For the last 30 years, professional football has sat atop of the list as being the most popular sport in America. It’s a violent sport to say the least, and for that reason it has always been perceived as a “man’s game”; however, there is a growing interest of women in football. The surge in women playing fantasy football leads one to assume that interest has increased in spectatorship alone, but this is not the case. As the ever-growing popularity of football continues to rise, so does the desire to play for many women across the U.S.
There is a budding culture of women partaking in American football professionally. On the surface, the thought of this may seem strange, considering that with most sports, an athlete has years of experience before reaching its highest level, and unlike their male counterparts, there isn’t much of a chance to play tackle football at an early age for females. The closest most girls get to playing football is usually powder-puff, touch football or flag, and on rare occasions, a young girl may be allowed to play on an all boy’s team to gain some experience (as in the case of Sam Gordon, the young girl who went viral in 2011 for posting extraordinary stats playing tackle football in her local pee-wee league). But for the most part, the opportunity to learn organized, full contact football simply isn’t there for young women. For men, this early introduction to football helps to shape their future in the sport, and according to USA Football, is what guides many players on the path to having professional careers after college. But despite not having any background or prior training in the sport, there are semi-professional and amateur football leagues that exist in the U.S. that provide women the chance to play the sport at an elite level.
Two of the most well known of such leagues are the Legends Football League (LFL) and the Independent Women’s Football League (IWFL). The two leagues are significantly different (from the uniforms they wear down to their style of play); however, there are also many commonalities between the leagues, especially among the ladies that play within them.
DEFINING EACH LEAGUE
The LFL was founded by CEO Mitchell Mortaza. Women in this league play 7-on-7 full tackle football. The league has expansion teams in Canada and Australia, and plans for Europe in the later part of 2015. The field dimensions and rules are considerably different from men’s football and other women’s leagues. LFL 101 explains that the playing field is only 50 yards long and 30 yards wide, the ladies play two 17-minute halves with an eight-minute sudden death rule for overtime, and there are no punts or field goals. After the touchdown, a team can receive either one point for a run or pass score at the 1-yard line or two points for a run or pass score at the 3-yard line. It is also mandatory that within four downs a team must rush twice and pass twice.
Originally called the Lingerie Football League (due to its concept of using lingerie for uniforms), its origins began in 2003 as a pay-per-view halftime show during the Super Bowl, but its popularity grew leading to the creation of a 10-team league in 2009. Consequently, the attire of the teams made it very difficult for people to take the women seriously and some feminist highly disapproved of the league. Courtney Martin, columnist for Feministing.com, called it “pernicious objectification.” Although the league rebranded in 2013, dropping the lingerie name and theme, criticism of the organization still lingered. Nevertheless, the LFL still afforded women a chance at playing football, which is what drew in Yashi Rice, defensive lineman for the Chicago Bliss and the younger sister of ex-NFL Pro Bowler Simeon Rice. With the stigma associated with the league, older brother was not initially a fan of Rice’s participation as she notes in an interview.
Rice acknowledges the criticism the LFL receives but appreciates the chance to just play football, “The league has really helped me and allowed me to put so many things in perspective.” She also explains that their clothing, or lack thereof, doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things: “We are very proud of our bodies. Hollywood has this image that you have to be thin or you have to be thick, but if you’re an athletic chick you have to be gay. And don’t get me wrong; it’s nothing wrong with being gay. But this league allows us to say hey, I can still be a woman, I can still be feminine, and I can still be soft, but I can also hit hard and make you think you are watching an NFL game. I don’t feel like any other uniform would make a big difference.”
As part of the rebranding, the league has taken measures to upgrade the uniform, now resembling more like volleyball shorts than lingerie. The shoulder pads are more protective, the helmets have a harder shell and more inside padding, knee and elbow pads are worn, the gloves are more form fitting and the chest plate is thicker. Rice believes that the injuries some women incur are not related to their uniform stating, “The injuries that people get, few are due to the equipment. The majority of the injuries that I’ve seen have been due to not training properly.” LFL Australia’s Shari Olney details in her blog the training steps and physical fitness needed to play in the LFL and how being unprepared and unconditioned can be harmful emotionally and physically.
