This article was originally published on Harlot.
2015 saw a revolution in women’s sports.
Serena Williams has been kicking ass and taking names as the best tennis player in the world. The U.S. women’s soccer team decimated the competition at this year’s world cup and were called up on stage with Taylor Swift as part of her “squad” to boot. Ronda Rousey is one of the hottest commodities in both the sporting and entertainment worlds, recently saying she “wants to be the best at everything”. And, while not technically a “sport”, women’s wrestling in World Wrestling Entertainment has been experiencing its own insurgency, entitled somewhat counterintuitively “The Divas Revolution”.
So what place does Legends Football League—formerly Lingerie Football League, in which its players competed in just that—have in this revolution?
On the one hand, LFL is provides an opportunity for women interested in playing the sport to actually play it. There’s a good amount of exposure (pardon the pun) for its players, with games televised on Fuse and a reality show about the Chicago Bliss called Pretty. Strong. airing on Oxygen. Wide receiver Alli Alberts said on Pretty. Strong. that she “like[s] to be able to turn on my crazy switch and there’s [sic] not a lot of sports that you can do that in and it be socially acceptable.” Plenty of scenes show the women in practice and in the gym, perfecting their bodies for the sport while juggling their personal lives. Centre player, pharmaceutical representative and single mother Jamie Barwick says, “I spread myself extremely thin but it’s worth it because I love the game.” On the other, visibility is but one of many variables in the women’s sport revolution: fair pay, health insurance and adequately protective gear all come into play, all of which LFL denies its players. (The other two major women’s football leagues in the U.S., the Independent Women’s Football League and Women’s Football Alliance, allow their players to compete in helmets, shoulder pads and pants.)
For example, in the league’s first season, players were paid a percentage of the gate which equated to a couple hundred dollars each. Come LFL’s second season in 2010, it was apparently not feasible to continue paying them, however as a private company LFL’s earnings aren’t made available to the public so it’s unclear whether this was truly the case. Also in 2010, games were edited down to fit a 30–minute timeslot on MTV2 on Friday nights, the death knell of television programming.
In a piece published earlier this year on the now-defunct Grantland, Professor Charlene Weaving of St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, Canada, is quoted as saying that “women athletes are accustomed to playing for less than men or for nothing at all.”
The lingerie aspect of LFL has caused controversy and while I acknowledge that booty shorts, bare midriffs and boosted cleavage sexualises women in sport detrimentally and they certainly wouldn’t be my first choice for outfitting female football players what concerns me more is the un-protective nature of the gear. In a sport as aggressive as football it should be a crime to be so exposed. While the competitors in women’s beach volleyball and women’s wrestling, for example, wear similarly skimpy uniforms or gear, they are not as contact-heavy nor the stakes as high as football, respectively. The comparison to LFL’s male counterparts’ regalia in the National Football League is stark: they are almost completely covered (yet injuries still abound, so maybe its problems are more to do with the nature of the sport than the gender playing it).
Perhaps this is a strategic move on the part of LFL and why, for example, sports like professional wrestling are classified as entertainment: if the focus is on players’ sex appeal, it’s justifiable that LFL is not a “real” sport, therefore competitors don’t need adequate gear, uniforms and health insurance.
There’s also the assumption that men won’t watch women’s sports unless the players are nice to look at. From the Grantland piece:
“The LFL requires its athletes to fit a certain aesthetic… players should be thin. The shoulder pads are positioned so fans can see cleavage, and the players wear hockey helmets—not football helmets—which allow fans a better view of the women’s faces.”
The LFL’s obsession with showing off their player’s bodies is what led to former Green Bay Chill player Amber Mane’s broken nose, caused by a helmet to the face, attributable to LFL founder and chairman Mitchell Mortaza telling players to adjust the chin straps on their helmets to better rip them off when celebrating plays, she says.
Emphasis on head trauma has been at the forefront of contact sports in recent years, with organisations such as the Concussion Legacy Foundation, the Boston School of Medicine Centre for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy and the forthcoming documentary Concussion studying the effects of head trauma. It’ll be interesting to see whether LFL’s operations will be affected or if changes are only implemented in “real”, oftentimes men’s sports.
As reality TV is wont to do, this issue of the LFL’s controversial uniforms were explained away in one Pretty.Strong. voiceover. “When I first wore the uniforms I was a little nervous,” says Bliss defensive lineman Yashi Rice. “I thought we could wear a little bit more coverage but once I put it on I didn’t feel bad at all because I work hard at what I look like. I’m not gonna lie, I personally like the uniforms!” Rice’s comments also further the LFL’s—and wider society’s—agenda that conforming to a narrowly defined prescription of sexiness is empowering.
But it’s inherently sexist to assume the women who play in LFL don’t realise they’re being exploited. Bliss Quarterback and Pretty.Strong. star Heather Furr, who is also profiled in the Grantland piece, says she was hesitant to continue in LFL due to the impact it took on her paying jobs and personal life. However, when Nikki Johnson, formerly of Las Vegas Sin, approached her in 2011 about forming a players union, Furr says she wasn’t “going to put my name on anything. I don’t know how this is going to go.” It’s also worth noting that other sports where women are marginalised, such as college sports and mixed martial arts, are severely lacking in unionisation. Being the only choice for women who want to play gridiron affords the LFLa reluctance of its players to rock the boat. This leaves a lot of room for unaccountability.
Not only this, but keeping LFL’s players marginalised might also serve the purposes of the women’s sport revolution at large: pigeonholing LFL as somehow not a “real” sport, despite its extreme physicality, allows continued focus on real, palatable women’s sports. To this way of thinking, it’s better to allow the public to digest tennis or soccer than a sport with controversial beginnings in the male consumption industrial complex.
LFL may be going strong in the U.S. but it’s seen less success elsewhere. In Australia, after a 2013 season, LFL’s 2014/2015 season was cancelled after it failed to secure television coverage. A Google search for “women’s gridiron Australia” suggests that the sport is still popular in the country, however in leagues where its players wear proper protective gear. Women’s Australian Rules Football is also experiencing a surge in popularity, with a televised league rumoured to launch in 2017 after the success of a televised match in August which drew three times as many viewers as minor league men’s matches.
It is worth noting that women in AFL wear uniforms similar to its male players, including mouth guards.
With the increased interest in not only women in sport but in different kinds of women’s sports, would the LFL, in its original incarnation of a SuperBowl halftime attraction in which barely dressed models rolled around chasing a ball on pay-per-view, be dreamed into existence today? Or would a completely new women’s football league with adequate pay, uniforms and health insurance rectify LFL’s wrongs?
I would wager no; it’s much easier to shoot down new offerings that pander to the patriarchy than it is to dismantle entrenched sexism in sport. When women in sport have to contend with the inequalities that are plain to see in LFL, we’ve still got a long way to go, baby, than just recognising that women can, too, play sportsball good.