There’s respect and then there’s R-E-S-P-E-C-T. In the world of women’s tackle football, the New York Sharks have both. The Sharks are the 9-0 undefeated team in the Independent Women’s Football League (IWFL). Knee-deep in practice for the upcoming season, which will run
from this month through July, the league’s 22 other teams hold the Sharks as their mental dartboard. But pan out to the overall sports picture, and the perspective changes a bit. The Sharks—like all other women’s teams—still can’t pull down major corporate sponsorship. The team scratches to fill the stands at August Martin High School in Queens, and it hasn’t come close to receiving verbal support, much less financial backing, from the NFL.
During a recent Saturday practice, the Sharks go at it in an amateur field at the butt-end of Prospect Park, adjacent to a team of 12-year-old soccer players—boys—stiffly lacking in ball control. As Anna “Tonka” Tate, the team’s 285-pound right end, slams into a rookie half her size, a runaway soccer ball makes its way into the mix for the fourth time that day. “Oops,” a boy shouts as he runs for the ball. No apology necessary, he figures.
After three years of playing professional tackle football, obviously for the passion and definitely not the money, the players seem to have reached a consensus that the sport should be evolving to the point of NFL recognition. But for which women’s league? There are at least two other major professional women’s tackle football leagues—though only one, the National Women’s Football Association (NWFA), gets as much attention as the IWFL. That’s not to mention a handful of smaller leagues and independent startups.
Having bailed from their old league two years ago, the Sharks have experienced their share of drama. But the players have never let the politics affect performance. Regular playing conditions are rough enough. They practice three times a week, play a Saturday game, and hold full-time jobs as teachers, probation officers, corporate bigwigs, you name it. Players pay $1,000 to join the team, raising the money mostly from ticket and T-shirt sales and family/friend sponsorships. That still doesn’t cover the $75,000 it takes to run the Sharks without any full-time employees, says owner and backup quarterback Andra Douglas, who borrowed money from her 401(k) at Time Warner to buy the team franchise in 1999 out of sheer love for the game.
So this season, the team will take on two battles: one on and one off the field. “We’ll go for a repeat of last year’s championship,” says Douglas. Beyond that, the team will “try to fill the stands,” she says. “That will solve the revenue problem and make the players happy.” A typical game draws about 300 to 400 folks on Saturday afternoons. “If there are only 500 people out there, we might get a mom-and-pop to sponsor us, but the corporate guys won’t come in,” she adds. Certainly, the NFL won’t budge until it is sure there is money to be made.
From the looks of the team at practice, the fight on the field shouldn’t be too hard. Sharks veterans like Tate and Missy “the Missile” Marmorale are in rare form. Marmorale, who was MVP last season, tears her 140-pound frame across the field like a bullet. Tonka Tate, who played flag football for years, is antsy to hit someone. At one point, she faces off with linewoman Suzette “Platinum” Crumley. The other players are glad it’s not their turn to face Tate, a speedy heavyweight who hits like lead. Yet Crumley, now in her second year on the team, is sturdy. She’s not giving in for anything.
The Bronx-bred Crumley learned her strategy during her day job at an investment banking firm. “Know where everyone on the field is at all times. You have to know who is coming at you,” she says. “You have to think like a quarterback.” Those are confident words coming from a player who learned the rules of the game and all her moves last year on the field with the Sharks. Before that she had played basketball, volleyball, and soccer, but had only watched football.
That’s not uncommon in women’s football. During practice the coach walks a thin line between pushing the old-timers hard and gently teaching rookies. “Don’t talk among yourselves,” he scolds during practice. “Stay focused.” Though the Sharks evolved out of a former flag football team, many of the newer players “learned the game from their brothers and boyfriends,” says team manager Crystal Turpin. “I like to say we take people who can walk and chew gum at the same time, but what I really mean is we take players who have a history of athleticism and a passion.”
That lack of well-groomed talent differentiates women’s football from women’s basketball. A woman with the jones to be a baller at least had the chance to play in high school, college, and internationally before the NBA backed a league. “There is no feeder system in women’s football,” says Turpin. “There is no pee-wee football for girls.”
So an audience has barely been cultivated for professional women’s football—probably posing the biggest obstacle to being taken under the NFL’s wing.
Last Christmas Day it seemed at least one woman in football had gained the eye of a major audience when, in the Las Vegas Bowl, New Mexico kicker Katie Hnida became the first woman to play in a NCAA Division 1-A game. Mention that to a Shark and get ready for the belly grunt. “She really choked,” says former Shark Veronica Dignam, looking almost nauseous. Hnida kicked a wobbly, low ball that was immediately blocked by UCLA. “At least she was there. I think that opened up the eyes of a lot of people,” says Dignam.
Still, cultivating crowds and players is only part of the battle. The tension between rival leagues keeps the world of women’s football convoluted and hard to take seriously. Potential sponsors are at best confused about which league to trust, and the leagues have approached the NFL individually with no results. “They’re going to let us duke it out,” says Douglas. “Right now they’re not taking us seriously, but they’re looking to see who will be the last one standing. I am sure that will be us.”