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Sport, Softcore Porn, Or Both? Stripping Down The Lingerie Football League

KANKAKEE, Ill.—I had been haunting Chicago Bliss practices for weeks, and I had yet to see anyone in lingerie.

I had spent plenty of time watching the Bliss stumble through drills late at night at the Bridgeview Sports Dome, an hour in traffic from downtown Chicago and so close to the highway that you could hear the semis whiz by. I had seen the athletes sitting rapt in a badly lit conference room, taking notes as Coach Keith Hac scolded them about some of the “extremely poor plays” from their losing game last season with The L.A. Temptation, which he had on tape. The Bliss play in the Legends Football League, which used to be called the Lingerie Football League. But the rebranding of the league had nothing to do with my failure to see them in their underwear. It was merely a matter of bad timing on my part.

Finally, on February 16, I got to see a little of what they do off the field. The Bliss had agreed to be card girls at the Fire Extreme cage fighting event at the Kankakee County Fairgrounds Exposition Center, and I made the drive from Chicago to watch them.

It was still the raw Midwestern cold that settles into your bones. Hardly anyone was on the road. The sun was setting and the scenery flew by flat, empty, and bleary, relieved by the occasional grey farmhouse and the skeletons of winter trees.

After about an hour, I passed a KFC and Taco Bell on the left. It was getting dark. I turned right off of the two-lane highway onto a small road and into a gravelly parking lot, at one end of which squatted a low building resembling an airplane hangar. A crude sign identified the hangar as the Exposition Center.

Inside, there were not a lot of people. It was still early, hours before the fights. I moved into the cavernous space to inspect the cage where the fighters would be pummeling each other later on. We were told that AC/DC would be played and that this was a PG event with no swearing. As I looked around the ring, four players from the Chicago Bliss burst in. Although there were no cameras, they stood there for a moment, as if posing, or perhaps channeling the Gladiators they dreamed of being.

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The postcard advertising the Fire Extreme Fighting event, which the Bliss put up on Facebook, promised anyone who read it that they would “Meet In Person” the Bliss. In the photo on the postcard, three of the Bliss posed in their 2012 uniforms—blue and orange bikinis, reminiscent of the Chicago Bears only in color. Orange and blue ribbon chokers were tied with lacy white bows at the throat. The players’ cleavage spilled out of the Uniform bras, which looked like Victoria’s Secret push-ups. A white lacy bow festooned the front of the bra and the front of the bikini pant, daring anyone to tug at it. Garters dangled from the bikini and each player wore a garter belt on her right leg, the kind the groom tears off at a wedding. The players stood arms akimbo and they seemed to be posing in front of a wind machine, their hair flying back. They reminded me of Charlie’s Angels, casting come-hither looks into the camera.

One thing you cannot see from the postcard is the ruching on the back of the bikini bottom, whose purpose seemed to be to draw the audience’s eye to the curve of the players’ asses.

But if anyone had come to Kankakee hoping to see the Chicago Bliss in the photo, they were going to be disappointed. The Bliss’ costume this evening included high heels (one player wore cool, black suede wedges), jeans, and white wife-beater T-shirts with the league’s re-branded, gender-neutral slogan on the back, “Legends of the Gridiron.” They could have been sorority sisters.

After having eaten a dinner of beef sandwiches at one of the players’ mom’s houses nearby, the four members of the Bliss now planned to spend some of Saturday night as ring girls between rounds, generating interest in the team, and hopefully selling tickets to their first game on April 19.

The women gathered behind a table on one side of the Exposition Center to get ready. Someone took out a stick of eye-black and passed it around so that everyone could apply a line of greasy black make-up to their cheekbones. Someone else fanned out business cards and postcards advertising the team on the table. And they waited.

A short man with a beefy face approached.

Could the Bliss serve beer, he asked, gesturing to the back of the arena, where someone had set up a makeshift bar.

“Who could refuse you?” he leered.

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Two of the players wandered off in the direction of the bar. They weren’t back there for long. The players didn’t think that the LFL should serve beer, one whispered in my ear. Maybe before the rebrand they would have served beer. But the LFL was trying to change its image. Taking the word Lingerie out of the League was supposed to desexualize it. The rebrand was supposed to announce to the world that the women were sports heroes, not lingerie models, as the media so often portrayed them. As one player in a tank top and black booty shorts screamed at me the first time I saw the Bliss practice months earlier:

“It’s not about lingerie, it’s about football.”

