Football has long been called a “collision sport.”
When two tornadoes of sweaty breasts, plastic helmets, shoulder pads, tanned legs and exposed midriffs slam into one another each week on the Fuse network, it makes for one hell of a spectacle. But that spectacle isn’t enjoyed by all. In fact, the Legends Football League is downright offensive to some.
The LFL, formerly the Lingerie Football League, was rebranded in 2013 in order to make it a more viable product to a general audience. Still, concerns that the league is demeaning toward women and concerns that the women who play in the LFL are put in an unsafe environment remain.
“We wanted more of the media and fan attention to be directed toward the athleticism of the players and the overall integrity of the sport versus simply its sex appeal,” LFL owner Mitchell Mortaza told Metro about the rebrand. “Most media outlets or individuals that complain about the LFL uniforms or the outward perception of the sport have spent very little, if any, time actually exploring the sport. Meaning taking time to either attend a game or watch on television. Most, if not all, have never met an LFL athlete. Those media outlets and individuals who have seen the sport understand how real it is and why these women are truly incredible athletes. The uniforms are meant to draw initial interest from media and fans, but it’s the play on the field that has grown the sport over the years.”
Skin, so much
Lauran Ziegler is a wide receiver and free safety for the Atlanta Steam. The former college softball player wanted to stay in competitive sports and has become one of the faces of the LFL as the league continues to gain popularity through its national TV deal.
“The talent level has 100 percent improved since when I started in the league [in 2011],” Ziegler told Metro. “We’re real athletes that just happen to wear a lot less clothing than the majority of sports. We wear just as much clothing as beach volleyball players, just as much as swimmers. But if you tune in, you’ll see some real athletes playing the sport of football. That’s what we’re about.”
Ziegler and the LFL maintain that the skimpy outfits are worn during play simply to draw initial attention to the sport. After the viewer is drawn in, the LFL then says there’s instant appreciation for the way the players go about playing the game.
“We know what we’re signing up for when we start in the league. Unfortunately we have to sell tickets to get people to the game,” Ziegler said. “After the game, no one ever says anything about the uniform. It’s always, ‘oh man, I can’t believe how hard you guys hit.’
“We know that a lot of [our audience], when they first hear about it or see it, it’s ‘yeah, I want to see hot chicks in bathing suits,” Ziegler added. “But then they keep watching the game and then they appreciate the athleticism.”
Dr. Mary Jo Kane is a Professor in the School of Kinesiology at the University of Minnesota and is the Director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport. Kane doesn’t yet buy that the LFL has evolved into a legitimate pro sports league from when it debuted in 2004.
“They’ve been saying similar things for a decade. Why are they still struggling to get legitimacy?” Kane told Metro. “When you say you are a pro sports league and the focus is on lingerie, you take away from the game. You’re sexualizing female athletes, objectifying them, and then pretending that it’s something different. This isn’t a criticism of the individual women who play and may want to use this as a stepping stone to something else. But should we take this seriously as a pro sports enterprise? No.”
Kane stopped short of saying the league flat-out “exploits women.” But she does have a problem with the way the LFL says it “re-branded” itself.
“Using a word like ‘Legends” implies that it’s athletes who have already accomplished greatness in their sport, like the ‘Legends Tour’ in golf,” Kane said. “Football is a game of force, and how do those uniforms allow you to accomplish the task [of tackling]? If this is how they want to sell and promote the league, that’s fine. Just don’t insult our intelligence by pretending this is a serious sports enterprise.”
LFL players wear a version of an ice hockey helmet, with a clear visor, instead of a traditional hard-shell football helmet with a facemask. Is recent years, with several former NFL players taking their own lives as a result of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and with concussions in football remaining a hot button issue, there is a train of thought out there that the NFL would be better off going back to leather helmets, or not wearing a helmet at all. Those in favor of a lighter helmet or no helmet believe that this would cut down on spearing and head-hunting and would ensure that players tackle other players properly.
“That’s absurd,” said Dr. Robert Cantu, the senior advisor to the NFL’s head neck and spine committee and the chairman of the advisory board at the Sports Legacy Institute. “The trade-off (of going to leather helmets) would be skull fractures and deaths.”
Cantu does not believe that the glorified hockey helmets that the women in the LFL wear are safe.
“Hockey helmets just don’t give you the same protection [as football helmets],” Cantu told Metro. “I have no idea why they are not wearing football helmets. Football helmets protect more of the head than hockey helmets. So I’m very concerned.”
Ziegler says that she has never had a concussion in a game and that there is a heavy emphasis on the correct way to tackle from coaches. Rug burns from being tackled on the turf are Ziegler’s main worry when she plays.
“The last game my whole butt was ripped up from the turf. I could barely sit down,” Ziegler said. “But this only happens in the games. We practice on grass and in the games you have so much adrenaline going that you don’t even notice it. You only notice it the next day when you take a shower.”
The league clearly wants to showcase the faces of its players with the clear visors in hopes of making stars. But again, there is a fine line that is being walked between what is sexy, what is sport, what is sexist and what is safe.
“I think the data is clear that there’s a problem in football with head injuries, but at the same time, the men who play football are all over the age of consent and they know the risks,” Kane said. “I don’t want to dismiss the seriousness of [the helmet] issue, because I haven’t watched a game and I’m not that kind of doctor. But why aren’t they wearing football helmets? Is it just because it’s easier to see your face and focus on what you look like?”
Notes: For all intents and purposes, the league made its debut during halftime of the Super Bowl in 2004 with Lingerie Bowl I on Pay-Per-View. There was more skin on network TV that night, however, as Janet Jackson had her infamous "wardrobe malfunction" during the NFL's halftime show.
- The LFL currently has six teams - the Chicago Bliss, the Atlanta Steam, the Omaha Heart, the Seattle Mist, the Los Angeles Temptation and the Las Vegas Sin.
- Mortaza told Metro he hopes to expand the league by two teams for 2016. The league is looking at expansion in Boston, the Bay Area, Dallas, and Washington D.C..