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Tayla Harris greets me in her lounge room, but also in my kitchen. Which is to say that we meet each other for the first time via screens. Her blonde hair is pulled back into a single tight ponytail, and she wears a bright yellow hoodie with the words KINDNESS NOW emblazoned across the chest.
And she is lovely. Unhurried but attentive, without airs or affectation, and her smile on my iPad is borderline beatific. Seemingly all her teeth are involved. Youll have to excuse me, she says, wolfing down a spoonful of risotto. Im eating dinner.
Shes definitely excused Im grateful for the glimpse of her day. The craft of profile writing, you see, hinges perilously on access on scooping up colour and movement in the moments between moments, in looks and gestures and interactions. It means hanging around and writing it all down, and until the coronavirus pandemic kicked in, I was going to hang around Tayla Kate Harris as long as possible, to see what life is like when youre only 23 yet one of the most noteworthy athletes in Australia.
I was going to talk my way into a pre-game team meeting with the Carlton Football Club, which until the 2020 AFLW season was cancelled after round six was tipped to challenge for a premiership, with Harris as their dominant and high-flying centre half-forward.
She is an A-type athlete, says journalist Samantha Lane. Shes clinical but an animal. And shes ravenous always wanting to improve. Her talent and potential remind some of a young Lance Franklin, who can go on to be king, queen, lord, lordessWhatever she wants.
Id have studied that from the boundary line, then hopefully tagged along with her to the Team Ellis Gym in Melbournes outer suburbs, where Harris trained to become the reigning Australian female middleweight boxing champion last year and, a few months ago, added the super welterweight champions belt.
Its where she hits the heavy bag and learns life lessons, too, from her favourite Mike Tyson maxim Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth to the mantra of her trainer, Faris Chevalier, which rings true beyond the ring: Be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Speaking of discomfort, I would have documented one of the many professional chores born of her burgeoning personal brand perhaps a photo shoot or marketing meeting to see how she wears her fame. Because make no mistake, Tayla Harris is famous. Eighteen months ago, she flew to Oregon to meet the executive team at Nike HQ, and became one of a handful of female athletes in its global Rallying Cry campaign. (Tagline: Make the world listen.)
Fighting against Sarah Dwyer. Harris became the reigning Australian female middleweight boxing champion last year and, a few months ago, added the super welterweight champions belt. Credit:Getty Images
In the BBCs recent annual global list of 100 inspiring and influential women, Harris was the only Australian. Player agent Alex Saundry represents some of the best talent in the AFLW, but the press requests she gets for Tay dwarf all others. Sometimes I have to try to remind her and myself that shes 23 just so she doesnt lose that. So she enjoys this ride, says Saundry. But yeah, Tay is the biggest name in the game.
Id have watched people orbit her star at public events, whether mingling with school kids or glad-handing corporates. Thats part of what she was doing at the start of 2020, as an ambassador for Our Watch, promoting the prevention of violence against women and children, both physical and psychological.
She knows the topic well, of course, after a photo of her kicking a footy 13 months ago drew sexist and sexually violent abuse online.
Patty Kinnersly, a Carlton board member and CEO of Our Watch, says the defiance and eloquence of Harris in that moment sparked a howl of emotion not unlike when family violence campaigner Rosie Batty first spoke after the killing of her young son in 2014.
There are things that happen in history, and capture the community in a way that we say, Thats not okay. Tayla became the voice of a movement.
That voice, though, is subject to the staggers and silences of the fallible video conferencing platform were using to chat. We talk four times at the start of April, and each time shes only just finished working out. One day its lifting borrowed barbells, or thrashing around on something called an assault cycle, set up in the corner of the lounge room next to her red leather couch.
Another time, the online anthropomorphic torture session known as Zuu, with exercise names such as lizard and gorilla. Today, its conditioning: hill-climbs and 40-second sprint efforts.
Awful. Throw-up kind of awful, she emphasises. Harris was late to our chat because of her running session, and her lightly freckled face is still flushed from exertion. I didnt think Id need to shower but I was just so disgusting I had to. I wore my Costanza T-shirt for you! (We had chatted once about Seinfeld both big fans so Harris donned a long-sleever with George on the front and Cant stand ya on the back, in my honour.)
The one thing fighting is definitely not about for me is aggression. Im better when Im calm and calculated.
Shes remarkably upbeat in isolation, which I put down to endorphins. I dont just train to compete. I actually enjoy training, which makes it that much better, she confirms. I have no idea when Im going to play footy again, or box again, or do anything really, but thats okay. If it takes a long time, Ill just continue to get ready.
