A league of their own

New women's professional teams make their play for gridiron success

Christina Gibbons has studied football since she was 12 years old. She always understood the game and enjoyed playing it. Gibbons also grew up with four brothers and is married to a football fanatic. But there were never any opportunities for her to play - not in high school or college. And forget about the professional level.

Until now.

When Gibbons heard about a new women's professional football league last spring, she tackled the tryouts at full force. She is now a fullback for the New England Storm - one of 11 teams in the Women's Professional Football League (WPFL).

"I was a little nervous, because I didn't know what to expect. [Women] always play touch football with no [football] pads," says Gibbons, who is wearing a tight black nylon cap on her head. "Once you get the pads on, it's a whole different story, so it makes it more fun."

The WPFL, which had a trial run of six games in the Midwest and New York last winter, is made up of women who work full time in jobs as police officers, teachers, social workers, doctors, and lawyers. The players are paid $100 per game during the 13-week season (not including playoffs), which ends Dec. 30. After three weeks of playoffs, the championship game will be played Feb. 3. An all-star game is scheduled Feb. 17 in Miami's Orange Bowl.

At one cold and rainy New England Storm game last month, against the New York Galaxy, college students Shauna Grant and Tarah Smith and five other girls cheered for the Storm in the front row. Dressed in white New England Storm T-shirts pulled over heavy sweatshirts, they were "getting the crowd [of about 800] going."

"It's something new to look at, and it's kind of good to see women in football," Ms. Smith said. "It hurts me to see them hurt themselves [playing], but it's good...."

From a distance, the players look much like male football players. Only ponytails and pigtails hanging out of their helmets give their identities away.

Women playing full-contact football professionally? Come on, some might say, are you serious?

Owner and fullback Melissa Korpacz says, "It's not as smash mouth and hard core as the NFL, but we are very quick," says the former lawyer, who is now a full-time football player and owner.

The WPFL rules are the same as in the men's game, only the women's ball is slightly smaller. Since women don't play at the collegiate level, the search for talent wasn't easy. Good athletes were recruited from across the board - from rugby, lacrosse, and soccer players, even marathon runners. Tryouts were held earlier this year. The Storm is made up of women ranging from 5-ft., 7 in., and 130 pounds, to 6 ft., 1 in., 230 pounds.

"When you talk about women playing football," says Storm head coach Mike Fay, "the first thought is, 'well, they'll never make it.' But I was talking to someone the other day and I said: 'Look at them. They look great.... Why shouldn't they play football? They can run, tackle, and catch."

Scott Branvold, a professor in sports management at Robert Morris College in Pittsburgh, argues otherwise.

"If you compare it to the level of the NFL, that's clearly not going to happen," Mr. Branvold says. "I can't envision - at least in the next 10 years ... [that] football would be added at the college level for women. But if women's pro football caught on, that might [fuel] some interest."

Star power could help. "You would have to try to attract people who might have a name," he says. "Convince [Olympic sprinter] Marion Jones that competing in the WPFL would be a really good idea. That may be a marketing coup."

Fan Roger Whitehead, husband of the team's operations director, says he thinks the WPFL has a solid chance of succeeding. But "I just wish they had better facilities," he says, referring to a PA system that's barely audible and the fact that there are no locker rooms at the field.

Coach Fay says a reporter asked him at a recent press conference: Will it catch on? Will the league ever attract big crowds?

"All I care is about the experience that people share as a community ... of what we can do together to enrich our lives, to have fun, be successful, and give our best stuff," he said.

Fay, who has been coaching team sports for almost 30 years, says a special challenge is that, since the players have no background in football to rely upon, he and his coaches must explain terminology and techniques from the very basics.

However, Fay remains optimistic about this season and the future of the WPFL: "Let's see what kind of interest we can attract this year, let's see what kind of athletes will be attracted to our program, and that will give us a better measure of whether this can fly on a higher level."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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