A Look at the World of Female Football
By Jay Kang
"I would have played with the boy's team in high school but who would want to date a girl on the football team? I chose instead to have a social life. But after high school, I played once a week with a bunch of guys- 11 on 11 tackle football with no pads or nothing. So when I heard about a professional women's football league, I naturally was interested. This is a bit of a dream for me to be out here." The speaker is Sue Lizotte-Johnson, the scheduled opening day quarterback for the Maine Freeze women's football team. She is one of fifty fully outfitted women gathered on Hallwell Cemetary Field for this Saturday morning's practice. On the field, the defense is going through their weekly live-hitting drills. Every girl is in full uniform and pads- yellow pinnies, white pants and royal blue helmets, giving the team an air of professionalism that might not be expected out of an expansion team in a shaky women's sports league.
Coach Jason McLeod is the only male out on the practice field. He is preparing the defense for their upcoming pre-season matchup against the Rochester Raptors by quarterbacking a series of dummy plays, aimed at simulating the Raptor's offense. McLeod, along with four other Freeze coaches, also plays for the Raging Bulls, a semi-professional football team based in southern Maine. When asked about some of the differences between coaching women's football and coaching men, first year assistant defensive coach Mike Farda replied, "There's no difference at all. These women are serious. There are some jokers out there who want to make a big joke out of women playing football but they're probably just jealous because they don't have the opportunity to play professionally. A football player is a football player. It's as simple as that." As he is saying this, a vicious hit takes place on the field. One of the simulation offense players has caught a pass from McLeod on a long post route across the center of the field. As she gathers herself to continue running, she is met viciously by safety Courtney Jorsa, an eighteen year old sparkplug affectionately known as "Nebraska" by her teammates and coaches. "You don't even have to look to know that's Nebraska," Farda says after the dust has cleared and both girls have embraced each other in a show of camaraderie, "She hits hard. Doesn't care that it's practice. She's always on full-tilt."
Such an attitude might be necessity in the fragile world of women's football, where salaries are negligible and fan turnout usually does not reach four-digits. An infectious optimism runs through the practice about the team's prospects for the upcoming season. And such optimism might be well-placed considering that only a year ago, all that existed of the Maine Freeze franchise was five people who wanted to bring an athletic opportunity to the women of Maine. Now, the team boasts a fifty woman roster, a fleet of experienced coaches and an eight game schedule against opponents as far away as Philadelphia. "Our goal this year is to win a championship," explains coach Farda. "We want to put out the best winning entertainment in the state of Maine. If the Sea Dogs and the Pirates can do it, then we want to be next in line." Becoming Maine's next big professional sporting spectacle will be a difficult task considering some of the crippling social maladies that the Freeze will have to overcome to attain the respect of the public. Sue Lizotte-Johnson, a junior high school behavior teacher from Sanford and a mother of two explains, "The first question that's everyone asks when they hear about professional women's football is, 'how many of them are lesbians?' That stigma is what prevented a lot of these girls from playing football in high school. They just didn't want to deal with the "oh, you're a girl playing football, you must be a lesbian" mentality. But the truth is that these girls out here are mothers, wives, girlfriends and partners. The one thing that ties them all together is that they all love to play football. It's football first. What they might do off the field is of concern to nobody on the team." Johnson is one of the Freeze's only veteran players, having played last year for the division rival Mass Mutiny. "Last year, when I went to go out to play for the Mutiny, a lot of people were warning me that all the girls were going to be gay. So, I went to the practice not really knowing what to expect because I hadn't been exposed to much of that where I'm from. But through the year, I first learned that all different types of girls play football and the ones that were lesbians were some of the best people and teammates I've ever met."
Issues over the sexual orientation of its players have haunted the NWFL since its inception. Last year, Sports Illustrated ran a story about a Philadelphia franchise player that focused primarily upon the fact that she was a gay female athlete. "The league hates that," Lizotte explains, "it puts the wrong focus on the players and the games if it just becomes a gay issue and makes it more difficult for the straight players to feel comfortable." As she speaks on this issue, Johnson acts a bit uneasy and hesitant, as if she's carefully watching every word she says. She pauses and looks out at the field. Practice is breaking down, some of the girls are running conditioning laps around the small field, others are taping up various injuries. After surveying her teammates for a moment, Johnson says, "It's a shame, though, because what kept most of these girls, including myself from playing high school football and what still keeps younger girls from playing now is fear over what everybody thinks about female football players," and then runs off to huddle up with her teammates for a post-practice pep session.
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