BRIDGEVIEW SPORTS DOME

Bridgeview Sports Dome is a pleasant facility in the Western suburbs of Chicago. It has a well-lit bar and an even better-lit conference room, and an enormous field paved with AstroTurf. Fans and parents can watch from an area chaired and tabled with lawn furniture. It is all PG.

Over the last few months, at Bliss practices, which generally take place between 8 and 11 in the evenings, after children’s soccer has finished, and in interviews with the players and their families, I have seen and heard things that strike me as unique to the LFL.

“I smell like a stripper,” said Lauren Carter, 30, who was put on injured reserve and left a few months ago.

Asked about her pre-game rituals, Kimberly Anderson, 33, a veteran of two seasons and the team’s “market manager,” at first denied she had any. But then she admitted, laughing: “I have to have lip gloss.”

The photo of her in her bikini on her navy blue business card is too small for me to see if she is wearing it then, too.

Once, a player bellowed the phrase “double d’s,” which I always thought referred to determination and drive in sports, but all of a sudden, another player was joking about her cup size.

“I’m a 32B,” she screamed, grabbing her tits.

Everyone else doubled over with laughter.

Hair is big. A lot of blond. Some natural, or more natural anyway, some peroxide. At least five players wear extensions. Some wear buzz cuts or half buzz cuts. Most of the players wear makeup on the field: lip gloss and mascara and fake eyelashes and French tips. All of this goes with eye-black, so that the result is Riot Grrrl Tough.

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To practice the Bliss wear shorts, Lululemon yoga pants, cropped T-shirts a la Flashdance, sports bras, pajamas, fingerless gloves, and cleats. Spandex is king, layered, worn over sweatpants, or solo. Once I saw a player who had forgotten her practice gear strip down to a turquoise bra and raise her arms in the Victory sign as she danced around the indoor practice field.

Like all the teams in the LFL, the Bliss is diverse. About half of the players are African American and some are mixed. The women are mostly in their twenties, although a few are in their thirties (some won’t say how old they are), and I was told that once there was a player on the Seattle team in her forties.

The players’ day jobs are diverse also. Of the Bliss players, one is a stewardess for Southwest Airlines, one is a public school teacher, one works for a handbag company. One is a nanny. One is in dental school. Most live nearby but a couple commute from out of state to the bi-weekly practices.

Heather Furr, 28, the only three-year veteran, works at Murphy’s Bleachers, the sports bar near Wrigley Field, and is a personal trainer. Two-year veteran Laura Peterson, aka Styxx, 23 years old, is a plumber’s assistant, assistant firefighter, EMT, and in nursing school. This slim everywoman of the Midwest grew up playing Peewee football.

The Bliss, in other words, are your sisters, girlfriends, and daughters. To make the team is not easy. An original field of 150 applicants became a team of 20.

As in the NFL, injuries bench players. Every time I visit practice, a couple of women are benched from fractured bones, torn ligaments, jammed fingers, and once, a chipped tooth. Some complain about nasty burns from hitting the indoor turf hard wearing underwear.

“There’s a concern with padding,” said Kimberly Anderson. Plus, “You can’t protect joints.”

Besides padding scarcity, an obvious and significant difference between male and female football is that the LFL is an amateur league. One year, the LFL paid its players teensy percentages of profits, but it abandoned that in favor of covering travel expenses, which can be high.

The game is seven-on-seven, arena-style football on a 50-yard field. The players wear smaller-than-regulation shoulder pads, knee pads, (some players forego them) and hockey-style helmets. They throw smaller balls: the ones used before the rebrand had the silhouette of a naked woman on them. They don’t punt, or attempt field goals, although after a touchdown they can go for extra points. Each team plays a four-game season. There are six teams in each conference. The Western Conference includes Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Seattle, Minnesota, and Green Bay. But the LFL is adding teams all the time all over the world.

There are 20 players on the final team and 14 dress and are eligible to play in each game. The head coach, Keith Hac, is constantly reminding the Bliss that if a good player walks in off the street, she could replace anyone at any time. The players toss Hac’s warning around, as if to console themselves for the insecurity they feel about a game that some of them have just started playing.

“It may sound harsh but it motivates you,” said Anderson.

