How Media Moved the Goalposts on Women's FootballAn Excerpt from “Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women's Football League”

Book cover alongside archival photo of three white women football players

Photo Credit: Brenda Cook, Brant Hopkins, and Baby Murf of the Houston Herricanes, January 1979, Safety Valve, Published Monthly by Houston Natural Gas Corp. Original photo courtesy of Brenda Cook.

Excerpted from Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League, by Britni de la Cretaz and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo. Copyright © 2021. Available from Bold Type Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
 

The Houston Herricanes were able to overcome some of the pitfalls they experienced as a new sports franchise in 1976 with the help of their volunteer general manager, Robin Massey. Massey was good friends with Herricane founder Marty Bryant. She grew up around the corner from Bryant and they often hung out together with their sisters. When Bryant started the team, Massey was more than happy to offer moral support. At first, she sat back and watched things unfold, offering assistance only when asked to help out. But when she realized the Herricanes needed a little bit more organization, Massey eagerly stepped in. “I wasn’t working full-time. My sister was a player, so I knew a lot of the players,” she said. “I just jumped in there. I didn’t know what I was doing but I didn’t let that stop me.” One of the main things Massey tried to accomplish during her time with the Herricanes was to promote the team as much as she could, and get the players the attention and recognition she felt they deserved. With all of the dedication and sacrifice they put in, it was the least she could do, she thought. And the best way to get the word out about the Herricanes was through the media.

Unfortunately, throughout the entire history of sports, the media has consistently treated women’s sports leagues, teams, and players poorly: as less than, a novelty, or, in some cases, altogether nonexistent. Even today, with so many proven and talented women in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), [and] National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL), sufficient media coverage is severely lacking from mainstream and popular sports media outlets. According to the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, 40 percent of all sports participants are women and girls, yet women’s sports receive only 4 percent of all sports-media coverage.

“The fact is, too often, women’s sports is treated in mainstream sports media as a curiosity. A sideshow. A heartwarming tale, an inspirational story, a talking point,” professor of digital media production and online journalism Brian Moritz wrote on his blog, Sports Media Guy, in 2018. Moritz is right. When looking back at newspaper articles in the 1970s, that is exactly the way the NWFL was covered by the media. Newspapers, especially in the sports department, predominantly employed male editors and reporters who weren’t willing to take women’s football seriously. What was written, printed, and portrayed about women’s football came from the male point of view. But at the time, women’s football—including the Herricanes—had to take what they could get.

Massey was relentless in her pursuit of media coverage and support. She drew up countless press releases and sent them to every media outlet she could think of, including all the major newspapers in the Houston area and beyond, smaller weekly newspapers, radio stations, and television stations. She even did “backup” calling to see if every press release she dutifully sent was received. “I remember calling one major news station to see if they had gotten my press release,” Massey recalled. “And [the news director] said, ‘Yeah, I threw it in the trash can.’ So I kind of knew where he stood on it. We got minimal coverage.”

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Bob Mathews in L.A., and Sid Friedman in Cleveland before him, both understood implicitly that, more than anything else, relevant and consistent media attention and coverage were an integral part of the success of their women’s-football ventures. But the two differed on one crucial aspect: content. Friedman was thrilled with any and all kinds of coverage, serious or otherwise. Articles that painted the girls in a joking light or that were satirical in nature didn’t bother him. For Friedman, as long as his teams and his players were mentioned in the pages of the newspaper then that’s all that mattered. Being the seasoned promotional agent he was, publicity—good or bad—was publicity.

Mathews saw things differently. He desperately wanted the NWFL to be respected, and his team—the Los Angeles Dandelions—to be taken seriously by the media. He wanted women’s football to stand on its own, and for the league to move beyond “gee whiz, look at the girls play football!” and into a spectator attraction viewed for its own special qualities. And he wanted reporters to cover the players and the games like they would any other sport: fairly and without comparing them to the NFL. He firmly believed that women could become professional sports stars in their own right, and in football in particular. Mathews was ahead of his time in that regard, but not many people cared to listen back then. The majority of the sports media landscape wasn’t ready to embrace women’s football, and coverage of the NWFL varied from potshots and satirical articles to a few legitimate features on the teams and certain players. There was no consistent game coverage for most teams, other than a box score or a brief recap here or there. 

This must be viewed not as simply a lack of coverage. Rather, this is the example of a crucial flaw for all media, where failing to report on women in the sports world sends a message about the kind of world it believes should exist. Instead of helping to fan the flames of interest, sports media on the whole—by largely ignoring women’s football or not taking the NWFL seriously—was a willing participant in snuffing out those very flames. The history of this important league was being erased as it was happening, bringing the legacy it could someday have into question.

