The time has come: Why the AFLW needs a ‘Charlie’ of its own

ALTHOUGH the NAB AFLW competition is only in its sixth season, it’s never too early to think about legacy and tradition.

Each season has delivered great players, some of whom will become legends of our game. These champions, these pioneers of the game, will be etched into the history of the AFLW. However, one important piece of history is missing. The most prized individual award in our game, the League’s best and fairest award, is yet to be given a name to elevate it.

The best and fairest award deserves a name that reflects what we value as a League: skill, spirit and sportsmanship.

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As we all well know, the AFL’s highest individual honour is the Brownlow Medal, which has been awarded to the "fairest and best" player in the competition since 1924. Referred to by many football fans as simply "Charlie", this coveted award was named in honour of respected Geelong administrator Charles Brownlow, who died in the January before that 1924 season.

A Geelong premiership captain in the VFA, Brownlow spent nearly 40 years as secretary of his beloved club, and also served long stints as an administrator of both the League and the national governing body, the Australasian Football Council.

Brownlow was a renowned innovator who helped introduce boundary umpires, an official timekeeping system, numbering of players’ jumpers and the formation of the Tribunal.

The best and fairest award deserves a name that reflects what we value as a League: skill, spirit and sportsmanship

Libby Birch

So who should the AFLW best and fairest be named after? A player, an administrator or a game pioneer? And how should we name such an important award?

Among the many worthy candidates, two spring to my mind: Adelaide superstar Erin Phillips and legendary trailblazer Debbie Lee.

Phillips, the former Crows co-captain, is a game changer and a game winner who has arguably been the League’s greatest player. In both 2017 and 2019, she won the AFLW best and fairest, the premiership and best-on-ground honours in the NAB AFLW Grand Final.

Having lined up on Erin many times when she has played forward, I’ve always been overwhelmed with the feeling of privilege to play on such a champion of our game. Her ability to kick a goal from any angle inside 50 makes her such a dangerous key opponent. She also stands up in key moments, whether it be with an important goal, a goal-saving mark, a hard-ball get or clean delivery to her teammates.

A successful basketballer in the WNBA before joining the AFLW, Erin is a humble, hard-working and extremely talented athlete. She has led our game in more ways than one and inspired so many of us to be brave both on and off the field.

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Lee – the only female to have been inducted into the Australian Football Hall of Fame – has also been an inspirational leader, both as a pioneering player and an administrator.

Debbie enjoyed a long and distinguished playing career, amassing 302 VWFL (now VFLW) games for a variety of teams including the East Brunswick Scorpions and St Albans Spurs, a club she founded. The tough midfielder won an incredible five Helen Lambert Medals as the League’s best and fairest player, was a six-time All-Australian and regularly captained Victoria.

However, many say Debbie has done her best work off the field as an advocate for women’s football at both community and elite levels. She was VFLW president for eight years (remarkably, while still playing!), leading the development of the game before the professional competition’s inception in 2017.

When I played at the Western Bulldogs, where Debbie remains the general manager of women’s football, it was always special to witness her passion and dedication for our game. I’ll never forget the mentorship I received from Deb. No matter how busy she was, she always had time to talk to you and to help make you a better person, athlete and team player.

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Any player would be proud to take home the Phillips or the Lee Medal. The "Erin" or the "Debbie".

I honestly can’t split these two incredible women, so I believe a Phillips-Lee Medal would be fitting.

Others such as former Bulldogs vice-president Susan Alberti, Melbourne champion Daisy Pearce and women’s football stalwart Lisa Hardeman, to name just a few, have also been significant figures in the growth of our game.

Whoever we ultimately choose to be our "Charlie", the naming of our best and fairest award is another step in building our game’s traditions and legacy. 

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