Britni de la Cretaz and Lyndsey D'ArcangeloFeb 25, 2022
The Rise and Fall of the National Women's Football League
Bold Type Books 2021
Today we are joined by Frankie de la Cretaz, a sports journalist whose work focuses on the intersection of sport and gender, and one of the authors alongside Lyndsey D’Arcangelo of Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League (Bold Type Books, 2021). In our conversation, we discussed the beginnings of women’s gridiron football in the United States’ the reason why so many women wanted to play a “man’s game” in the 1970s and 80s; and the successes, failures and legacies of the NWFL.
In Hail Mary, de la Cretaz and D’Arcangelo recover the lost history of the National Women’s Football League, a professional gridiron competition that ran from 1974 to 1988. To revive this hidden history of women’s football, the authors interviewed dozens of women from and consulted archives around the country. They discovered a competitive, vibrant, and popular sporting entertainment that rose in the Rust Belt, spread to the football meccas of Texas and California, before collapsing due to financial issues in the 1980s.
The book is organized chronologically – except for a first chapter that showcases one of the most dramatic confrontations between two teams – the Toledo Troopers and Oklahoma City Dolls. De la Cretaz and D’Arcangelo’s archival history work, which relies mostly on newspapers, shows the spread and popularity of women’s football. They illustrate how male coaches, journalists, and owners framed the league in gendered ways. Many advocated for the league, particularly promoters like Sid Friedman who hoped to make lots of money, but lots of others genuinely enjoyed the athleticism of the competitors.
More impressively, their oral history interviews also allow the authors to move beyond the social history of the league and to tell the story of individual football players. Through their conversations with former players, they explore why so many women wanted to play the “masculine” game of football, even when they were no longer being paid, what they got out of their competition, the difficulties they faced as players, and what they thought about the failure of the NWFL.
Sexual orientation and race play important roles in the NWFL history. One team basically formed in a lesbian bar and many of the players were lesbians, although the league averred a strict heteronormativity. On the other hand, unlike the better known All-American Girls Professional Baseball League during the Second World War, the NWFL was very visibly racially integrated. Black athletes played crucial roles on teams – the best player in the league was a black woman from Toledo, Linda Jefferson, who racked up more yards and touchdowns per year than better known male running backs. The NWFL also gave opportunities to black head coaches at a time when the NFL unofficially barred them.
In the final chapter, “The Legacy of the NWFL”, the authors discuss the successes, failures and legacies of the league. For a while the NWFL opened the door to professional women’s gridiron football in the United States. Many women interviewed discuss it as one of the formative experiences of their life. Nevertheless, the league collapsed due to financial weakness (although perhaps not unusually when compared to the early men’s gridiron competitions.) Its legacies continue in semi-professional and amateur women’s competitions in the US today.
De la Cretaz and D’Arcangelo’s innovative account recovers a very poorly known history of hundreds of women’s professional athletes in the United States. It should be read by scholars interested in women’s sport, gridiron football in the United States, and LGBTQI+ people in sport. It will also be very useful to classroom teaching.