Other customs, which may be standard for organized sports, somehow seem more harsh because the players are women. The LFL insists that news organizations turn over all photos. Contractually, the players are forbidden from saying anything negative about the league, which may explain why several of them seemed so frightened when I asked if they had insurance. (They don’t.)

By far the oddest thing is that the LFL gives players their uniforms—which are all one size—on game day, because, according to Tyler deHaven, an LFL spokesman whose voice mail still identifies him as working for the Lingerie Football League, “we have had problems in the past with girls losing or forgetting the uniform….”

To some LFL critics, this is evidence of the league’s paternalism—paternalism that sets back women’s football and even women.

“I am sure the LFL girls have a lot of different pieces to keep track of so I can see why they do that! Wouldn’t want to show up to the game without your jersey bra!” joked Katie Sowers, wide receiver for the Women’s Football Association, a fully clothed pay-to-play league.

Sowers, who is to the LFL what Occupy Wall Street is to Jamie Dimon, complained that the LFL only allows its players to “high tackle,” in other words to bring players to the ground by grabbing them above the knees.

“Is tackling low only a risk to women…? In my opinion it is another example where the gender trumps the sport in the LFL,” she said.

In an email, Hac disagreed: “Low tackling can lead to serious head and leg injuries.”
Nell Gelhaus, another LFL critic, a linebacker who plays for the Women’s Football Association, noted that although seven-on-seven is a faster game, it eliminates positions such as linebacker that are best filled by players with some bulk.

“Those girls aren’t going to be running around in their underwear,” she said, laughing.

IS THE LFL JUST PLAYBOY FOR MILLENIALS?

In an era of third-wave feminists, slutwalks, and The End of Men, is it surprising that the LFL would appear? It has been seven years since Ariel Levy wrote her groundbreaking book, “Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture,” documenting how women were adopting traditionally male behavior.

But the league’s appearance poses interesting questions: Is LFL retro, a kickback to the Rat Pack era, some sort of sports version of Mad Men? Is it an advance for women, like equal pay and equal military service? Or is it an offshoot of Girls Gone Wild?

I think LFL is an unprecedented creation, a mix of old-fashioned shill and Vice Magazine‘s porn-4-all approach. If Playboy Magazine were trying to reach Millennials, it would do well to feature the LFL.

I am told many times that there are three requirements for the LFL player: athletic ability, looks, and football knowledge. But the hierarchy of these criteria is unclear: I am told that a player was once benched for being too pale, and this was deemed a justifiable move because tanning salons sponsor the teams. I am told there is a difference between what the coach wants (good players) and what the league wants (hot players).

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But some critics argue that by featuring undressed women playing football, the LFL gets around one stumbling block the clothed version of the sport has faced: the perception that female football players are gay. The comments on YouTube videos of the National Women’s Football Association include plenty of anti-gay slurs such as this one: “The dude on the left looks like a dude and the other 1 is a dyke for sure.” By contrast, comments on LFL videos frequently mention the players’ looks, regardless of their sexual orientation. “HOT HOT HOT” would be just one plainly worded example. In an era in which the president of the United States has to apologize when he describes a female attorney general as “the most attractive,” there is something retro about these comments.

Mary Jo Kane, a sociologist and the director of the Tucker Center for Research for Girls and Women in Sports at the University of Minnesota, explained to me that the more women engage in team combat sports, the more likely they are to face accusations of not being a real woman, i.e. gay. Women in lingerie playing football, she added, do not pose a threat but rather reinforce the worst stereotypes about what a woman can or should be. “This is about lingerie, not about football,” she said.

But the Bliss players don’t see anything wrong with making their looks part of the package. Asked about the uniforms, Heather Furr, the starting quarterback describes them as “unforgiving.” As game day approaches, she works out for two hours a day, “eats clean,” foregoing alcohol and carbs. Other players do hundreds of sit ups. Furr, like many on the team, repeats the line that the uniform is a way to attract fans and to show the body beautiful.

Alli Alberts, 26, a wide receiver, also didn’t mind: “I’ve been wearing spandex my whole life.”

The uniform, players agree, is no more revealing than what Olympic beach volleyball players wear.

But, as Mary Jo Kane pointed out, beach volleyball players don’t try to grind each other into the turf.