Footy for Harris and likely boxing, too, wont be back until 2021, so this star interrupted is making the most of social distancing. Shes eating the greens she hates, because she knows she has to. Shes drowning all other food in tomato sauce, because she wants to. Shes drinking her milk and watching her Love Island and walking her dog a border collie named Beans around her neighbourhood in suburban Strathmore, north-west of Melbourne, where she lives with her partner, Collingwoods attacking midfielder Sarah Dargan.
Theres parks all around, and local shops down the road, she says. Its a lot like where I grew up.
Harris walking her dog, Beans, around her neighbourhood. Credit:Courtesy of Lisa Harris
Lets go to where she grew up, in the northern suburbs of Brisbane. Dad Warren was a marine engineer with an enviable toolshed, and so little Tay grew up building chook pens and beehives, skateboards and jump ramps.
She had perfect timing and balance, says Warren, who was once asked to train with Carlton and regrets turning the opportunity down. I used to hold her by one arm in the supermarket and shed swing around me like an orang-utan, swiping stuff from the shelves.
She was five when she played her first game of footy, with her only sibling, big brother Jack, then seven. Jacks team was short a player, so Tay filled in and kicked six goals. She continued through junior footy with the Aspley Hornets, the only girl in a boys league, and at first wondered why they didnt try harder to tackle her.
Then she heard their parents on the sidelines. Dont touch her, they sneered. Youll get into trouble! Other times it was the opposite, the confusion of the boys bringing out their worst. Some just wanted to smash me more, she says, shrugging. Which I preferred, to be honest.
She was fearless, and not just on the field, freely driving a water-skiing boat at over 100 kilometres an hour when only nine. At 12, she was rag-dolled by a bigger opponent and began boxing lessons at the local Police-Citizens Youth Club. Trained by an ex-trawlerman with an eye patch, she revelled in the discipline. Still does.
The one thing fighting is definitely not about for me is aggression. Im better when Im calm and calculated, focusing on the way your hands sit in the gloves, or the angle of your feet for a punch. Boxing is not what it seems. And Im not what I seem.
Growing up playing junior football in Queensland with the Aspley Hornets, Harris was the only girl playing in a boys league. While many opponents wouldnt go near her, some just wanted to smash me more, she says, which I preferred. Credit:Courtesy of Lisa Harris
Her mum, Lisa, an insurance claims manager, says people mistakenly see her daughter as cocksure and tough. Deep down she is really soft, she says. Deep down she just wants to make sure she does the right thing by everyone. Lisa remembers how her little blonde poppet used to sprint down the hallway and leap to touch the ceiling light. Every morning at school drop-off, Mum would say the same thing to her from behind the wheel: Bye, have a good day, be kind!
When people lack compassion or respect, Harris finds it baffling. Bullying at school just blew my mind, she says, throwing up her hands. How can someone be mean to someone else? I struggled to understand it, so school was a bit of a strange time.
Harris felt different as a young girl, wearing her brothers hand-me-downs, getting sweaty and stinky playing basketball at lunchtime. But feeling out of place isnt necessarily a bad thing I didnt feel unwanted, she clarifies. Yet I always felt like at footy at a game, or training, or at the club I was in my element. I got an extreme high from that, whereas at school I probably struggled.
She excelled at womens football at the perfect time, joining nascent interstate competitions and playing in early televised exhibition games as a teenager, before becoming a foundation AFLW player in 2017.
Shes since played in two losing grand finals (2017 and 2019) and been All Australian twice (2017 and 2018). She knows the competition intimately and offers opinions freely.
The pay gap an average AFLW salary of around $17,000 versus an average AFL salary of more than $363,000 doesnt stick in her craw, either.
One of the major issues for AFLW players and commentators is the short length of the season (eight weeks plus finals), but Harris breaks with the majority.
If the competition suddenly went from eight games to 14 games, with the minimal preseason weve got, the injuries would be astronomical, she believes. Its a very interesting push, to ask for that season length so soon, when were not ready physiologically.
The pay gap an average AFLW salary of around $17,000 versus an average AFL salary of more than $363,000 doesnt stick in her craw, either. If we were training the exact same amount of hours as men, required to eat as were told, have skinfolds at a certain standard, play two or three times as many games games that are twice as long and had all of these boundaries set, then sure. But we dont. If were asked to do more as the league grows, we should get paid more, and I think we will.
