Women Huddle for Lessons in Football 101

Many have found that the best defense is to learn more about the game

Scott Zolak is used to facing 11 defenders, not 350 women. But as the New England Patriots' backup quarterback barks out the signals for a new play, that's exactly what he's facing.

A woman in the crowd darts up and asks him, "Why did you shout 'blue lady' " before the play started?

"Uh, I yelled 'blue 80,' " a slightly confused Zolak says, referring to the name of the play.

On this crisp November night, Zolak is scrambling, not from hordes of sweaty linemen trying to turn him into fertilizer, but from a blitz of questions. It's all a part of Football 101, the National Football League's latest attempt to conquer the last frontier of football fans - women.

Throughout the season, the National Football League is promoting a series of Football 101 classes in many of its franchise cities in an effort to solidify a female-fan base. NFL representatives say women make up 40 percent of the viewing audience, and are the key to expanded public acceptance. The league understands, too, that women have a significant say in the decision to buy game tickets and team merchandise.

"It's funny how I've watched football for so many years and still have a hard time understanding what goes on," says Pat Ryan, whose husband encouraged her to attend the class. "Teams just run around and hit each other and my husband can't stand it when I keep asking him what's happening."

Like Ms. Ryan, many of the women came to the sold-out clinic to learn more about football's technical aspects. Others paid the $25 enrollment fee simply to gain a casual acquaintance with the game.

Beth and Kim Schnare, a mother and daughter who drove an hour and a half to get to the clinic, say they came because football has become an unavoidable part of their lives. With three men in the house, they say their Sundays have become NFL television marathons. "We hate football," says Beth Schnare. "Probably because we don't understand it. It just seems boring. You think a perfectly normal thing is happening and then they [the men] jump up and start screaming at the TV."

But not everyone at the introductory course shares the Schnares' indifferent attitude. Many of the women here are trying to cultivate their own passion for the game.

"Football is like a chess game, a violent chess game," says Mary Larkin, who came to the clinic with a group of friends. "There are a lot of technicalities to it. It's not that I don't know what's going on, but I want to learn about the finer points - grasp all the nuances."

To teach the classes, the NFL has hired Betsy Burns, author of "The Women's Armchair Guide to Pro Football." Ms.Burns is the founder of the Women's Institute for Football Education (WIFE). She is also a long-time football fan who says she had no choice in learning about the game. While she was growing up, her three older brothers quizzed her on the rules so she would know the game when they needed her to even out their teams.

"Women are naturally intimidated by football," Burns says. "They don't know much about it because they don't grow up playing it. But this doesn't mean we can't enjoy watching professional football and rooting for our favorite teams."

Although in past years many NFL teams have held similar football seminars for women, this is the first year the concept has become a league initiative. Since many of the women have a working knowledge of the game, some more advanced concepts are sprinkled in among the fundamentals - such as onside kicks and ineligible receivers.

Audience volunteers are coached through various offenses and defenses as they learn the roles of different positions. The women also learn about penalties, scoring, downs, and the clock.

At one point a woman is called out of the audience to try on a Patriots uniform to show how much protective padding players wear. Reluctantly, she agrees. "But what happens when they need to use the bathroom with all of that on?" another woman blurts out.

For Sherry Pearl, the most anticipated part of the clinic is the tour of the stadium and the locker rooms. She is hoping to catch a glimpse of Patriots star quarterback Drew Bledsoe - unfortunately that night he is nowhere to be found.

"He's cute on TV, but I want to know what he looks like in person," she says.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft says he's excited to see women so enthusiastic about pro football.

"Women are the key to the future of this game. They have to feel a passion for it," Mr. Kraft says. "We already have all the men we're going to get."

Kraft has even made a football believer out of his wife. "I thought football was a brutal, horrible sport," says Myra Kraft. "[Now] I really enjoy it. It's a really smart game with lots of depth."

Most of the women who attended the clinic say they are pleased with how it is run and what they learned. "But when are women going to get to play?" a woman in the crowd yells.

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