'We were an afterthought': Women's footy trailblazer becomes historic inductee

BEFORE Debbie Lee discussed the thrill, the joy and the honour she felt at becoming the first woman to be inducted into the Australian Football Hall of Fame, came the history lesson.

And a necessary one at that.

Before the time of AFLW, women’s footy was unglamorous, unpopular and, in the eyes of many, unwarranted.

Hall of Fame: Debbie Lee

05:26 Aug 24. 2021. 8:53 PM

Women's pioneer makes history as the first female Hall of Famer

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."

Western Bulldogs general manager of women’s football Debbie Lee and a young Dogs fan. Picture: AFL Photos

She was actually a superstar. A five-time Helen Lambert medallist for the Victorian women’s competition best and fairest, a seven-time club best and fairest, a dual Lisa Hardeman medallist 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."

Women's footy trailblazer Debbie Lee. Picture: AFL Photos

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.

Every time a car came past, I’d run into the bushes because I didn’t want to be ridiculed

Debbie Lee on kicking the footy by herself

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."

Ellie Blackburn and Debbie Lee after the Bulldogs' 2018 AFLW premiership win. Picture: AFL Photos

Lee has since made the game her professional career. She started with Melbourne in an administrative role, is now the general manager of women’s football at the Western Bulldogs and a member of the AFLW Competition Committee.

She can exhale now. The struggle was worth it.

"I dreamt it would become a televised, fully fledged competition. But we probably got there quicker than I expected," she said.

And she can reflect on how pivotal she was getting the women’s game to where it is today and, in particular, the esteemed place she now holds in its history.

"It’s nice to be acknowledged, but the most important thing is that I won’t be the last," she said. "I don’t think I will be."

Western Bulldogs general manager of women’s football Debbie Lee looks on. Picture: AFL Photos

On-field achievements:

  • 302 VWFL games 
  • 5 x Helen Lambert Medal for competition best and fairest 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996 & 2001
  • 6 x All-Australian
  • 16 x State games for Victoria
  • 6 x State captain for Victoria
  • 3 x Premiership player – 1991 (East Brunswick Scorpions), 2004 & 2011 (Spurs)
  • 1 x Premiership captain 2004 (Spurs)
  • Lisa Hardeman Medal for best on ground in Grand Final 1991 & 2004
  • 7 x club best and fairest
  • Club captain at St. Albans Spurs 1991-2004

Off-field achievements:

  • Founder of Sunshine YCW Spurs (first team in the western suburbs) in 1993
  • Debbie Lee Medal awarded to the best player at the AFL’s National Championships
  • Debbie Lee Rising Star Medal awarded to the best first year player in the VFLW
  • VWFL Life Member
  • VWFL President 2004 –2012 (playing President)
  • St. Albans Football Club (Founder/Executive board member)
  • Member of the AFL Victoria’s Strategic Advisory group 2013
  • Senior coach St Albans Spurs
  • Member of AFL Women’s Advisory Group
  • Women’s football operations manager, Melbourne Football Club
  • General manager, Western Bulldogs Football Club