Furr, an accomplished athlete in many other sports, shrugs off this kind of criticism. She told me over coffee that the Bliss players see themselves as “pioneers.”

In the month before game day, the pioneers are busy. The coach adds extra practices, but the Bliss are also doing promotional events at monster truck rallies, dodge ball tournaments, car washes, bar crawls, wrestling bouts, on the field at a White Sox game, at viewing parties, and at “Mounted Memories,” a sports memorabilia convention at the Rosemont, where they sign and sell photos of themselves.

One way to look at all this promotional activity is to say that the history of women’s football in America—women’s sports—suggests its necessity: Four of the six women’s football leagues that have formed since 1999 have folded due to money issues and a lack of interest. But scholars argue that the promotion also has something in common with the skimpy uniforms: it highlights the double-standard for male and female athletes.

Mary Jo Kane says that for football players to perform as card girls, for example, sends a message that “women are there for titillation, they’re objects.” She notes a paradox: The women are participating in a sport identified with masculinity, but they’re only allowed to do so while flaunting their femininity. In other words: “It’s OK that you’re going to be in this sport as long as we can see your breasts.”

I don’t know whether Kane is right. When I began reporting on twenty-first century female sports teams playing in their underwear—there are now teams in nearly every sport that do—I started with the Bikini Basketball League. I called the manager of the Chicago Desire, as the franchise here was known.

“This could be a reality TV show,” Donovan Price said, chuckling, the one time I got him on the phone. “We’re having trouble getting girls,” he added.

I never caught up with Price again. Later, I read that he had been fired after an unnamed player filed charges of “sexual misconduct” against him and the Chicago team was being reorganized.

In contrast to the Bikini Basketball League, the LFL runs like a machine. Asked about the League’s role in American sports, players and management repeat a sentence from a 2010 Business Week feature like a mantra. “They’re a rarity in women’s sports—a women’s league that is actually growing.”

“Yeah, how’s that working out for them?” asked Mary Jo Kane. “Why are they changing their brand if they’re hitting it out of the park?”

Kane’s research shows that sexualizing women’s sports does not draw audiences—competency does.

“Sexualizing female athletes alienates the fan base,” she says, adding: “We have the data—sex doesn’t sell sports, it sells sex.”

Mitch Mortaza, the founder and commissioner of the LFL, disagrees. In fact, he is betting that sex, even the toned-down version he’s selling with the league’s rebrand, will attract fans. The rebrand is comprised of the swapping of the words, “Lingerie” for “Legends,” increasing the size of and heft of the shoulder pads, and switching non-performance materials for what talent agent Tyler DeHaven called “non-silky” performance material “that breathes.”

But coach Hac adds that new rules of the game implemented in August make the LFL more like men’s football, taking away restrictions that made the game too easy, such as requiring passing two out of every four downs. There are also safety rules, like the “horse collar rule,” which prohibits pulling by the neck to tackle a player.

Mortaza is betting that this is the moment for real women’s full tackle football.

The history of Mortaza, like the history of so many things in our country, is a mixture of chance, personality, and timing. Mortaza was able to leave his job working for an Internet service provider, PSI Net, in 2000.

He initially conceived the LFL as a pay-per-view halftime stunt in 2004. Things did not go smoothly. Before the debut, the LFL’s main sponsor, Dodge, “got a little nervous,” as Mortaza put it on ESPN that year. Mortaza exchanged the car company with PartyPoker.com and a couple of others, including Miller Coors.

But ultimately, the LFL event was so successful that, in 2009, Mortaza launched the league’s first season. Games were broadcast on several channels, including MTV2. It was a success. (It switched to YouTube and pay-per-view).

Mortaza said he hopes to pay players “soon,” which he clarified as being when the League is on solid financial footing.

But many players don’t seem to care whether they get paid. Kimberly Anderson, the former player and market manager, said she was just excited to play a game that challenged her. The LFL had given her opportunities she would have never had otherwise.

“It would be nice, but I’m OK where it’s at.”

It’s not clear where that is. When I ask who attends games, the Bliss is quick to correct my idea that fans are the same guys writing crude comments on Facebook and YouTube. Last season, at home games, Furr estimated that there were 5,000 or 6,000 fans.

“Lingerie [gets] the guys in their seats, football keeps them there,” Kim Anderson’s husband, James, who attends practice to support his wife and helps her memorize plays, tells me one night at Bridgeview.