When newspapers did run stories about the league during its heyday, the majority of them were written with feigned interest or mocking intent. The Detroit Free Press once described the Detroit Demons as playing “bloody bad football” for a crowd who “after seeing one game, never returned.” The Fort Worth Star-Telegram also ran a feature on a game between the Detroit Demons and the Dallas Bluebonnets the prior season, and sportswriter Paul Rowan wrote a decent recap of the contest, complete with quotes from players and some fans. But whatever good intentions Rowan may have had, his words were sullied by the editorial cartoon that was placed directly in the middle of his piece. The cartoon featured a voluptuous woman dressed in a tight-fitting football uniform, with her hair done up and the measurements “36-24-36” printed across her chest in place of a regular jersey number, while another average-looking player stared at her with what could be interpreted as either envy or lust. The cartoon—a gross, sexist, stereotypical representation of women football players in every light—had absolutely nothing to do with the content of the article, not a single word. It was placed there simply to incite laughter and mock women athletes for the fun of it.

 

And yet, it wasn’t an outlier. Male reporters, sportswriters, editors, and columnists often took what they saw on the football field as an invitation to poke fun at the players in headlines and in print, challenge the women players’ football knowledge, comment on their looks and body type, or directly inquire about the players’ breast equipment. “‘How do you protect your breasts?’ was a favorite question,” former Dandelion Susan Hoxie recalled. “Back then there was a theory going around that if you got hit in the breast, it would cause cancer. Or if women ran long distances, their [uteruses] would fall out.” According to Houston Herricanes quarterback Gwen Flager, one male reporter felt so emboldened that he got up right underneath center during practice as he was filming a segment for a local news story. “I bet the Houston Oilers wouldn’t have let him do that,” she said. Another time, a reporter came up to her to ask, “Can you call a play? Call a play.” Flager was so taken aback, she didn’t know how to respond.

Gail Dearie, who played for the New York Fillies in 1972, was put front and center by the media not just because of her looks. It was also the social conundrum she appeared to encapsulate—a feminine beauty and married mother of two who was athletic and tough enough to play tackle football. Dearie welcomed the attention because it provided free advertising for the Fillies. And although she was gracious during interviews, she was not blind to the media’s intentions. That’s why she often answered their off-color questions with a splendid mix of confidence and sass. “I enjoy a bit of Jekyll and Hyde. One night I might play a great game,” Dearie once quipped to the New York Daily News. “Then the next night, if a man whistles at me, it’s fun to know I can probably kick a football further than he can.”

Dearie admitted to feeling guilty about being singled out from her teammates. She never asked for it, she said, and it was a line she was forced to straddle because the media put her in a position—the same position that many women athletes are put in today—where she was judged by her looks first and her athletic ability second. The opening paragraph in a 1974 feature story about Dearie in New Jersey’s Daily Register says it all: “Take a hand-span waistline, soft blonde hair, the whitest of teeth and deepest of eyes, high cheekbones, a silky voice, a darting mind, grace and wit … and you have that improbable young woman, Gail (Mrs. Donald H.) Dearie, a professional football player.” Dearie was described by her looks first, mental capabilities second, and athletic achievements last, with her husband’s name mentioned alongside her own, as if he had anything to do with them. “Long ago, I came to grips with the fact that I am who I am,” said Dearie, who now lives in Florida. “I have athletic ability. I have, if you want to call it ‘looks’ or something. You don’t have to play that down because you want to be feminine. My husband will always say, Look—she was the forerunner of women feeling unashamed of their athletic ability.”

Bluebonnets quarterback Barbara O’Brien suffered a similar fate. Her good looks and feminine appearance made her a press favorite, including having her name featured in the headline of a 1974 New York Times piece on the league. The hyperfocus frustrated O’Brien, who understood football to be a team sport and wished that other Bluebonnets players received some of the recognition. When her teammates did receive their own recognition, it was often to contrast their looks with O’Brien’s—particularly when it came to Bobbie Grant, known as “Super Sugar.” In photos run alongside each other in the Dallas Morning News, 5’9”, 165-pound O’Brien—who is white—is shown kicking the ball with the caption, “Barbara O’Brien can’t punt a lick without lipstick,” while 5’11”, 265-pound lineman Grant—who is Black—is shown standing on the sidelines above the words, “Go ahead! YOU tell Bobbie Grant her seams are crooked.”

[A] preoccupation with women’s weight appears throughout coverage of the league. A 1982 article about Columbus Pacesetters player Pam Jansons assures the public that playing football has not made her big and bulky: “Her weight is nearly the same as when she began playing” although she “took off some weight but put back on muscle.” The piece also goes out of its way to describe Jansons as a “tall, lithe young woman” who “moves with a grace that could make you think [she] would be at home in the latest fashioning evening gown, with a copy of Harper’s Bazaar under her arm.”

