First published on The Age by Samantha Lane, 29 January 2017
Full-time doctor and part-time AFL footballer Tiarna Ernst has admitted she stands to lose financially by committing to her sporting dream more seriously in the new, semi-professional women’s league.
Likening her situation to a first world problem, Ernst – a qualified doctor who specialises in obstetrics and gynaecology at Monash Health – is acutely aware she already makes a good living.
The fact, however, that at the age of 28 she will earn less in the new competition established by Australia’s dominant sporting code while she’s on specially granted leave from her full-time employer highlights sharp realities.
Criticised for its first proposal to pay the vast majority of female players $5000 for what’s effectively a five-month commitment – the inaugural eight-week women’s season starts on Friday after club training began on November 21 – the AFL has already upped its offering.
The AFL Players’ Association, now also representing the elite female players, accepted a revised three-tier pay structure that will see 16 “marquee” status players earn $17,000 plus $10,000 for ambassador duties each.
Priority selection players will earn $12,000 for playing but the bulk of the players will be on the lowest level wage of $8500.
Every contracted AFL women’s player can earn more from their clubs, or the AFL, through other employment, promotional and ambassadorial roles and sponsorships.
Signed with the Western Bulldogs as a third-tier earner, Ernst is among the majority that stands to make $8500.
Until very recently she was alternating demanding hospital shifts while preparing for training and playing with Diamond Creek Women’s Football Club.
Although it is standard in her field to do 12-hour hospital shifts through the night across seven days, then have her schedule flipped to day shifts, Ernst could not physically juggle her full-time job with her fresh AFL duties.
Monash Health, supporting her AFL playing dreams, which she announced upon interviewing for the job after she relocated from far north Queensland, has approved special leave for its unique employee.
But this comes with a significant salary sacrifice that Ernst, who also sits on the AFLPA’s women’s league advisory committee, was at pains to play down.
“I’m using my annual leave from my job for the first period of the pre-season,” she said.
“Come the start of the AFL competition I’m very thankful that my work has given me their blessing, and I know that they will help me be flexible in terms of my work shifts.
“It may mean that I need to work longer hours on days that I’m not training or playing, but that means that on the days where I do need to be able to train or play that they will be flexible enough to move some shifts around so that I can actually make those commitments.
“I will probably lose money by playing AFL football in the position that it stands at the moment. It will put some strain on my financial position having to commit so much to playing AFL football. But I’m thankful to be in a good position financially in terms of my (non-AFL) profession.”
Logistically it would not be possible for someone like Ernst to juggle the demands of her regular job and meet all her training, playing and recovery requirements
In Monash’s highly competitive six-year training program, Ernst is two years into becoming a specialist in obstetrics and gynaecology. She kept a formidable schedule and physical regimen before her special leave from working in hospital.
Ernst was severely injured in the August 2015 AFL women’s exhibition match, rupturing a kidney and needing eight days in hospital.
Women were never paid to play in that series of games the AFL staged over a number of years between Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs. Last August’s clash before the men’s finals series was the highest rating Saturday night game for the season.
Ernst says she felt beyond satisfied with how her 2015 medical emergency was resolved financially.
“I had top private health insurance already so that covered my hospital stay,” she said.
“And Melbourne Football Club were absolutely amazing and covered every other doctors’ visit, every medical bill that I had, the radiology for CT scans that I needed and pharmacy scripts. They covered the rest of it which was amazing.
“I was very unwell at the time and it has taken me a good 12 months to get back to my physical self before the injury.”
Insurance for female AFL players remains a hot topic, with players required to personally obtain, and pay for, top-level private health insurance.