PIONEER of women’s football Debbie Lee made history on Tuesday night, being the first woman inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame. Lee, who was a driving force behind Melbourne’s AFLW program and an integral part of its establishment, was recognized for her years of service to the game, both on and off the field.
Lee spoke on the Marngrook Footy Show Radio Edition 3KND to describe how it felt and her journey over the years.
Playing 302 VWLF (now VFLW) games across a long and distinguished career, Lee first joined the Demons in 2009, initially as the club’s community manager.
She was a fundamental voice from the outset, essentially introducing Melbourne to women’s football, and helped shape the inaugural season of the AFLW competition as Women’s Football Manager.
Lee grew up in Pascoe Vale and couldn’t help but fall in love with the game she played with her brothers and their mates in the streets. When they moved out of the house, she continued to kick a ball to herself in the same streets, but as she recalled: "Every time a car came past, I’d run into the bushes because I didn’t want to be ridiculed."
Still, she tapped into the local women’s footy scene and found her mark as a player known for her physicality. "I also played a high level of basketball, so I was able to read the ball and read the play really well," she said. "Kicking was not my strength. Understanding the game, reading the play and the physicality were probably my attributes.
"When you’re teaching yourself at an early age, that is the best you can do."
She was actually a superstar. A five-time Helen Lambert medalist for the Victorian women’s competition best and fairest, a seven-time club best and fairest, a dual Lisa Hardeman medalist for best on ground in the Grand Final, a triple premiership player, a six-time All-Australian and 16-time Victorian representative. But the hard yards came trying to grow women’s football. She tells how everything was a battle – equipment, uniforms and investment.
"There was no support. We were an afterthought and there weren’t the platforms whereby you could engage women," Lee said.
"It was ridiculed. If the media did an article, it was always about a poor image of the game or a woman getting her hair pulled. It was just horrific. It was a poor indictment on where the community and footy were at."
The low point? That would have been one day at Sunshine in 1993, having convinced many of her sporting friends to play a game of footy.
"We ran out that day in T-shirts with sticky taped numbers and bike shorts and then the boys turned up and their form of 'support' was to sit in the spa and drink copious amounts of alcohol," she said.
"I felt a sense of guilt because I had invited these women down to support my mission and my ambition, only to put them in a really horrible situation where they did not feel safe, or comfortable.
"They just wanted to have a kick of the footy, but they were abused, sworn at and discriminated against."
But the darkest hour comes just before the dawn.
That day generated a sense of community and Lee built the Sunshine YCW Spurs from scratch.
She became the VWFL president (while still playing) and in 2013 part of a group that began serious dialogue with the AFL, led by visionary Commission member Sam Mostyn and supportive and progressive AFL executives such as Grant Williams.
That spawned the first of several Melbourne-Western Bulldogs exhibition matches.
"We were able to have the best 44 players running around the MCG," Lee said.
"We had to show the influencers and the decision-makers the game and, once we did that, they came and saw the women, the skills and the passion and that really fast-tracked us to where the AFLW is today."