Fans are not just “gross, sex-starved guys,” says Furr. But several of the Bliss do not want the particulars of their other employers mentioned in this article, and when pressed, decline to say why.

The majority of media coverage about the Bliss is not on the sports pages. The only journalists I’ve seen at practices are the LFL staff. Deadspin has ridiculed the league. When I told a sportswriter I respect that I was working on a piece about the LFL, he furrowed his brow. “Get in and get out in 1,000 words,” he said.

And yet, when you see the Bliss on the field, there is no question about their dedication to football and their hunger to play the game. These ripped athletes cruise down the field with style, grace, aggression, and six-pack abs. They are intimidating. They are badass. They are ambitious, trying to learn—including combinations—more than 100 plays. (By contrast, L.A., according to Bliss players, learns under ten plays.) “Under new rules, there will be more variations,” says Hac.

But it’s not clear if the new rules will save the Bliss from being, along with other Chicago teams, the underdog. In season one, they made it to the championship and then lost to the L.A. Temptation. Season two, they went 3-2. Last season, they went 1-3.

Heather Furr, the starting quarterback, dubbed by the League “Rock Starr Furr,” for her swagger, serves as team captain. In an early practice, she moves over center, screams “hut-hut-hut,” and throws it long and hard the length of the field—about fifty yards. She repeats this over and over during practice, barely breaking a sweat. It is elegant and ferocious at the same time.

“I’m checking the defense, beginning my cadence, calling motion if necessary, and then running the play correctly,” she writes in an email when I ask what she is thinking on the field. “On pass plays I have to check down on the routes…if I’m optioning the ball I have to read the defense, and on most run or toss plays I have blocks to make. So I’m not just thinking about one thing in particular…my mind is constantly going 1,000 miles a minute.”

Coach Hac likes Furr’s cadence, which she delivers as smoothly as Morse Code. Hac started as a player—“old school,” as he puts it—but has spent most of his adult life coaching amateur football in the Chicago area. He coached the Chicago Slaughter of the Intense Football League for a while before he joined the LFL in 2009. He quit after his first year, in 2010, over disagreements with the League, and returned in 2011.

“There was an understanding that things would be different,” he said, declining to elaborate.

Hac is hardly easy to please. He does his fair share of screaming at the players: “Wrong, wrong, wrong.”

Once, I saw Hac get down on one knee to school a player after she botched a play. “You missed my whole point,” he said. “You need to use your hands, keep moving, you need to use your hands.”

Practice is messy, loud, violent, spirited, and occasionally full of grace. Women crash into each other, fall down, and get up.

Early on, the team high-steps down the field backwards, they do mirror drills and meat grinders, they hurl themselves against the padded tackle dummies. There is also a lot of standing around. But at the last practice I go to, there has been a transformation. The players seem angry and riled up. I see one reverse play that is, like a good game of Three Card Monte, so fast that I don’t even see the ball when it is handed off. A player throws up and sits on the sideline with her head in her hands, but minutes later she is rushing back onto the field. Another player runs so fast to catch a pass that she slams into the wall and bounces off. When she gets up, she is grinning, like a video game avatar of herself.

Playing for the Bliss is a huge commitment. Anderson, after several years of spending more than 15 hours a week studying plays, said she stepped down a few weeks ago because she was “emotionally spent with the league.”

When I have been at practice and men have been watching, there is a moment when the ogling changes to murmurs and grunts of astonishment at how good the women are, how agile, yet also how strong. At one of the last practices I saw Laura Peterson, aka Styxx, wearing a black Jack Daniels headband, her mouthguard half in her mouth, come out from behind a scrum with the ball and zip down the field before anyone could tell what had happened.

A guy next to me mutters to his friend, “You couldn’t cover her.”

But I also see scenes that make me uncomfortable. There’s a lot of roughhousing, with coaches fooling around with players, trying to trip and tackle them. That might, you could say, demonstrate easy camaraderie, except that here the players are hot, young chicks and the coaches are beefy, middle-aged guys.

The story most of the Bliss team tell about why they wanted to play is one of heart-warming ambition: Their fathers or brothers played. Their dads coached. Kimberly Anderson was a gymnast in high school and missed the camaraderie.

“I have always loved football,” said player Alli Alberts.

