Does The LFL Have A Place In The Women's Sports Revolution?

Updated March 05, 2016 3:42pm PST

2015 saw a revolution in women’s sports.

Editor's Note: This article was altered at 2/26/2016 7:00 PM PST to reflect new information regarding the number of women's gridiron leagues in the US. 

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 in that year’s world cup. While not technically a “sport”, women’s wrestling has been experiencing its own insurgency, branded somewhat counterintuitively in the WWE as “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, being one of only three gridiron leagues for women (to the best of my research), LFL is a great 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. Center 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 hand, visibility is but one of many variables in the women’s sport revolution: there's also the matters of fair pay, health insurance and adequately protective gear, all of which LFL denies its players. 

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, the LFL’s earnings aren’t made available to the public, so it’s unclear whether this was truly the case. 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– while I acknowledge that booty shorts, bare midriffs and boosted cleavage sexualizes 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 aren't as contact heavy, and the somewhat cooperative nature of wrestling (spoiler alert, I guess) limits somewhat the likelihood of someone injuring another "in the heat of the moment", at least on paper. (WWE's ever-swelling injured list is another thinkpiece entirely).

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 organizations such as the Concussion Legacy Foundation, the Boston School of Medicine Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. and the recent documentary Concussion studying and promoting the findings and realities of head trauma to the greater public. 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—party line 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 realize 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 marginalized, such as college sports and mixed martial arts, are severely lacking in unionization.  Being the only choice for women who want to play gridiron affords the LFL a reluctance of its players to rock the boat. This leaves a lot of room for unaccountability.

Keeping LFL’s players marginalized 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", i.e. 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. It's a short game with long, reaching consequences on the safety and livelihood of female laborers. 

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?

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Scarlett Harris is an Australian writer and blogger at The Scarlett Woman, where she muses about femin- and other -isms.