Last Tuesday night the Oxygen network debuted "Pretty. Strong," a reality show following the lives of six players on the Chicago Bliss -- the two-time defending champions of the Legends Football League (formerly the Lingerie Football League). The show aims to shine a light on how the women balance football with life (center Jamie Barwick is a single mother), and work (wide receiver Alli Alberts is a dentist, defensive lineman Yashi Rice a struggling R&B artist).
Those who haven't seen an LFL game might be imagining something like a souped-up high school powderpuff game. No way. These are intense, 7-on-7, full-contact, tackle football games featuring former Division I athletes who can seriously ball. They're the kind of women you'd want your daughter to look up to: strong, athletic, passionate, empowered and confident.
Only problem? Those damn uniforms.
See, the name of the league might have changed, but the uniforms haven't. Players still wear push-up bras, spandex underwear, shoulder pads and helmets with clear masks that allow their faces to be seen. The only real change since the days of the lingerie league is that they no longer wear chokers and lace garter belts.
"When I first started playing, I was not thrilled about the uniform, I'm not gonna lie," said Bliss quarterback Heather Furr, whose storyline was to be featured heavily in the show's second episode yesterday. "What sold me is the football, and what I've had to do since then is be OK with the uniform. If I could choose a different uniform I would, but I can't."
"As soon as you step on the field you forget what you're wearing," Furr continued. "And yeah, the uniform brings people to the stadium, but the fact that we're playing real football keeps people coming back."
For Furr and many other players, the league is just about getting to play football, a sport so many girls and women love but never get the chance to compete in. But in order to play football, they have to agree to degrading and exploitative practices. The players, who are unpaid, go to bars to promote their team and sell tickets, and stay after games to take photos with and hug fans.
Back in the Lingerie League days, reports surfaced of "accidental nudity" clauses in player contracts and fines if players wore layers under their uniforms, whether it be for protection from injury or previously discussed accidental nudity. More recently, searches for "LFL halftime tackle player" yield countless YouTube videos of men from the crowd "winning" the opportunity to tackle an LFL player at halftime.
Watching these powerful, talented athletes participating in this B.S. is so disheartening. The blatant objectification has made me a staunch opponent of the LFL since its inception, when it was just a one-game, pay-per-view program at halftime of the Super Bowl. I understand why these women join the league. They love the game and want to play in front of crowds, with decent media coverage. There are other pro women's football leagues in America, but they don't draw many fans and they aren't televised. LFL games are edited and aired on Fuse a week after they're played.
I share the passion these women have for playing football (I'm currently typing with two busted fingers broken in a flag football league game), but if the only outlet for professional play requires objectification, I'm out. Furr said she hopes people focus more on the football than the close-up shots of boobs and butts that dominate the video boards and TV edits of LFL games.
"I have two younger brothers and three younger sisters and all of them still respect me just as much, if not more [than before I played]," Furr said. "I think with little girls watching the game ... if they can see past the uniform and see us as role models, then that's what I want."
Having to see past a uniform to get to the actual football is troubling. Young girls take in the message that the only way people will watch women play sports is if they're sexualized. It's not enough to be a great athlete; they also have to show cleavage and blow kisses at the camera.
It's like saying it's impossible to ever separate women from their sexuality, even in something like football, which is so inherently unrelated to sex.
But some players, like lineman Nneka Nwani, enjoy wearing the LFL uniforms. "While I was playing college basketball I was kind of depressed that I had to dress like a boy. I want to be an athlete, but I also want to be a woman. I believe that a jersey and shorts hide everything that's powerful and beautiful about my body. My body is majestic. It's gorgeous and it's admirable and I love to be able to show it off."
It's news to me that wearing a jersey and shorts to compete is "dressing like a boy." And in addition to aesthetics and functionality, showing more skin seems like it actually could be dangerous for the players. Football at every level is played with pads that protect the athlete and optimize performance. Serious injuries occur even when every precaution is taken, so it stands to reason the women of the LFL risk a lot every time they go out on the field. Other than their helmets, shoulder pads and some flimsy knee and elbow pads, the uniforms leave so much uncovered.
Turf burn? ACL tears? Broken ribs? Just par for the course when you're tackling at full-speed in a bikini.
"Football is a dangerous sport," Furr said. "I know what I'm getting myself into. Yes, having less padding is more dangerous, but at the end of the day, it's what I'm willing to do to play. It's what I'm willing to put my body through. I've second-guessed a lot of times ... and I always come back to the game. I've almost left the league and the team twice, and I actually did kind of quit last season at the beginning because of how time-consuming and how physically demanding it is. I didn't think I could do it anymore, and I left. But two weeks later I asked to come back and my position was still available for me. I just couldn't not play."
"There's always the thought of getting hurt, but I guess I don't think about it," offensive lineman Deena Fagiano said. "I think if you think negative things you're more likely to bring them into your life."
Adopting the principles of "The Secret" might be a good way to approach life's ups and downs, but just thinking happy thoughts isn't going to protect you from serious injuries -- injuries like the ones suffered by former Los Angeles Temptation receiver and running back Melissa Marguiles, who says she received no help from the league in paying hospital bills for fractured bones in her cheek and eye socket. She's one of several former players suing the league, alleging that LFL players have been unlawfully classified as independent contractors instead of employees.
When I tried to ask questions about Mitch Mortaza, the controversial owner of the LFL, the PR person for "Pretty. Strong." jumped on the line to steer the players away from talking about him.
It's clear there are major flaws in the league -- no compensation for players and claims of little to no coverage of medical issues chief among them -- but these women are so desperate to play they're willing to accept them. Nwani hopes the Oxygen show might open up doors for her and help her make up for the money the LFL isn't providing.
"Clearly we live in a patriarchal society and women don't get the amount of money that we should," Nwani said. "I think we should be paid. We're putting our lives on the line, we're putting our well-being on the line, we're putting our ability to switch careers on the line. It's a big deal for a lot of us and the bigger we get, the bigger our show gets, then the greater the opportunities are that we can increase our salary for women that play sports."
After watching these women play, I can honestly say I respect the heck out of them as athletes, but I'll still never respect the Lingerie Football League, no matter what name they give it.