Meredith Mulford, a rookie, saw LFL on MTV and was transfixed. Mulford, a wide receiver, makes the four-hour commute from Coralville, Iowa, to biweekly or—at the end—triweekly practice. The self-described small-town Catholic girl who volunteers at her church, injured her meniscus in December but continued to attend practice, sometimes with her mother.

“It’s not unbearable,” she says.

The Mulfords stay with teammates or with relatives, while Meredith, who studied broadcast journalism in college, holds down several nanny jobs in Iowa.

“This generation runs around half naked anyway” says Jill Mulford, Meredith’s mom, 53, a nurse. “She’s 23 years old. I feel like I raised her with morals and values and she needs to make those choices.”

GROWING PAINS

The uniforms are an issue. According to a 2010 news story, the LFL contract included a clause telling players that “accidental” nudity was something they had to deal with as part of the job. It also said they could be fined $500 for wearing underwear beneath the uniforms.

“I don’t read the contract,” said Kimberly Anderson, asked if that clause still existed. She added that she didn’t see how such a clause would matter since all the players get their uniforms checked before games, especially if they don’t fit.

But the uniform is not the only proof of growing pains since the league was founded. The 2009 Lingerie Bowl was canceled after Mortaza and Caliente Clubs, the nudist resort where he planned to hold the game, disagreed over how much clothing the audience had to wear. “We wouldn’t want to expose our brand to that environment,” said Mortaza.

The same year, the Smoking Gun published an email reportedly from Mortaza to a player who had complained about chaotic practices.

The email read: “Let me give you a little advice and this goes for any other player creating unnecessary drama. Simply SHUT UP and play football.”

In 2010, the Broward Palm Beach New Times reported that Mortaza had arrests for drunk driving and public intoxication, and that he had in the late ’90s, appeared as a contestant on an episode of the reality TV show Blind Date, where he said that his nickname was “Razor” and his biggest turn-on was “toe rings.”

In 2011, according to news reports, a group of Canadian players left their newly formed League because of a dispute over equipment, coaching, and health insurance.

“The only reason they brought that up was they wanted to mandate who coached that team,” said Mortaza, who said their story was not true.

And after a group of former players protested that the league reneged on covering their medical bills, league lawyers sent a threatening letter: “Evidence gathered indicates that you have all participated in the posting of false and defamatory internet posts regarding the Lingerie Football League, its current players, and league staff… These posts give rise to a cause of action for defamation, among other things.”

Today the LFL encourages players to buy their primary medical insurance once they have signed their contracts. The LFL has medical groups in markets, and covers some medical procedures through a secondary policy. The players do not get insurance during the months-long tryout phase.

“We provide a better insurance than any other tackle league. And we do not make a nickel on it,” said Mortaza.

A number of teams have folded or some teams withered away, and at least one city—Oklahoma City—barred Mortaza from opening a franchise there.

Mortaza is not only the founder, he is the commissioner and he owns all twelve teams in the league. The model is Major League Soccer or the so-called “single-entity formation.”

THE REBRAND

Although the LFL publicity machine trumpeted the rebrand—which swapped the word “Lingerie” for “Legends”—as a win for women, the mainstream press largely ignored it. Asked about the rebrand, the Bliss players downplay it. “Some people thought there would be big changes, but it changed less than people thought,” says Heather Furr.

In January, eight days before the rebranding, I attend a practice at the Bridgeview Sports Dome held specifically for Mitch Mortaza, who has flown in from company headquarters in Las Vegas. Wearing light blue suede loafers, a blue shirt with French cuffs, and a serious tan, Mortaza seemed more dressed for the Vegas strip than for Chicago in winter. He has a boyish air. He has come here to evaluate the team, which he describes as having “blue-collar aggression.”

When I tell this to Hac, he laughs. “He always says that,” he says, acknowledging there is some truth to the stereotype.

Mortaza tells me that the League’s appeal is “a fast-paced brutal game played by models,” which sounds like David Strathairn describing the Fleur de Lys prostitutes in “LA Confidential”—”beautiful girls cut like movie stars.”

Asked why the rebrand now, Mortaza says he’s “concerned the word lingerie gives people the wrong idea.”

All around us, the Bliss are warming up in Day-Glo orange sports bras, spandex shorts, and blue T-shirts.