These characterizations reveal deep and century-long anxieties about women who played sports, a fear that they were hypermasculine and that athletics would make them undesirable to men. These paternalistic fears were rooted in homophobia, which ties into another trope that filled media coverage of the league. While players like Dearie and O’Brien dealt with the societal paradox of being both aesthetically pleasing and good football players, others dealt with the assumption that because of their athleticism, they must be lesbians. “Being small has kept me from being labeled a dyke,” Dandelion Sue Davidson told the Los Angeles Times in 1974:

Even so, most of the girls aren’t big, “butchy” types. They’re not amazons. You do find maybe a little more lesbianism in girls’ sports in general, but it’s negligible. People blow it out of proportion because they’re already looking for it; they want to label you. Women athletes on and off the field are usually a little more aggressive than non-athletes, and aggressiveness is generally thought of as a masculine trait. So, if being aggressive is being masculine, then, OK, we’re more masculine than the average woman. But we’re talking about massive stereotyping, the kind of thing we, in 1974, should be getting away from.

To Hoxie, the stereotype was ridiculous and didn’t make sense. She once told NBC News: “Football’s no [less] feminine than getting down on your hands and knees and scrubbing the kitchen floor, cleaning greasy ovens, or changing the baby’s diaper.” Hoxie’s teammate, Joyce Johnson, thought it was good that the media focused on some of the more feminine-looking players, because then it took away from the speculation about their sexuality, she reasoned. “Yeah, they are going to focus on the more attractive people in their mind. Which wasn’t a bad thing,” she said. “Then people didn’t think it was just a whole group of, to put it one way, lesbians out there banging heads. We had everybody. We had straight, gay, moms, grandmas, you name it we had it. Everybody just wanted to play.”

History is generally told by the people in power or through the lens of the status quo; the stories written about the National Women’s Football League are no different.

Not all of the stories and articles written about the NWFL throughout its existence came from a place of skepticism or mockery. Victoria Billings of the Copley News Service wrote about Barbara Patton of the Dandelions. At the time the article ran, Patton was 32 years old and well into her second season with the team. As a working mother separated from her husband, she was known for bringing her two young children to practices and games, as well as being outspoken and jovial with the press. Billings painted Patton in true form as both a professional football player and a dedicated mother. “Critics say the Dandelion players would meet their match in a boys’ junior varsity team from high school,” Billings wrote. “But Barbara Patton says pound for pound women can be as mean as men. When she storms onto the field against National Women’s Football League rivals there’s one thought on her mind. ‘I want to kill them,’ she says.” The article was picked up by a handful of different newspapers around the country, from the Cincinnati Enquirer to the Alabama Journal, and readers across the nation were unwittingly introduced to one of the most charismatic players on the Dandelions squad.

Houston sportswriter and television commentator Anita Martini, who had helped Marty Bryant get the word out about the Herricanes’ first tryout when the team started, was an ardent media supporter throughout the [team’s] tenure. As a woman in sports media, Martini knew the obstacles they were up against firsthand, and like the women of the NWFL, she too broke down barriers. In October 1974, after a National League championship game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Houston Astros, Martini became the first woman in sports media to enter a male locker room for a postgame interview with the players. In a 1975 interview with Sports Illustrated, she expressed her disappointment at not being offered a national broadcasting in baseball job due to sexism in the sports media industry. “What burns me is the networks are looking for women to accomplish something their men haven’t done yet,” Martini said. “I’m not capable of doing a perfect game, but neither is any man.”

And in 1978, Houston Post sportswriter David Casstevens wrote an extensive feature about the Herricanes. He attended practice, then traveled with the Herricanes on their team bus to one of their away games. Casstevens went all in on writing a thoughtful, unbiased, captivating piece, portraying the players as legitimate athletes. “Sitting on the bus after the game, waiting to leave the dark, deserted stadium, the Herricanes didn’t care about their routine aches and pains and sprains,” Casstevens wrote in the concluding paragraph. “Or the fact that they’d have to be back at their jobs come Monday morning. They had won. That’s all that counted.” What made Casstevens’s feature stand out from other typically reported pieces on women’s football players was twofold: he respected them and took their endeavor seriously, and he didn’t presume to know anything about them simply from their appearance. His transparent approach showed in the article as well as to the players he interacted with during their road trip. “He was utterly awesome,” Herricane Billie Cooper remarked.

