The body can take a while to adjust to bitter cold.
By about six-thirty on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, half an hour into football training in the coldest of winter’s months, jumpers are gradually discarded as the warm-up starts to take effect.
Also discarded is the talk of weekend conquests, alcohol-enforced recoveries and game-day heroics as the main session begins.
An hour and a half later, it’s time for stretch-down and showers, and for the talk to resume.
A football club is, in so many ways, a microcosm of a community. It’s a place where family bloodlines can be traced and offers a ‘tribe’ to belong to, founded on the colours of the ‘club’s skin’, its jumper.
The club also provides an excuse for social interaction. For players, sometimes it’s interaction you didn’t think you needed – mainly, full nudity. There’s nothing like finding out where you stand based on the size of your penis and your attitude to whipping it out at will.
Usually, an ‘I don’t give a f*ck’ mentality is the best approach, and the most admired.
Training and game day provide a routine excuse for people to connect – the importance of which, for men, shouldn’t be underestimated.
It’s a place for learning, both good and bad.
The inner sanctum is the club’s change room, often a male-only environment, and a very masculine one. It’s important, however, to acknowledge this has changed or is changing. Most clubs now have women in the change rooms – as administrators, trainers, physiotherapists, etc – but they are predominantly in the change room pre-game only.
For the club I play with now (and the one before that), there are no women involved besides the mums and girlfriends who come along to watch on game day.
Thus, many amateur football clubs are male havens.
By virtue of this, they are among the last bastions of unabashed sexism in our society. Not the only such, but certainly one of the more prolific. Not every club, and not every man involved engages in such, but some certainly do.
Let me take you inside.
As the beers from the post-match free slab are cracked, ice bags are bound to aching limbs, and the tedious ripping of sports tape from one’s skin begins, the talk between team mates often turns to sex.
The rules: wives, girlfriends and partners – all off limits.
Fair game: the conquests, the failures and the pursuits more generally, especially if they’re funny.
Like the football field itself, it’s a verbal game of one-upmanship, a testing of manliness.
And it’s not about ‘her’. Names aren’t given. The body or bodily functions – generally – aren’t detailed. It’s about the storyteller: the chase, the mistakes and the ability to get the ‘girl’.
Such talk also serves a purpose – to stake out territory, and to find out who is chasing whom, and who is connected to whom – often important details in a small community.
Above all else, the change room is an arena to satisfy vicariousness. A chance to live through the adventures of friends – while not an exclusively male pursuit, can be far more repugnant when men are involved.
“It’s the highlight of my week hearing the rooting stories of the younger boys”, an elder statesman of the team I grew up playing for once told me.
These are ‘private’ stories of women, sex and love; men letting their guard down between mates; stories not for the ears of any woman. This marks it as an environment that has the potential to instill a culture where men are men and women ‘serve a purpose’.
The blame is not with football, or football clubs, or change rooms. It’s simply the environment these places can provide; a place for ‘boys to be boys’.
And it doesn’t stop here.
This is evident with the culture, and the types of men, that the Australian Defence Force is trying to weed out. Lieutenant-General David Morrison is attempting to re-jig the hardware of a Defence Forces’ culture that is far too regularly producing derogatory, sexist ‘incidents’.
“The standard you walk past is the standard you accept,” laid down Lieutenant General Morrison in a YouTube clip to the entire Force.
What General Morrison is attempting to tackle includes a group of men who allegedly filmed themselves having sex with other members of the Force, circulated the videos and then called on their peers to match their efforts.
It’s a minority, but it’s there.
As Australia’s first female (now ex) Prime Minister Julia Gillard inadvertently highlighted, sexism is not confined to closed circles. Social media, given its perceived lack of consequences, has amplified the voice of sexist views.
As she herself said in relation to the role her gender had on her term as PM, “It doesn’t explain everything. It doesn’t explain nothing. It does explain some things.”
Just as Julia Gillard changed the game (hopefully) for the next female Prime Minister, and the one after that, so too is every woman who is involved in a football club changing what is ingrained, to that which is no longer acceptable.
Where topless bar-maids at challenge nights, homophobic slandering and racism were once commonplace (and in some cases, still are), many football clubs are now self-regulating.
The last open courts are closing as society lowers its tolerance of sexism.
And it is the younger crop of players leading the charge – the boys who have stories of new sexual encounters with which to fill the change room are the ones refraining from doing so. The sixteen to twenty-two-year olds are becoming a reflection of a greater cultural change in Australia. They are more likely than any group of young men before them to have, and foster close friendships with girls their age. There is, generally, a respect for women, and women in powerful roles.
But personal insecurity in a male-only environment can bring out the worst in men, at times allowing a pack mentality and allowing a ‘culture’ to remain.
For many boys, there is no environment more influential than football.
It’s up to the club and its leaders to ensure the test of “manliness” is one that stands up outside the change room walls, and that the environment doesn’t taint boys growing into men.