The Other Women’s Pro Football League, Where They Play For Pride (And Not In Lingerie)

It is winter in Alabama.  Bitterly cold winds sweep off the Appalachian foothills and roll through the Tennessee Valley, chasing children inside and sending dogs to paw and scratch at back doors to be let in.  This is a place that deals in heat, brutal heat, and cold has a way of unnerving the locals.

I am at a football field in Huntsville.  The thick Bermuda grass has long since turned brown and crunchy, and the flecks of dried grass stalks cling to your shoes with each step.  The land is flat here, and the wind howls and whips through your clothes and takes your breath away.

One by one, a succession of cars arrive at the field.  An SUV here, a beat-up sedan there.  A minivan.  Winding along the gravel road and inching up to the edges of the field.  Presently the occupants leave the vehicles and amble toward the dormant gridiron.  They are all women; some barely out of high school, others older, still others much older.  They are mothers.  Wives.  And they are all here to play football.

These are the Huntsville Tigers, members of the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA), an 11-on-11 full-contact league.  The WFA has 45 teams in cities from Portland to Orlando.  The Tigers’ 8-game schedule does not begin until April, but they can only practice on weekends, so every practice counts.

They are not paid.

They get very little media coverage.

Who these women are, and why they play this game, is a story that has not been told.

* * *

Four-hundred miles away, just outside of St. Louis, a 33-year-old mother of two is breaking the news to her friends.  Marion Ball has made the roster of the St. Louis Slam, one of the WFA teams in the Great Plains Division.  To celebrate, she slips on a football toboggan and snaps a picture of herself.  Let’s get the season started! she writes as a caption, and then sets the photo adrift in the stream of Facebook.  There, nestled among endless engagement photos and BuzzFeed listicles, her post catches the eyes of family and friends.  Some do not understand.  Others wonder if she has joined a lingerie football team.

“My family didn’t even know St. Louis had a women’s football team,” she says now. “There were a lot of raised eyebrows.”

* * *

Back on the Alabama practice field, the owner of the Huntsville Tigers stands and watches her players train.

Carmelesia Sullivan is a small, deliberate woman.  She watches the players intently, pointing and redirecting, never too loud and never too upset.  Always in control.

After a career as a player, she crossed over into coaching women’s football.  Five years ago, she assumed ownership of the Tigers and guided them into the WFA.  She remains the team owner, as well as one of its coaches.  Her twin sister Carmela handles head coaching duties.

The players are racing around plastic cones and catching passes.  There are no pads today and no tackling.  Pads and helmets will come next week.  Right now, it’s something much simpler.

“Girls don’t grow up with a football in their hands,” Carmelesia says softly.

Almost on cue, the woman streaking through the passing lane bobbles and drops a pass.

Undaunted, Carmelesia continues talking, her eyes tracking the player running through the cone circuit. “Sometimes the most important thing we can do is just get them comfortable with the ball.  Boys throw.  We can’t throw enough.”

There is a soft, dead thud as the next pass hits the woman in the hands.  This time it is a catch.

* * *

The lingerie football league (now called the Legends Football League, or LFL) is a specter that hangs over everything these WFA players do.  It is the first thing that many people associate with women’s football.

“I had trouble getting a field to play our home games on,” Carmelesia mutters with equal parts frustration and bafflement.  “I had to explain very clearly that we were not a lingerie team.”

To simply blame the LFL is lazy; football and sex have long been intertwined.  The football field has always functioned as a sort of stage for our gender archetypes: the strongest males battle for dominance while the prettiest girls cheer them from the sidelines.  This is reinforced on Sundays, when television cameras pan across the bodies of hulking players to linger on the bare skin of dancing cheerleaders.

Women’s football faced an impossible dilemma: how do we market female players in a sport defined by men?  The LFL took the route of using sexuality, putting their players in tiny uniforms and marketing their sex appeal.  But the LFL was hardly the first to use this trick: tennis and golf put women in miniskirts.  Beach volleyball puts women in bikinis.

I have no interest in demonizing or defending the role of sex in women’s sports, but I am very curious to know what the women of the Huntsville Tigers think.  Every player on the team has faced the same incredulous stare: you’re going to play football in your underwear?  No, they’re not that league.

Opinions among the team vary widely.  Some of the players vocally resent the LFL while others see it as a good thing.  Still, others are ambivalent.  Most of the players seem to regard the LFL as a different version of the same sport, the way a fast-pitch softball player might look at a slow-pitch league.

TK Peebles, one of the leaders on the team, offers a nuanced view. “I can appreciate their talents, I just don’t appreciate how they’re exploited.”

* * *

In Missouri, as the season draws near for the St. Louis Slam, Marion Ball wrestles with the commitment of practicing three days a week.

“My biggest opponent is Mom Guilt.  Fear of missing out on something.  I have a 6-year-old and a 6-month-old.”

So, why do this?  Why throw her body into the grinder of tackle football?  Why now, in her 30s?

“Because I want my daughters to know they can do whatever they want in this world. If they put in the work. My 6-year-old asks me ‘how was football practice, Mommy?’  Not many kids can ask their mom that question.  I can’t wait to see her eyes light up when she comes to her first game.”

* * *

In Alabama, the members of the Tigers face obstacles of their own.  Huntsville is an affluent city, a burgeoning hub of tech and defense industries, yet the team struggles to find sponsorships.  Team members carpool to games all over the Southeast at their own expense.  Playing for the Tigers is something beyond a sacrifice; it is an existential war for the players.

TK, the veteran on the offensive line, tries to explain. “I’m playing against the naysayers.  Both inside myself and what other people say.”

What kinds of negative things does she hear from herself?

“I’m too big to play.  I’m too old to play.  I’m not skilled enough.  I’m not fast enough.”

Tawaka Turner, a 35-year-old rookie fullback, chimes in. “I’m playing against myself.  My own insecurities.  My age.”

And then there is Lesley Johnson.  She has played women’s football for four seasons.  She is not particularly big or muscular, but very few of these women are.  She loves this game fiercely, a love that was passed down to her from her father.

“Growing up, I was a daddy’s girl and that was our Sunday religion; sitting around the TV watching football.”

Her father is gone now, having passed away before he ever got to see his daughter play the game he taught her to love.

“This is 95 percent for him.  Five percent is for me, but… yeah… 95 percent for him.  I know he’s up there,” Leslie says, and her voice cracks.  She swallows hard, choking back emotion.  This is football, and there is no crying in football.

And what would her father say to her if he could see her play?

Leslie stares at me for a moment.  She casts a glance over her shoulder at the group of mothers, college students, and career women huddling on the dead grass.  The winter wind keeps blowing.  The season creeps closer.  One more chance to take the field against the demons of doubt.  One more chance to play for Dad.

Leslie turns back, tears welling in her eyes, certain of what her father would say.

“I’m proud of you.”

* * *

For information on the Huntsville Tigers, the St. Louis Slam, or any WFA franchise:
Huntsville Tigers
St. Louis Slam
Women’s Football Alliance