In December 1999, on a windy day in Long Island, the Minnesota Vixen and the New York Sharks met in a game that marked the unofficial beginning of the Women’s Professional Football League. The Sharks, who had first put on pads just two weeks before—they started as a flag football team—upset the more-experienced Vixen 12-6 after quarterback Val Halesworth threw a 40-yard pass for the winning touchdown. Tomorrow, the two teams will meet again for the first time since, this time in the semifinal of the Independent Women’s Football League playoffs.
To many, it comes as a surprise, if not a shock, that this most physical of team sports, seen as the pinnacle of masculinity in the United States, is even played by women. But while the idea of women playing football is sometimes seen as a novelty (think powderpuff and lingerie football), it isn’t new. A handful of women have garnered attention for playing on minor-league men’s teams over the years, starting with Pat Palinkas, who briefly played as a placekick holder for the Orlando Panthers in 1970. More to the point, women’s leagues—real leagues, with full pads and full contact—have operated in various forms since at least 1965, though specific teams and organizations have come and gone at a rate that’s hard to track.
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The modern era in women’s football began with a 1999 tour by the Vixen and the Lake Michigan Minx. The two teams played each other in a series of exhibition games they called the No Limits Barnstorming Tour, an attempt to drum up interest in women’s football. After the six-game series ended, the Vixen extended a challenge to the Sharks, who were a top flag football squad at that time. The following year, the Women’s Professional Football League formed with 10 teams, including the Vixen and the Sharks.
So much women’s football, so little coverage
Currently, there are three leagues in the US—the IWFL, the Women’s Football Alliance, and the United States Women’s Football League—with a total of 88 teams across the country. The prevalence of this sport shouldn’t come as a surprise. In a country where millions of women love football just as passionately as the men in their lives, why wouldn’t they be playing?
“I was raised by a mother who never said I couldn’t do anything,” says Dana Sparling, a former Sharks player who now works on the management side. As a kid, Sparling says, “I was in the street playing football with the boys. At some point, I stood there as they all got to walk off and play real football, and that opportunity wasn’t there for me.” She moved on, picking up soccer and playing flag football when she got the chance. It’s a story that’s familiar to women across America—and for most, it ends there.
But for Sparling, and a growing number of women, it didn’t. At age 37, not long after losing her mother to cancer—an experience she says made her question whether she was doing what she really wanted to do—she saw a TV special about women playing tackle football. “I had no idea this existed,” she recalls. “My head just started spinning.” She remembers wondering if she was too old to play, then excitedly Googling nearby teams. She got in touch with the Sharks, went to their open tryout, and has been in the game ever since.
A full-time job without pay
The pull of football is intoxicating to the women who get the chance to play it. Being raised around the game, taught to bleed your team’s colors and scream yourself hoarse for them week in and week out, yet never being allowed to play competitively builds up an incredible hunger. Between practice, travel, games, and volunteering, many players devote as much time to football as they would to a full-time job. They talk about the sport with a reverence one rarely hears from men, who take access to it so much for granted that its poetry eludes them.
“It’s the angles, the inches, the excitement, the plotting between each play, the outwitting and outmaneuvering,” says Andra Douglas, another former Sharks player who now owns the team. “I find the movements beautiful: the jumping in the air for the passes, the big hits, the dropping back to throw a pass. Everything.”
For Tia Hopkins, New York’s offensive line and linebacker coach, the attraction has shifted over the years. “When I first started, in my early twenties, it was about being able to physically assault someone legally,” she laughs. “Later, it became more about the amazing camaraderie. The bond you build playing football isn’t like any other sport. It’s war out there… if one person blows their responsibility, the play is not going to go off the way it’s supposed to.”
Paying it forward
All three women are also motivated by the notion that they’re paving a road for the next generation. It will come as no surprise to fans of other women’s sports that despite their palpable drive and passion, that road has been rocky. As with so many other sports, gridiron football leagues have struggled to survive over the years; a dozen-odd, including the WPFL, the league the Sharks and the Vixen started in, have gone belly-up. What sets football apart from soccer, hockey, and basketball, is that while leagues in those sports have struggled to come up with the money to compensate players fairly, football leagues have had to scrape and scramble merely to give women the opportunity to play as amateurs.
“There isn’t enough money in the sport,” says Sparling, “to run one league with all the talent that can fly people back and forth to play each other.” Major sponsorships are nonexistent, and although attendance is rising, it’s still low—in the hundreds, not the thousands. Almost all players have to pay a fee to play, either in cash or by working volunteer hours.
“People don’t know about it,” says Vixen head coach Brandon Pelinka. “I know our team has been growing because people have come to watch, and they see that we play well, and it’s exciting, and it’s good football.” But without a real marketing budget, generating interest is an uphill battle.
