Women's pro football ... oof!

On the 10 o'clock news recently, I witnessed something novel: a news promo of women wearing football uniforms, slamming into each other as a ball carrier made her way into the end zone. I have to admit, I hung around on my couch to see this story for myself.

To my surprise, it wasn't just women playing tackle football; it was about a new women's professional football league. (I later learned there are actually two leagues starting, the Women's Professional Football League and the National Women's Football League.)

Despite a surge of sisterly pride, something feels premature about naming football as the next professional women's sport after basketball and soccer. It's not that women shouldn't be playing football. It's just that this league seems destined to be a carnival sideshow.

These women haven't played much tackle football. Don't fans expect a good match? For first-time players to throw on uniforms and call themselves professionals cheapens the standards of women's sports.

The Women's Professional Football League has already started its 12-week season with 11 teams suiting up for games in Florida, Texas, Minnesota, and elsewhere. Most of the players have day jobs or children or both, and played rugby or soccer in college. Of the 11 teams, seven have owners already, according to Terry Sullivan, a co-founder. Three of those are women.

Why would people want to finance a league of women who've never played football before? "Opportunity," says Mr. Sullivan. And why would people pay to watch these games? The fact that at the end of the game the women would take off their helmets, and people would say, "those are women!"

Is it really that easy?

In the past 100 years, women have been making enormous strides in the athletic arena. For instance, in 1966 the first women who ran the Boston Marathon finished more than 30 minutes behind the top male finishers. Today, that time difference has shrunk to 15 minutes.

Fifty years ago we were just beginning to get used to the idea that women could be professional at anything beyond teaching and nursing, let alone suiting up as serious athletes. It would have been impossible to imagine the success of Women's World Cup Soccer, or that a women's professional basketball league would make it to its third year.

As a result, our expectations of what women can achieve have been heightened. We expect women to be high-performing athletes, not just trailblazers. The demand in football as in any other professional sport should be excellence from the get-go.

Professional sports rely on feeder programs, where athletes develop skills and prove their excellence. But as far as I know, there are no women's college teams, no official high school teams, and no pee-wee leagues of little girls teetering under the weight of helmets.

Sure, I've heard the occasional story of a girl who suited up for the boys' team. But how did we suddenly get a whole league of women tossing around the pigskin?

The athletes tell reporters how they'd dreamed of becoming football stars when they played backyard games with brothers and neighborhood boys. And here they are, making history by exchanging the velcro belts of flag football for the real thing - helmets and pads.

Does that qualify them as professionals? Sure, they are getting paid for playing. But "professional" implies more than getting paid; it means making a living. The $100 per game these women are earning will hardly pay the bills.

To me, truly professional athletes are well-polished, at the top of their game, and worthy of my precious time and support.

Then there's the question of fan appeal. I have a hard time believing that fans will turn out to witness the awe-inspiring display of first-time football players. Rather, it will be the entertainment value for some fans, cheering for mom for others. A friend of mine reacted to the announcement about the pro league this way: "This isn't a sport, this is a spectacle."

And, as if the back-lit sob stories of the 2000 Summer Olympics weren't enough spectacle, there's yet another new men's pro-football league in the works, the XFL. This league will bring the melodramatic antics of professional wrestling to the gridiron. It seems women's professional football is in danger of being thrown into the same heap.

What kind of message will this send to young female athletes? That they shouldn't take themselves seriously as athletes because, frankly, no one will watch or care unless it's bizarre or unusual? That if they can be entertaining they can earn the title "professional" and forgo years of hard work and effort?

I do have great respect for the athletes who are willing to strap on 25 pounds of equipment and take one for the team. I was one of those little girls who played two-hand touch with my brother and his friends. I can imagine what it must feel like to have a league of one's own.

But there is a circus feel to this league - something odd about people willing suddenly to put down a lot of money to finance and watch unseasoned female football players tackling each other for the first time in the mud.

When the novelty of seeing women in broad-shoulder football pads wears off, will anyone stick around to watch them play in an already-saturated football market?

I hope history proves me wrong and that women's professional football will be taken seriously, that the stands won't be crowded at first with one-time onlookers and then painfully vacant.

Women's sports of any kind deserve to be taken seriously, because participation encourages teamwork, self-confidence, and physical prowess - valuable experiences for women and girls. And with hard work, the final product is graceful and beautiful to watch.

So go ahead, prove women can play the game. But please, don't make a mud pit out of women's professional sports.

Kendra Nordin is a Monitor staff editor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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