Currently, the LFL has six active teams: the Atlanta Steam, the Chicago Bliss, the Omaha Heart, the Las Vegas Sin, the Los Angeles Temptation, and the Seattle Mist. The four others teams are inactive due to reconstruction, but plan on restarting activity in the near future. The LFL plays six games in a single regular season.
The IWFL differs vastly from the LFL. Although both are full contact football, the IWFL is more similar to the men’s game. It is the oldest of the three leagues in the U.S. that plays the 11-on-11 format (the other two being the Women’s Football Alliance and Women’s Spring Football League ), the women are dressed in full padding, and according the rulebook on the league’s website, they use NCAA Division I rules. Their champion is crowned at the end of the season in the Founder’s Bowl, as there is an entire week dedicated to the event, comparable to Super Bowl week. Founded by Laurie Frederick in 2000, the league has 36 teams across North America (one team in Canada, the Montreal Blitz) with over 1600 active players.
Jessica LeSane of Danbury, Connecticut is a three-year vet in the league, playing offensive guard and defensive tackle for the Connecticut Wreckers. LeSane embraces the opportunity to play semi-pro football considering she has been a long time lover of the sport with limited access to playing before joining the Wreckers. “I loved football since I was young,” states LeSane, “I would always play outside during recess, and of course I was the only girl playing.”
Like many of her teammates, LeSane jumped at the chance to play once introduced to the league: “When I heard about women’s football, without a doubt I signed up. Actually a friend that I went to school with who is on the team as well, Danielle Moraes, told me about it and I came to a practice and been playing since.”
FUNDING AND COMPENSATION
The IWFL has official sponsors (i.e. Hertz, Courtyard Marriott-Austin/Round Rock, Build-A-Sign, Baron Rings and Team Rebel) and also charity partners with the Women’s Football Foundation, but it still isn’t enough to cover the cost of all the teams included within the league. Each team is responsible for finding additional sponsors to support their team’s need. For some of the teams in larger markets, securing sponsors are plentiful, as with the Pittsburgh Passion. But according to Wreckers head coach Gary Peloso Sr., in a smaller market, this isn’t the easiest task, “We try to get local sponsors, but it’s very difficult cause again, it’s women’s football and that’s the biggest obstacle to overcome. But there are a couple of restaurants that give us some money.”
The women in the IWFL are not compensated for their play either. Coach Peloso has devised a method to help his players with their fees: “Unfortunately, they have to pay to play in this league. And what we also do is, we tell the girls if you get a sponsor from a local vendor, we will apply that directly to their dues. So at least it doesn’t necessarily have to come out of their pockets. So if they [the players] can get the sponsor to cover just them, we [the team] will still consider that a sponsorship, even though 100% of the funds goes specifically to them.”
On the other hand, the LFL was considered a pro-sport and in the beginning was being paid a percentage of the net revenue of ticket sales. They had corporate sponsors and used Spike TV as their official cable network to air their games. But controversy arose in the league as some players filed complaints, saying they were all not being paid the same, making as little as $8/hr. The Baltimore Brew brought this to light and spoke with LFL Media Director Stephen McMillen who insisted to The Brew in 2010 that those grievances were false stating, “All LFL players are paid the same bonus structure of 20% of ticket sales if they win and 10% if they lose.” McMillen also stated that LFL employees are not paid salaries referring to the fact that the players are considered independent contractors. But in 2011, the league stopped paying them all together and changed the LFL’s setting to an amateur league and now the women are asked to pay a $45 registration fee to join.
Aside from not being paid, these women don’t receive health benefits either, which is also very different from the men’s football league. In college, football players are insured under their school. In the NFL, players have medical options. For the women playing in the IWFL, if they don’t have their own medical insurance, they are pretty much playing at their own risk. “I am concerned sometimes about my safety,” says LeSane, “Then at times I’m like as long as I have the proper equipment and use the right techniques I should be okay.” The Wrecker adds: “Yes, things do happen that we may not expect. I just pray that there are no injuries for myself, my teammates or my opponents.”