Asked about the lace on the old uniforms, Mulford, the rookie, described them as tacky. “I didn’t care for that,” she said.

Kimberly Anderson, the market manager and veteran who stopped playing this year, hoped that the new uniform would be “cute lace-up pants and sports bra.”

But that was not to be. The uniforms are now made by Rawlings, the sportswear manufacturer. The shoulder pads are slightly bigger, but the bras are still cut low to emphasize the players’ breasts. The cutesy frills are gone. But the uniforms are still bikinis.

The Bliss reminds me of the traveling girl burlesque troupes from turn-of-the-century popular theater. There is backstage camaraderie, and there is peripatetic spirit. The players seem afraid of management.

Until I started going to LFL practice, I knew nothing about football. My main qualification for writing this article was that my first book was about the history of striptease. I had to ask what eye-black was. I had to ask what nearly everything was. I was a rookie, much like many of the Bliss players. Nevertheless, to see the women running down the field was thrilling. To see them throw the ball hard in tight spirals was inspiring. And I do care about equity in sports, as I care about it in all things.

But women playing football in other leagues are angry that the LFL is getting all the attention. Katie Sowers, the Women’s Football Association League wide receiver, began playing football five years ago because it was “totally against what society views what female should act like. Not nurturing, not cheerful and polite.”

In December, 2011, Sowers grew tired of people asking her if she played for the LFL, especially after she heard Mortaza talking about how few opportunities there were for women to play football. She made a protest video about the LFL with her sister Liz.

“We play real tackle football. Not in our bras and underwear,” a card Sowers holds up says.

“To Mitch Mortaza,” she writes, in another card held before the camera, “maybe you just haven’t noticed us with our clothes on.”

Mortaza, who thinks that some of the Women’s Football Association players have “unhealthy body types” will not concede that any one YouTube video impacted him. But he was moved by the general disapproval to “empower the women and put more impact on the sport than the sexuality.”

This is really the issue: few people will pay to watch women playing football with their clothes on. The WFA begs for an audience while the Chicago Bliss attracted thousands of audience members at the home games last year.

HO CHUNK

It is about a month before game day and the team has moved to Ho Chunk Sports and Expo Center in Chicago Heights, across the Little Calumet River, more than an hour outside of the city. If Bridgeview is suburban, Ho Chunk is a little decrepit, with the forlorn air of a ghetto supermarket. The sports bar is dark and apparently closed. When I get there, a little before 8 p.m., some LFL staff people are conducting a photo shoot of the team. The Bliss mug and vamp near deflated bouncy castles. One has Snow White on it.

The helmets and practice pads have finally come in, and they’re lying out on a table, but there aren’t enough to go around and a lot of them are the wrong size. Hac, who is wearing a pre-rebrand LFL baseball cap and a Notre Dame T-shirt, is irritated.

But after the photo shoot, the team gathers around the table trying on the pads, which strap in like seat belts. Heather Furr walks around and helps out newbies, fixing their straps and chin cords.

“Is this supposed to hurt?” one player asks. Another is rubbing moisturizer on her tanned stomach in circular patterns.

But after dress up, they trek to the field and are transformed. They have stopped doing drills and they break up into two teams and play against each other, which reminds me of reading about girls dancing with each other at single-sex schools.

But they are not just dancers. They are athletes again, moving quickly and smoothly.
Furr screams: “Watch the ball, not the quarterback.”

Some reporters have found it disturbing to watch women tackling each other and howling for blood. And scholars remain skeptical of the whole enterprise.

“The question that I’d like to see addressed,” says Cheryl Cooky, professor of sports sociology at Purdue, “is why is it that LFL comes into existence at this moment? Why do women have to take off clothes to enter public consciousness?” The answer, she says, may tell us something about what the world expects from women in 2013.“It’s existing,” she says, “as a joke.”

uniforms_LFL

The Bliss don’t care about such proclamations. They had their first game of the season Friday night at the Sears Centre Arena, against the league’s three-time champions, the L.A. Temptation. There were about 1,000 fans on hand.

It was a close game for three quarters, marked by physical play, a few fights, and at least one concussion. In the fourth quarter, the Temptation pulled away for a 31-18 victory.

“We beat ourselves,” Ali Alberts said. “Take away the mental mistakes, and it would have been a totally different game.”

STORY ART: Main image made in-house with photo by Tony_B/cc.

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