Demons AFLW player Karen Paxman (third from left, back) with girls from South Metro Junior Football League, photo: Melbourne Football Club
When I was a kid, you couldn’t, technically, play Aussie rules until you were 15 or 16. You could do Auskick and play until you were 12, but then you’d have to stop because there was nowhere for you to play. You’d have to wait until you could join the Victorian Women’s Football League (VWFL).
I fell into footy more by chance than actively seeking it out. I played netball, and only ever had a kick in the schoolyard at lunchtime, mostly with the boys. I didn’t know there was a women’s league until my PE teacher joined in and said, ‘come down and play for my club’. I was 16.
I went down to Lalor Football Club and fell in love, not only with the game – the openness of the oval, the rules, the different positions – but also with the club community. There were people from all walks of life and the camaraderie was different from anything I’d experienced before. For me, the friendships are still just as important as playing the game.
There were people from all walks of life and the camaraderie was different from anything I’d experienced before.
In my first year – 2005 – my team won the grand final by only a couple of points. I’ve been lucky enough to be part of a few premiership wins, but that game is up there with my all-time favourites. I remember all the girls in that team.
Other memorable moments followed, including running out in my first official AFL jumper, which I did for Melbourne Football Club (the Demons) in 2017. Nothing compares to that. In the inaugural AFL Women’s (AFLW) season, our first round was against the Brisbane Lions. Representing an AFL club and playing in front of an enthusiastic crowd, after a tough pre-season and all the build-up, was pretty cool.
Don’t doubt yourself
I think about how powerful it would have been if AFLW had been around when I was a kid. I would have chosen Aussie rules a lot earlier. When you’re five or six years old, you have no inhibitions, you just get out and do it. But as you get older, you realise it’s a boys’ game and you’re the odd one out for kicking a footy.
Opportunity should never depend on gender, and AFLW is helping make this the norm.
It's great that girls can now get out there with confidence and play footy, from under-8s to adulthood. And this empowerment flows beyond sport. Girls see women kicking arse in a landscape previously dominated by males, and the message is: don’t doubt yourself, if it’s what you enjoy, do it. Opportunity should never depend on gender, and AFLW is helping make this the norm.
Focus on the fun
Another way in which AFL – and sport in general – has changed since I began my football journey at a suburban club, is in its relationship with gambling. And this is not a change for the better. New technologies mean gambling is available 24/7 and sports betting advertising has gone through the roof.
For kids growing up today, gambling is a very visible part of sport, and this is unfortunate, as it can affect the way they learn and experience the game. Sports betting emphasises things like statistics and winning teams and first goals, and this takes the focus away from what we want to instil in kids about sport, especially the value of simply enjoying yourself. We want them to just love the game and not worry or think about the messages sports betting can send.
The most important thing about playing sport – the number one thing – is to have fun!
Karen chats to players from the South Metro Junior Football League:
As a partner of the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation’s Love the Game program, Melbourne Football Club is committed to reducing the exposure of young people to sports betting promotion, and to creating a safe and healthy club environment. More than 400 local and elite sporting clubs – including all 10 Victorian AFL clubs – are partners in the program. Eight of the 10 Victorian AFL clubs have AFLW teams.