This is a deeply concerning omission in response to an issue that has continued to cast a dark shadow over the league since the allegations were made public last September.

And last month, in a time frame of less than 24 hourswas racial and homophobic abuse directed at four separate AFL players.

As the outgoing AFL chief executive, Gillon McLachlan, made calls to stop this kind of abuse, it is clear that the sport needs a large-scale cultural change.

Is Dillon the man for the job? Will his leadership be brave enough and his team diverse enough to put real action behind the promises? We are hopeful that it is.

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