It’s important to remember that the league was viewed through the lens of the people writing about it, not those who were living it. Most of those writers were men. The questions they asked the players were not neutral; they were a reflection of their ideas about sports and who should be playing them, about women who broke societal rules. It’s why so many of the women were asked if they were “libbers,” why their marital status was asked after and reported back in the press, why reporters wanted to know what their boyfriends or husbands thought about them playing football. Some reporters even wholesale made up quotes. Jan Hines, the quarterback for the Oklahoma City Dolls, remembers newspaper articles including quotes attributed to her that she never said, from reporters she’d never spoken with. She never pushed back, though, because they were just so grateful to be getting any press coverage at all.

Knowing this context brings up larger questions about the history we think we know. If Hines were not around to correct the record, as researchers and archivists we would assume that the information reported in the papers was accurate. But aside from the box scores and game recaps, which reporters generally did well and got correct, it’s hard to know which other parts of the stories are true. The people writing them were largely not equipped to cover sports through a political or feminist lens, or to understand the ways in which their biases colored their work. History is generally told by the people in power or through the lens of the status quo; the stories written about the NWFL are no different. We don’t always know what the players really thought about their experience because their quotes are so shaped by the leading or loaded questions being asked by the reporters—if the quotes are true at all.

Tulsa Babes quarterback Cindy Turner once had a particularly prickly encounter with a reporter from the Tulsa World before a game. “[He asked], ‘Why are you even doing this?’ I looked at him and said, ‘Have you ever played football?’ He said no. I said, ‘Don’t ask me another thing about it.’ It really ticked me off,” Turner explained. “Another thing he asked me—if I thought I could hit as hard as a man. I said, no I couldn’t. Then he asked me, ‘Why are you doing it then?’ I said, ‘Because I like football. I like sports.’ It wasn’t a feminism thing, it wasn’t us trying to show that we could do what the guys could, because we knew we couldn’t. But we were having fun. We liked football. Whoever was out there liked football. We weren’t trying to prove anything to anybody, except ourselves.”

Several papers also sent reporters to practice or scrimmage with teams, again turning the game into a gimmick. The idea, of course, was that any male reporter embedding with a team would be dominant, and that any female reporter putting on pads would show that the play was so easy that anyone could do it. Judy Fossett, a reporter for the Sunday Oklahoman magazine, was allowed four plays’ worth of time at left tackle during the Oklahoma City Dolls’ first game against the Shamrocks. Afterward, Fossett declared that “Playing football is better than winning Miss America.” In a 1972 article in the Toledo Blade, two male journalists recounted their experience scrimmaging with the Troopers: “George Plimpton has it all wrong—if you want to find out about professional football, you don’t play with men, you play with women.”

Much like mainstream coverage of women’s sports today, when it came to drawing attention to on- or off-the-field drama, plenty of outlets were more than happy to write about the NWFL and the teams whenever there was negativity to report. Robin Massey, the Houston Herricanes’ general manager, felt this firsthand. In early 1978, a Houston [men’s] soccer team launched as a new franchise under the name Hurricanes. The Herricanes were not thrilled. “When we formed our team, we did everything we were supposed to do,” said Massey. “We filed protection on the name—did everything an organization should do to protect us financially.” The Herricanes decided to take the soccer team to court, and hired two female lawyers who agreed to take the case pro bono. Once the lawsuit was announced, the media leapt on it. In February 1978, the Associated Press ran a blurb about the lawsuit [that] was picked up by countless daily newspapers across the country under a variety of satirical, condescending headlines, such as “Madder Than a Wet Herricane,” “Mad at Hims Over Name” and “Silly Season.” “The Herricanes want the professional men’s soccer team to give up the name Hurricane,” the blurb read. “In effect, the state district court claims the women had the Herricane name before the Hurricane team formed last month.” It wasn’t a “claim.” The Herricanes had already been established as a women’s football team for two years before the men’s soccer team came along. But the AP and other media outlets didn’t bother to acknowledge that. One month later, the Herricanes got their day in court. And after the long task of presenting sides, the judge ruled. “[He] sided with the men’s team,” Massey said. “His reasoning was that nobody would surely confuse a women’s football team with a man’s soccer team.” The Herricanes were denied exclusive rights to a name they had already been using for the better part of two years.

On the same day she returned home from the courthouse, Massey found a bill in her mailbox from a sporting-goods store. It was for the cost of 30 jock supporters. “I thought, Well isn’t this something,” she said crisply. “We’re already being confused with the male soccer team. And I wish I had gotten it a day earlier. I would have taken it to court with me and we might have won the case.” The outcome of the court case discouraged the players, but the Herricanes moved on. Massey said the media coverage from the lawsuit was the most press they had ever received. It was a slap in the face for a women’s team in a women’s league that wasn’t getting the consistent press they needed to help draw in fans and bring attention to women’s football.

And it showed in the empty stands.

 

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