Put simply, Harris has faith in those who run the league, including AFL boss Gillon McLachlan and AFLW chief Nicole Livingstone, and takes them at their word when they say the league will resume post-pandemic with all 14 AFLW teams intact. She doesnt care what old-mate misogynistic sexist arsehole thinks, nor does she truck with the growing impatience of fervent AFLW boosters.
These things dont happen in five seconds. Our product is four years old. The mens product is more than 150 years old, she says.
Were the baby, just crawling. Its exciting what could come but it wont be coming for a long time. I think theres a bit more patience needed in this conversation.
Flash back now to Sunday March 17, 2019, at the Whitten Oval in Melbournes inner west. Its the last round of season and a stunning autumn day. Harris chats on the field with AFL chief photographer Michael Willson, who takes a happy snap of her with her parents.
The game begins, and within a minute Harris plucks a mark. Willson aims his Canon 1DX Mark II and snaps a sequence: The frame I chose where shes at her highest point is just an elite, magnificent athlete in full flight, with that spectacular leg extension and elevation. He files the pic, and posts it on his social media accounts with a caption: You kick like a girl.
This photo, aka the kick, sparked a deluge of online abuse but Harris turned it into a teachable moment. Credit:Getty Images
Harris first saw the photo not long after the game, around 6pm, online. In her book, More than a Kick: Footy, the Photo and Me, released next week, she notes: A kick is such an intense moment. So much focus and concentration. Theres something almost poetic about it, all that hope poured into an action. Its like were all in it togetherWill she? Wont she?
She was also tagged in a Channel 7 Facebook post by friends Nice shot Tay and found her way to the comments section. They were foul. Initially, out of interest, I kept reading, and I was like, This isnt right, she says, scratching her head. I wasnt emotional, but in my mind I was just thinking, This isnt what people should be allowed to say.
The worst? Someone had doctored the photo to make it look as though she wasnt wearing anything below her jumper, going so far as to paste a vulva onto the image. That photoshopped picture was then cropped twice more, becoming a twisted triptych of a naked groin. Harris sat dumbstruck. That particular photo had hundreds of likes, she says, shaking her head. And thats when I was like, Thats fed.
In response, she posted the original photo to her own accounts. On Twitter: Heres a picture of me at workthink about this before your derogatory comments, animals. And on Instagram: My hamstring is okay but derogatory and sexist comments arent.
Harris was far from alone at this time. Messages of support and friend requests and calls and emails and tweets and posts popped up by the thousand.
The backlash was vicious. Most mainstream stories then, and now, refer to the material posted as vile language and sexist abuse, but that doesnt convey the depth of misogyny on show. It isnt hard to find, incidentally. Live forums still exist from that time, in which countless comments are made by anonymous posters, perhaps with a photo of the paedophile Rolf Harris as their avatar, or maybe Pepe the Frog a cartoon avatar of the alt-right movement.
Such threads begin with one bruised male ego venting about the attention lavished on a strong young woman, and the poison drips down the screen. You feel it in the guts. The following is a small sample, not even the most egregious:
OMG if she thinks that is sexual assault then maybe she should be charged with public nudity for exposing herself in the first place.Unknown female gets attention, then demands more.This broad needs help. I wouldnt go out of my way to f that.Spreading your legs a lot isnt kicking hard.Sticks n Stones can break bones, And Words can also Penetrate me...F she has a good chassis.I can smell her c...Women are so retarded.
Harris was far from alone at this time. Messages of support and friend requests and calls and emails and tweets and posts popped up by the thousand. She estimates the attention she received that week was 90 per cent positive, 10 per cent pathetic. Sarah Dargan sits on Taylas lap during one Zoom meeting and recalls the outpouring.
I couldnt erase the comments all I could do was make sure Tayla was okay, Dargan says. But people just started backing Tay and standing up. It turned good so suddenly. (In this bright moment my wife appears over my shoulder in our lounge room, and Harris pipes up: Hi there! she waves. I love these new age business meetings!)
Harris quickly owned the moment. She launched the #taylakickchallenge, for instance, offering a free pair of footy boots for the best photo mimicking her distinctive kicking action. She sought to confirm the gendered basis of the attacks, so Patty Kinnersly talked her through it: Such abuse is meant to maintain what some men feel is their right to a position of power, says Kinnersly. Their view that we shouldnt be normalising, promoting and celebrating women in public life.
She also made it clear that Harris had no responsibility whatsoever to do or say anything. Because when you go out and proud on these things, the abuse doesnt stop, says Kinnersly, it triples.
But remember, Harris is fearless. And so, on the Tuesday after the Sunday, wearing a daggy old hoodie, she did a 6am radio interview hosted by her coach, former Hawthorn player Daniel Harford.
