Time to shift the women's sporting narrative once and for all

The A-League Women's top scorer this season, Adelaide United's Fiona Worts, made headlines across Australia in February after scoring a stunning five goals in a single game as the Reds thrashed Brisbane Roar 8-2. Yet, the next morning she was back at work at McDonald's.

A university-educated mathematician, Worts' Maccas job is a necessity to create a liveable wage and supplement her football income.

While it was mostly told as a feel-good story about women athletes and their inspirational hustle, the reality is that it provided more damning evidence of a major problem.

The thing is, Worts' story isn't unique. It's the "Groundhog Day" of Australian women's sports.

Two days later, Collingwood's social media team posted a photo of AFLW player Sophie Alexander. She was reporting to training, still wearing her paramedic's uniform after a shift.

"Our athletes are more than just that," the tweet said. But should they have to be?

The following morning, Newcastle Jets goalkeeper Georgia Boric was forced to leave the club due to work commitments.

"Due to unexpected changing work commitments, she had to make the difficult decision to discontinue the season and it's an unfortunate reminder of some of the pressures and challenges the women's game brings of balancing work and football," Jets head coach Ash Wilson said.

An unfortunate reminder indeed. But was the reminder necessary? In the span of four days, Worts, Alexander and Boric underscored the same issue that this is the reality for many of Australia's women athletes, regardless of the sport they play.

Had we already forgotten Leah Cutting taking six months off without pay from the South Australian police force to chase her AFLW dream with St Kilda this season? What about Sydney FC captain Teresa Polias needing to miss a midweek interstate clash due to her work commitments as a teacher in February 2021? Yasmin Meakes is currently making the three-hour round trip to juggle her life as a teacher in Scone and winger for the Roosters in NRLW.

Earlier this month, Western Force became only the second rugby team to pay its Super W players, following the lead of the Melbourne Rebels in offering match bonuses. While it's a welcome step forward, it's not even a wage -- it's pocket money.

And these examples barely scratch the surface and don't even mention the similar stories of the coaches, officials, support staff, or other sports.

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But this has been going on for much longer than the past few pandemic-stricken years.

Some players have been considered lucky to have had full-time jobs at the clubs they played at. For years Gulcan Koca balanced Melbourne Victory duties with a role in the community department. Darcy Vescio was a graphic designer at Carlton for the first few seasons of AFLW.

In 2017, to celebrate the 10th season of the A-League Women, features were done on the sacrifices and struggles of the players. Players spoke of working 9 to 5s before heading to training. They thanked forgiving and flexible employers. They acknowledged that they wouldn't be able to do what they do without the support -- financial and other -- of families, friends and partners.

Katrina Gorry, one of Australia's most gifted players, spent the lead up to the 2015 Women's World Cup working as a barista. Melissa Barbieri sold memorabilia from her years as a Matilda to raise enough money to play for Adelaide United in the 2013-14 season.

These stories have been commonplace for so long they've been normalised. They were indicators of the resilience and fortitude of players. But the narrative is shifting. They're now viewed as indictments of the leagues in which these women play. The focus is being moved from the individual to the structures within which they exist, and from admiration of the juggle to questioning: Why does it have to be like this?

The response in the past month has been one of more palpable anger than ever before. Not because the players' stories are any worse than those that have come before them but because they are the straws that have -- seemingly -- broken the camel's back.

COVID's effects on women's sport in particular have been twofold. The pandemic has created situations where players need to be away from family and friends for months to keep seasons going, and schedules that involve lots of games in short periods of time.

These conditions have been extreme but have highlighted the inequalities that were already present within women's sport. Being away from home is no easy feat for any athlete, but the vision and stories of male athletes able to take their partners and families into hubs provides a stark contrast to the women.

Similarly, a grueling schedule takes its toll on everybody. But a grueling schedule plus other jobs or study or caretaking commitments added an additional layer of arduousness. Throw in full-time expectations and efforts from these athletes in part-time hours, and with part-time compensation, and the degree of difficulty becomes even harder.

The pandemic has highlighted what was always there, and revealed it in the clearest terms possible. It has shown that women should not have to juggle their lives just because they can. It is showing that while it is important to have a life outside of football, these women aren't even being allowed to have full football lives. The choice to be a full-time footballer is not one these athletes get to make.

Solutions are obvious but a far way off according to those who have the power to make changes. There's a seeming reluctance to invest now because of commercial viability.

The argument that women do not bring in enough money and therefore are undeserving of investment gets trotted out almost quarterly, most recently via Paul Kent in the Daily Telegraph in regards to the NRLW players and their push for professionalism.

It's a stance that fails to acknowledge the years and years in which men were also not bringing in enough money but were supported anyway. It casually glosses over the sometimes 100-year head start men's competitions had in building supporter bases and other structures in order to support their endeavours.

And it willfully ignores just how much there is to gain by investing in women now. In sports across the globe, women's teams and leagues are the growth markets and their potential returns on investment are enormous.

And while COVID has also dented the pockets of sports around the globe, there is also a lack of urgency and transparency from these governing bodies as to how commercial viability is improved, and how these leagues get from their current semi-pro, condensed state to the fully professional competitions they can and should be.

The AFL Players Association recently detailed ambitions of making the AFLW fully professional by 2026, with the league itself harbouring aspirations of having the best-paid women's athletes in the country by 2030.

Meanwhile the Australian Professional Leagues' Danny Townsend told ESPN's Beyond The Lead podcast that the ALW has "to remain a top-three league in the world."

"A couple of years ago the ALW was absolutely that," he said. "That was before Europe was really taking it seriously. The U.S. NWSL was going well and probably considered the best league in the world. We were there or thereabouts and we've probably slipped a bit to be honest.

"That's largely due to Europe getting serious and that was naturally always going to happen. Back then I sat on the professional women's football committee and we saw that coming. That was a train that was coming towards the station that we were never going to stop."

Keeping up with Europe and maintaining the ALW's status among global leagues requires investment. It requires a longer season and it requires professionalisation.

Clear, actionable roadmaps need to be laid out to show how these leagues will get to those places, and they need to come sooner rather than later.

Townsend told Beyond The Lead that the ALW roadmap was forthcoming, and fans of the league will wait with bated breath that this is the actual time for change. And while the mention of these topics and the broad, vague ambitions are kind of positive, fans and players can also feel justified in their impatience.

Calls for the leagues to be full-time are by no means new. Stories of players juggling and making sacrifices for the opportunity to play sport at the highest level are by no means new. And that's what adds to the frustration.

So, too, does the proof that improving the pay and conditions for women athletes keeps them in sport. Kylie Ledbrook's retirement lasted five years. She returned to football in 2018 after the introduction of an improved collective bargaining agreement for ALW players.

"If we didn't have that support of the base salary, I'm sure a lot of us players wouldn't be playing because it's not worth our while -- we actually can't support that," Ledbrook told Fox Sports back in 2018.

Women's sport is now in a moment where to continue as it is, is to keep progress glacial. It keeps women's sport deliberately small, these players deliberately part-time and the juggle deliberately longer than necessary.

Leagues have the chance to shift the narrative once and for all. To ensure stories like Boric's don't happen again, tweets about people like Alexander aren't posted again, and situations like Worts' aren't the norm.

Otherwise we'll just be living "Groundhog Day" all over again.