They’re buff, they’re beautiful, they’re bruised and broke! The American Lingerie Football League moves north

What the what??  That’s right, a new sports franchise is making its way to Toronto this fall and it’s a women’s league, to punt…. I mean, to boot!

Easy now, let’s not get too excited.  Although it would be phenomenal to have a professional women’s sports team in Toronto, I am not quite about to give this team my 100% support.  This new league, the American Lingerie Football League, is far from the ideal female success in the field of professional sports.  Instead, with its contradiction of sexy garters, girlie bows, girl-on-girl action, sexualised hikes, and its cutesy-seductive team names like Baltimore Charm, Cleveland Crush, Los Angeles Temptation, and Chicago Bliss, I struggle to see it as more than a  satisfaction of superficial  (mostly) male fantasies and a mockery and outright devaluation of women in sports.

Occupational hazard or occupational requirement?

It isn’t so much the lingerie-inspired outfits that I take issue with; I am all for women’s right to express their sexuality and autonomy through their dress.  Apart from these tired and contorted plays on femininity what bothers me more is the purpose of the game, the intended audience, and what these male-centred interests may mean to the athletes who participate.  Most of all, what concerns me is the serious lack of basic security awarded to these players, specifically the double-standard in safety and compensation.

If you’ve ever seen one of the many Youtube videos of the game, you’ll note that unlike the daintiness of the uniforms and team names, this game is really actually quite rough; the players are tackling to the  same extreme that they do in the NFL.  They’re even throwing punches.  However, because an excess of equipment would take away from the thrill of ogling female bodies, many components of the traditional footballer’s equipment have been foregone.  For instance, while regular male football leagues require protective padding and gear for collar bones, chests, thighs, shins, and ribs, the LFL provides for little more than some loose shoulder pads, knee pads, a helmet, and tape for joints.  

A simple Google search finds accounts from current players citing multiple injuries, especially of collar bones.  One potential player I interviewed after the Toronto try-outs speculated about the possibilities of extreme rug burn that the artificial turfs might cause when one crashes to the ground in her underwear.

But does that really matter to the coaches and managers when players only compete once a month?

This was the case for a former player for the Seattle Mist, Natasha Lindsey.  She tore her ACL early in the season last year.  Natasha’s surgery costs have exceeded the $10,000 cap the league put on insurance for players and she is left stressed out and seriously bruised.  The league’s founder, Mitchell Mortaza, isn’t at all apologetic.  He claims that the players all know what they are getting into when they sign their contracts.

Photo by former player for the Seattle Mist, Natasha Lindsey. Her injuries were not covered under the leagues minimal insurance policy.

That brings me to my second concern, compensation. Just as the LFL invokes traditional and conflicting stereotypes of feminine ideals, it also reproduces the historic patriarchal devaluation (low pay/no pay) of female labour – another reminder that the devaluation of women’s work is not a thing of the past (I say this acknowledging that when we look at labour through the lens of a highly racialised and highly exploitative global capitalist system there are an abundance of examples of unpaid and indentured female (and male) labour). 

Unlike professional male football players, who earn upwards of $320,000 a year, the female players in the LFL earn only a percentage of ticket sales – and this  rests on the game score.  Some American players  recently took the league to court when they found that their paid was less than California’s $8 per hour minimum wage.  In Canada, as the league gets established, players should only expect to get compensation for travel.

But, that’s “the best part”, right?  Mortaza certainly thinks so.    He claims that by paying only a percentage of the ticket sales and in basing  the amount it on whether a team wins or loses, players will be incited to play harder – a standard that would be completely unacceptable in professional male sports, not to mention the encouragement of female violence.

So let’s get this straight, the women are dressed by men, coached and managed by men, work their asses off for the entertainment of a mostly male audience, and don’t get paid for any of it!?

To me this screams of the use of women’s bodies to satisfy the sexual and violent appetite of a certain group of persons – largely, but not exclusively, masculine.   Audiences can sit back and laugh about women playing “girlie football”, drink beers, and fantasize, while the players – beautiful, fit, and talented women – play a sport the audience loves and in a ruthless way the audience loves.   There is also the added bonus of catching a wardrobe malfunction or two; it’s hard to avoid when you’re tackling and being dragged to the ground in bikinis. 

I’m not suggesting that these women don’t have agency, clearly these athletes are exercising their own will by joining the teams (in fact, many of the players I interviewed saw it as a stepping stone to better careers or they were motivated by the idea of participating in something novel).   However, we can’t fully understand this choice without situating it within the larger patriarchal society where women’s bodies are exploited as objects for the satisfaction sexual desires and where subjugation is often disguised as empowerment.  In the case of the LFL, the safety and fair compensation of the players is quite clearly forfeited in order to fulfill a  superficial macho agenda.

Despite how exciting it would be to see a professional female sports team based in Toronto, this game is sadly not what I hoped for.