Her ability to compartmentalise what was thrown at her, and give this composed message right between the eyes it was remarkable, says Harford. When I was 21 theres no way I would have been able to deal with what she did, with all the humility and class and polish that she showed.
She turned it into a teachable moment. Channel 7 had removed the photo from its Facebook page because of the graphic attacks, but quickly reinstated the image with an apology, in response to the message that Harris was sharing, and still shares. If organisations can employ social media editors and content producers, she says, they need to employ people to monitor material, too.
If there was graphic vile graffiti on the front of your workplace, you would remove it, straightaway. You wouldnt be okay with leaving it there, she explains. They cant just think, This is the way it is. They need to do better.
She changed things in footy, too. Carltons first instinct was suppression; a club memo advised no one to comment. I disagreed, says Harris. This was my moment. I felt strongly about using it to say something important. So she organised a press conference at the clubs Ikon Park headquarters, and football united behind her.
People printed T-shirts with the photo on the front, or a silhouette of the kick, or the words, YES TO GOALS, NO TO TROLLS. Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the attackers cowardly grubs. Interview requests came from Europe and the United States, from BBC news and The New York Times. She went global.
Harris with Carlton CEO Cain Liddle at a press conference she organised to discuss online abuse. Credit:Getty Images
It reminded me of the way Adam Goodes spoke the day after he was racially vilified by that young girl, says journalist Samantha Lane. I just felt happy, and proud. Ill declare that I like her, that I want her to excel and the AFL womens league to become strong and more followed, but I also want it to have the kind of substance that she showed in that moment. She elevated the conversation above the sports pages.
The only hesitation in her fight was the impact it might have on others like her mum who struggles to forget one particular threat: I know where you live, and Im going to come and bleep-bleep-bleep you I was horrified, Lisa says, pausing. How dare you? How dare you speak about my baby that way?
That week, a club security guard nicknamed Meatball walked Harris between her car and the club rooms. And then, at the preliminary final that weekend, a security detail was assigned to her parents as well. Someone had threatened to come to the game and shoot her on the field, says her dad, a massive man who practises Thai boxing.
Instead of watching his daughter play, Warren spent the game scanning the crowd. I can tell you, if I saw anything strange, I would have been there quicker than any security guard. And the suspicious person? They wouldnt have survived the experience.
I hate the thought of a young girl looking at my page and thinking, I want to be like her, but if Im like her then Ill get comments like that. I wouldnt want anything to divert her path.
Harris herself maintains that even the worst of it is water off a ducks back, but Warren guesses that some of it gets through. He wonders if his girl is pulling the same trick she did in junior footy, when bigger boys would hit her hard to prove a point. Always just brushed it off. Never let them know she was hurt.
She tells me an anecdote, from the end of that tumultuous week, and her tone is casual. But I find it profoundly sad. Its about protecting herself online, by muting and blocking, deleting and reporting, or refraining from tagging her location. The only thing that I changed was that I started filtering out particular words, from my comments, she says, holding up her mobile. I hate the thought of a young girl looking at my page and thinking, I want to be like her, but if Im like her then Ill get comments like that. I wouldnt want anything to divert her path.
And so this star of the game, still only 21 at the time, sat at home with iPhone in hand, entering the words she expects to be lobbed at her by hidden strangers: F. Rape. Cock. Bitch. Slut. Whore. C.
Harris poses with her statue in Melbourne's Federation Square. She knew the abuse would continue after it was unveiled. Credit:AAP
When this story is printed, Tayla Harris knows she will be abused again. She has a sense for such things. She knew it in September last year, when a bronze sculpture of the kick by artist Terrance Plowright was unveiled in Melbournes Federation Square. Young, female and outspoken moulded in metal and put on a pedestal? Yeah, she knew.
If the statue was just for my footy, of course I wouldnt deserve it, she says, but its not about me. You could do the statue without a head for all I care. Its about a moment.
And that moment is still with us. Ask any female journalist or politician or public figure about the abuse they receive online. Only last month, the Herald Sun decided to disallow comments on all AFLW stories, acknowledging that even the most innocuous piece could draw execrable remarks by the dozen.
Harris prefers another way, tweeting that she would give up her AFLW salary to employ someone to monitor social media. Ignoring these comments is not a solution, she wrote. Fight back.
Julie Inman Grant, Australias eSafety commissioner, is the person to pick that fight. Flying back from the US when the drama unfolded, she recalls landing in Sydney to a missed call from the Prime Minister. Thats not normal, she points out. When I called back, he was really distressed about what was happening to Tayla Harris. He saw it as absolutely reprehensible, and wanted to know what we were doing.