Getting media coverage is another piece of the challenge. “If we were going to actually televise games, it would cost us money,” says Sparling. Some teams have contracts with local cable companies, but getting national coverage—even for playoff games—remains a pipe dream. Otherwise, media attention has been limited to periodic flurries of interest. “When it first started, it was such a curiosity,” remembers Douglas. “We got a lot of coverage. Five years in, it waned a little bit. The newness of it wore off.”
Football falls prey to the same vicious cycle that’s long plagued women’s sports.
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A lack of media coverage means people don’t know about the sport, and because people don’t know about it, the media assumes they won’t be interested and doesn’t cover it. With football, though, there’s an ugly extra layer of difficulty beyond logistical and financial challenges: there’s still cultural resistance to the notion of women playing the sport.
Where’s the NFL?
“The more, I’ll call it, collision sports, contact sports,” says Sparling, “boxing, hockey, football—these are the final frontiers for women to break into.” Women have generally been locked out of playing America’s most popular sport over notions that, as Hopkins puts it, “women’s bodies aren’t built for football,” is telling.
In that sense, there’s a revealing parallel between gridiron football in the U.S. and the other kind of football in much of the rest of the world. In nations where playing soccer well is seen as the height of masculinity, girls and women have long been excluded, sometimes by law. That the U.S. boasts the top women’s soccer system in the world can be seen as a reflection of the fact that girls aren’t typically allowed to play their country’s most popular sport.
Changing that is a priority for everyone involved. For players, that often means volunteering their time to do community outreach. For Douglas and Sparling, it’s meant setting up a nonprofit, with Washington, D.C.-based videographer Rich Daniel called the Women’s Gridiron Foundation. “We run an annual girls’ football camp,” says Sparling. “We pull in several hundred girls from the New York City area and teach basic football skills, coached by [Sharks] players.” The foundation also sends players to local schools, where they share life lessons learned on the gridiron and spread the word about the sport’s existence.
Beyond the WGF’s camps, opportunities for girls to play are slowly cropping up. It’s still rare, but no longer unheard of, for girls to play on high school boys’ teams. And the San Angelo YMCA, in football-crazed Texas, is slated to offer their first-ever girls’ league this fall.
If the sport is ever going to achieve long-term stability and legitimacy, though, more support is needed. “It’s going to have to be the NFL,” says Sparling. “They’re going to give us validity, just like what happened with the WNBA.”
On a local level, some NFL clubs have worked with women’s teams. USA Football, the NFL-endowed governing body for amateur football, has provided support for the WGF’s youth camps. USA Football also runs the Women’s World Football Games, a sort of annual workshop attended by players from around the world (the sport has a surprising reach internationally).
The league itself has provided NFL-trained female coaches for certain games in recent years. But the gorilla in the room is this: why can’t a league that rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars each year shell out the money to run a semi-professional or even amateur women’s league? With their recent move toward increasing female involvement on the management side—not to mention perceptions that football promotes a toxic version of masculinity—funding a women’s league could be a worthwhile gesture from a branding standpoint, beyond being a step toward equity.
The New York dynasty
For now, both teams are focused not on politics, but on Saturday’s game, which promises to be a hard-fought battle. The Sharks are the most successful team in the history of the women’s game, with a perfect record this season, and a roster stacked with talent. “For the past three years, we’ve had ten all-star nominees, and all ten have made it,” says Hopkins.
It’s a challenge the Vixen is taking seriously. New York is “one of the most balanced teams,” said Pelinka in an email. “They run the ball well and throw the ball well… We expect to be challenged by a very explosive passing game and a hard, steady running game.”
Meanwhile, Pelinka praises his team’s “amazing defense,” which has allowed a league-leading 1.3 points per game this season. On the other side of the ball, the Vixen’s offense, led by all-star rookie quarterback Kiersten Hansen, is averaging 30.4 points per game. “We are ready to grind it out or go fast-paced. Our offense can do both,” Pelinka wrote.
Another player to watch is defensive tackle and offensive lineman Red Bryant, a grandmother who’s been playing with the Vixen since their original barnstorming tour. Pelinka calls her “one of the greatest women players ever.”
The sport’s difficulties and naysayers won’t be on anyone’s mind tomorrow. Football, for so many of these athletes, is where they learned to believe that they can do anything. Douglas vividly remembers the first time she put on the pads. “I felt invincible,” she recalls. These days, she contents herself with reliving that feeling through “her kids,” as she calls the players. “Watching them run onto the field… they’re walking on air, and you can see it in their faces.”
“I’m so excited I can hardly stand it.”
You can stream Saturday’s game starting at 7:00 EST.