How sexism and homophobia sidelined the National Women's Football League The NWFL lasted from the mid-1970s to 1988, when it shuttered and the teams broke apart. A new book, Hail Mary, explores the league's origins and the problems that brought it to an end.

How sexism and homophobia sidelined the National Women's Football League

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I'd be willing to bet most of you know at least a little something about the Women's National Basketball Association - or WNBA. But how about the NWFL, a women's pro football league? No, not soccer. But the helmet and shoulder pads tackling kind of football. Well, hopefully it's not a shock to you that women love football, not just watching it, but being paid to play it, too. Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer who focuses on the intersection of sports and gender. They co-wrote a new book with Lyndsey D'Arcangelo called "Hail Mary: The Rise And Fall Of The National Women's Football League." In "Hail Mary," the authors start with a man who first came up with the idea of a women's football league, a guy named Sid Friedman.

BRITNI DE LA CRETAZ: The thing about Sid is that he cared more about publicity than he did about the game. He envisioned things like tearaway skirts and jerseys. And he reportedly sent a Hustler photographer out to practices to photograph the women, who were appropriately horrified by this.

MARTINEZ: Despite the blatant sexism and even when they weren't taken seriously, women from all different backgrounds responded to Sid's call to play.

DE LA CRETAZ: I was really surprised by the sheer diversity of who came out for these teams, all kinds of diversity - racial diversity, diversity in sexual orientation, hairdressers and truck drivers and teachers and stay-at-home mothers. Some of the players were as young as 17. Others were in their 40s.

MARTINEZ: I talked with de la Cretaz on the day their book published and learned a bit more about how these players shook the American football world.

DE LA CRETAZ: I have to mention Linda Jefferson first because every player we spoke to mentioned Linda Jefferson first. Linda Jefferson was a halfback for the Toledo Troopers. She was on the cover of Women's Sports Magazine. She was compared often to NFL players, particularly O.J. Simpson. She actually retired with more touchdowns than O.J. Simpson or Jim Brown. The thing about a lot of these teams, though, is some of the teams were incredibly dominant, and others were much less so. Part of the reason for that is because there's no infrastructure for girls to learn football as kids. There's really still not, but definitely not before Title IX. And so even though a lot of these women were athletic, they're picking their game up as adults. And they're learning the game for the first time as they're entering into a pro football league.

MARTINEZ: Britni, how much did the league have to deal with homophobia?

DE LA CRETAZ: Yeah. These players, a lot of them were gay, right? Many of them weren't, but a lot of them were. Some of the teams, including the Dallas Bluebonnets, you know, formed in a lesbian bar. And the teams themselves were actually considered to be a safe place away from homophobia. Even the straight players, a lot of them, it was their first time spending much time with gay women. Not a lot of people were openly gay at the time. And for them, it shaped their social politics to this day. But for the lesbians on the team, the team and those lesbian bars actually served a very similar purpose. It was a place that they could be who they were and be it safely and be in community with other people like them. The media, however, was very quick to ask players about their male partners, presumed male partners, and how those male partners might have felt about them playing such a dangerous and masculine sport like football. They often were asked questions or stereotyped as just, you know, lesbians are written off as nothing but a bunch of lesbians. And some of the women dealt with slurs being yelled while they were practicing or things like that.

MARTINEZ: And, you know, with media coverage of women's sports, there's long been a constant failure in two areas, I think, covering it as a sideshow, covering it as a curiosity, or covering it at all. Britni, when researching the book, how did these two aspects come into play for your research?

DE LA CRETAZ: The interesting thing is that there's lots of media coverage at the beginning when the teams are launching. The coverage is very skewed by the perspective of the people who are writing the stories. Usually, they're men. They're sportswriters. And so the play by play is great. I can tell you what the game scores were. But in the interviews with the players, it's so clear that the only questions that are being asked are things about how football helps their weight, whether or not they're women's libbers because remember, this is during second wave feminism. And some people thought the only reason that women would be playing football was because they must be part of the, you know, dreaded women's liberation movement. And it was some sort of feminist statement. The other thing that's really interesting about the media coverage is that when we talk to some of the players, they actually say they were misquoted in the paper or didn't say some of the things that were written and attributed to them. And I think it raises really important questions about even how much we can rely on those primary, archival sources because they are so filtered through the lens of the people that were writing them in the time in which they were written.

MARTINEZ: Last month, past emails from former Raiders coach Jon Gruden were leaked, revealing, among other things, how he criticized the hiring of women as NFL referees. What did you think, Britni, when you heard that story?

DE LA CRETAZ: I was incredibly unsurprised. I think the NFL coach culture is incredibly toxic and broken in a lot of ways. And I think that this was just another example of that. And when we see that there was very high-profile people in the league that were CC'd on those emails, it makes a lot of sense. And I think it's really interesting. One of the things that we talk about in the book is what the future of the women's game might be like and whether there's a league on par with the NFL in the future for women's football. And one of the biggest debates in the women's football community is whether they want the NFL to step in and help them to start a league. And many of them don't. And I think that those emails are a very good example of why, because when you take a league that was developed by men, for men and is run by men, and then you try to apply that to women, you're just recreating these systemic problems and harms. I think the National Women's Soccer League and the current abuse scandal that's been going through that league is a really good example of that.

MARTINEZ: That's Britni de la Cretaz. They co-wrote a new book with Lyndsey D'Arcangelo called "Hail Mary: The Rise And Fall Of The National Women's Football League." Britni, thanks a lot.

DE LA CRETAZ: Thank you so much.


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