Turn on a football game and you’ll see a woman. Any level, it doesn’t matter. They’re referees, assistant coaches, athletic trainers, broadcasters, analysts, and yes, even players. It's notable, despite there not being many, because it wasn’t that long ago there weren't any. And it’s still every day they face what former Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden thought he was sly enough to say privately.
They don’t belong here.
The old guard has been saying that for decades, so women have persisted and broken through. Nowhere is that made more apparent than in the new book, “Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League.” Authors Britni De La Cretaz and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo do what those writers in the 1970s did not: publicize phenomenal women for their success and efforts on the football field.
Yet in telling their stories, they’re also telling society’s failures. There’s a direct line to the enduring stereotypes of today seen most recently in Gruden’s sexist remarks on female referees as well as his utter disregard for treating cheerleaders as human beings.
“Hail Mary” is first and foremost a story of forgotten players, teams, dynasties and legends. It weaves from the Oklahoma City Dolls to the Toledo Troopers, dubbed the “winningest team in professional football history” by the Pro Football Hall of Fame, to the Detroit Demons, the Los Angeles Dandelions and more. Few had any experience playing football, but were interested when they read of the league in newspaper ads and the rare national story on the league, such as a feature on Linda Jefferson in womenSports magazine.
The book is a look beyond the “gimmick” attitude owners and attendees took toward women playing football. Instead, it treats the league as a writer would approach the NFL: Who are these people, what are their motivations, how did they find it, in what ways did they succeed and falter? And most importantly, who won and lost? Few would ever mention the Troopers in the same breath as the Green Bay Packers or Pittsburgh Steelers or New England Patriots, but they should. They went 61-4 with multiple perfect seasons and won seven World Championships from 1971-1977.
De La Cretaz and D’Arcangelo piece together the NWFL’s story as best they can since many teams flew under the radar or never received any newspaper coverage. Their interviews with players reflecting on their place in history bring a fresh feel to a topic that could have been stale. Most importantly, they give voice to a group that set a foundation for women’s inclusion in professional football and even the women’s leagues of the WNBA and NWSL that were to come decades after Title IX was enacted in 1972.
It’s a shame the players, who earned $25 a game if they were lucky, were never initially covered the way they deserved. To read about the way the league was treated is disappointing and infuriating. One can’t help but wonder, what would have happened if it had been more widely accepted? Or if, at the very least, it wasn’t trashed in the little coverage it did receive? Would we have more stories like 13-year NFL veteran Marvcus Patton crediting his mother Barbara, a former Dandelions linebacker, for his love of the game?
We don’t know the answers. But we do know the adage that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. In some ways, history is currently repeating. Women’s sports aren’t given the same credit and coverage as their male counterparts. They are hidden and disparaged, pushed to the back of web pages if given any space at all. And when they do make it to front pages, the trolls attack online just as sports writers did in print all those years ago.
“And, strangely enough, they played good football, seldom fumbling or running away from their interference,” Life Magazine wrote in a piece excerpted in the book. Because of course a game played by women can't just be covered as a game.
In other aspects, we’ve thankfully grown. Take Gruden, whose homophobic and sexist emails were leaked this month. The longtime coach and former ESPN analyst immediately resigned in a move Raiders team owner Mark Davis accepted. There is no place in the game for that attitude, and the fans of the game may finally be taking that seriously. Though Gruden disparaged the idea, there are now two female NFL referees and one worked Super Bowl LV. On the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' sideline that night were two female assistant coaches in addition to a scouting assistant and director of football research. All have NFL championship rings.
They are small gains, to be sure. Football at all ranks has a long way to go in terms of diversity of race and gender. The American Flag Football League only launched a Women’s Division for six teams this past summer, and while women keep playing professional tackle football, it’s rarely given any attention unless it’s attached to the men’s game in some way.
Yet “Hail Mary” puts into perspective the hurdles women have faced and successfully overcome. If you think male football players are tough, step aside. Because female football players have to be tougher. Look no further than “Hail Mary” to see why.