To me, this is just the internet surfacing the reality and sad underbelly of misogyny on the human condition.
For one, the government has added a new adult cyber abuse scheme to its proposed Online Safety Act, giving Inman Grants office stronger take-down powers, with stiffer civil penalties for non-compliance. Shes also met with Facebook, Google and Twitter about pushing platforms to make user protections simpler, to act on third-party bystander reports of abuse, and to invest in artificial intelligence to detect and remove abusive content.
A new Women Influencing Tech Spaces program is helping females with social media self-defence training, and discussions are underway with the AFL about a joint effort to counter online vilification. Employing more moderators is great, Inman Grant says, but youre still playing a game of whack-a-mole, and not facing the core issue, which is societal.
To me, this is just the internet surfacing the reality and sad underbelly of misogyny on the human condition. Theres a longer-term cultural and behavioural issue we need to tackle.
Thats why Harris wrote her book. For the past year, people have been asking her for advice. More than a Kick is aimed at young readers, and deals with everything from sarcastic comments and fake friends to teenage anxiety about which pictures to post. There are tips on how to disagree politely, and how to stay safe.
Of course, this crusade is only part of her brand, and in some ways its seriousness misrepresents her personality. The Harris I meet is funny and silly, spontaneous and carefree, a young woman who books flights without a return leg and freely admits she barely reads books. Shes Generation Z, with #nofilter.
She is who she is. Shes totally Insta, says Sam Lane. But shes also really strategic. I met her when she was 20 years old, and even then she was seeing herself on a global stage.
Her brand is building. Nike sponsors her boots and runners. Dandenong Hyundai keeps her in a fresh set of wheels. She does junior coaching with Carltons Next Generation Academy, and has financial advisers to manage investment properties in Brisbane and Melbourne, and diversify her share portfolio. A deal with Colgate was signed this month, and the services group MC Labour has the naming rights to her boxing shorts (which she designed, with sequins and tassels).
She recently trademarked her boxing logo TH with a lightning bolt in the centre and after lengthy negotiations Harris has permission to use the kick photo (owned by the AFL) to sell T-shirts with its silhouette online. Could that distinctive outline become her version of the iconic Michael Jordan Jumpman logo for an apparel range? Thats in conversation, says Saundry, her manager. Weve just gotta find a way to make something work.
Harris tackles Justine Mules of the Adelaide Crows during the Round 4 AFLW match at Richmond Oval in Adelaide, March 1, 2020. Credit:AAP
Harris has an acting agent, too, and takes classes and workshops, knowing she will be called on for public speaking, and perhaps for roles in sports media. She looks up to the commercial success of mixed martial arts fighter and celebrity Rhonda Rousey, and lives by one of the brawlers aspirational aphorisms: If you cant dream big, ridiculous dreams, whats the point of dreaming at all?
Hopefully, amid all of this image curation, she remains unvarnished. Harris is at that age when star athletes often begin to sense their worth and clam up, offering only rare peeks into their authenticity.
Current evidence is thankfully to the contrary. In a post-match interview this season, an AFLW opponent said that if you nullify Harris in the air, shes useless on the ground. Harris played to the theatre of the moment on Instagram, posting a photo of an apex predator with a glowing golden mane and these words: A lion never loses sleep over the opinions of sheep.
In isolation, shes also decided to take up a YouTube career, filming and editing a library of entertaining videos in which she chats about her life, or takes people through a workout. I had wanted to ask her about her tattoos, and her catalogue of ink is one of the first topics addressed on camera.
Its hard to know where Harris will end up. She certainly has no grand plan. She wont even lock herself into footy.
Messages of love from her mum and dad on the inside of either wrist. The heads of the four main characters in Seinfeld Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine on a forearm, even though she wasnt born until 1997, eight years after the show premiered in 1989. Fortune favours the brave on the inside of her right elbow. The Buddhist symbol for enlightenment on her left thumb.
Lines, triangles, dots, she says. I just like shapes. On one bum cheek, a picture of Judge Judy and the words Only Judy can judge me. And on the other cheek? A quote from Kris Jenner, offered to Kim Kardashian when she was doing a nude photo shoot: Youre doing amazing sweetie.
She pulls down her bottom lip, and on the skin inside is a tattoo she got at Bondi Beach, one word in capital letters: STRAYA. When Harris interlocks her fingers, the middle knuckles line up to spell OXYMORON.
AFLW star Tayla Harris and the kick that ignited the trolls - then punted them to the sidelines - The Age