In 2013, Inside Edition spoke to seven players who were stars in the LFL regarding the various injuries they received on the field, and Laurel Creel of the Seattle Mist said she has spent thousands on medical care as she has had four major concussions and shoulder surgery.
Marjorie A. Snyder, senior director of research for the Women’s Sports Foundation, wrote in the Washington Post that women suffer concussions more rapidly than men and at a higher severity level than men when playing the exact same sport at the college level. Because tackle football is still gaining popularity, not much research can be found on what exactly the concussion rate is for women who play the sport. But one can assume the trend will translate over to football and that women could very well be at a higher risk of suffering a concussion on the field than their male counterparts.
IT AIN’T FOR EVERYBODY
In spite of everything done to garner support for the leagues, there will still be those who will just not buy into the brand of watching women playing tackle football. Brian Dennis, a 39-year-old Mortgage Specialist, coaches youth football and has done so for several years. He has coached young girls on his team before: “In my third year of coaching the Wilkinsburg Bees a.k.a the ‘KILLA BEEZ’ (11 & 12 year olds for Wilkinsburg Athletic Association (WAA) in Pittsburgh, PA, which is the organization I played in [as a child] and my father coached) a 12 year-old young lady attempted to play but quit after three days. She was very athletic and ended up being a very good PG [point guard]. Two years ago coaching the Coul-Oak Steelers Tiny Mites (6-7 year-olds), a girl (7 years old) played on my team; she played on the offensive line. Her father did not allow her to play this season that just concluded. It’s not up to me as a coach to allow a young lady to play; it’s up to her and her parents. If she can make it through [tryouts] then yes, she can play.”
Now, Coach Dennis is not opposed to girls playing the sport, but believes there should be age restrictions saying: “ [For my own daughter] My cut off age would be 9 years old, nothing after that. The speed of the game, aggression, and intensity of the game changes. I would not let my son play if he was not ready or had the ability to adapt to those changes. As a coach, I have not played kids who have come to practice daily and worked to be on the field because they were not ready. Sometimes it takes a kid a whole season to work their way into a game. Football is a controlled fight and train wreck on every play. I don’t want to subject anyone’s child to getting hurt if they are not ready boy or girl, my daughter or son. As a coach I’m entrusted with the safety of children and I take that seriously.”
But despite having had girls on his youth team and not being opposed to women playing football, Coach Dennis still lacks appeal for watching women’s professional football: “It just doesn’t interest me. Football is my favorite sport and I can’t stand bad football on any level. I am over critical when watching football. I know that if can’t handle watching bad youth, high school, college, and professional football by males, then there is no way I could watch females playing football and enjoy it. I know the speed, intensity and aggression is not there.”
CAN WOMEN’S FOOTBALL EVER BECOME MAINSTREAM?
As with most sports, evolution is inevitable. The NFL didn’t begin at the level it currently sustains, it evolved into the game that is now known. One must believe that women’s football can also evolve. USA Football now assembles a USA Women’s American Football team that competes every four years in the International Federation of American Football Women’s World Championship. The team won a gold medal in the 2013 Championship. If organizations such as USA Football can accept the emergence of women in the sport, it seems likely that a mainstream acceptance can’t be too far behind. Simply put, these women just want to be recognized and want their respective leagues to be recognized. “I want everyone to know that the women in this league are talented and dedicated women,” says LeSane on the IWFL, “ We take on a challenge of playing a man’s sport.
It’s not easy getting recognition with stuff like this simply because we are women. Yes, football may be a man’s sport, but it doesn’t say women can’t play. There are women in this league that play better and harder than some men. I salute every woman in this league for putting in effort and playing this sport. It goes to show that women can do things men do and sometimes, even better. I also want everyone to know that just because we are woman doesn’t mean we don’t train like men. We have coaches that push us to be the very best that we can be. Without the supporters of women’s football and coaches, we wouldn’t have this league.”
SO WHERE DO YOU STAND?