News & Politics

New York Sharks Women Tackle the Football World

The Woman's Football Alliance is tackling a sport that's typically associated with men, and making it their own.

2010 was season 11 for Andra Douglas, owner of the New York Sharks, the longest operating and most successful all-female football team in the U.S. Douglas’ pioneering spirit and far-reaching vision ensured that it was a historic year for women’s sports worldwide.

Each and every Women’s Pro Football game in 2010 provided both the opportunity for inspirational programming and a chance for women to be recognized. This is just another piece of herstory for Douglas who, as the founder of the Fins Up! Foundation For Female Athletes, spearheaded efforts in 2003 to launch a free football clinic for girls between the ages of 12 and 17 where they can learn and play football and grow both as team players and as individuals in the process.

According to Douglas, “Fins Up! has a strong outreach mission designed to create and support sports programs that build self-esteem and promote a fit lifestyle free of substance abuse in all forms, childhood obesity, and gang/criminal activities. The Foundation conducts sports camps that teach the fundamentals of team sports and sportsmanship, offers expertise to local high school girls’ athletic programs, arranges for professional female athletes, coaches, and corporate executives to speak at schools, and partners with charities that focus on health issues such as breast cancer, domestic violence, anorexia, and obesity.

Since 2000 - when Douglas drew funds from her savings account, quit her position with Money magazine, bought the team, and played as its quarterback (#7) - the number of teams has grown considerably, and with it the opportunity for women to play a sport that has traditionally been seen as "male dominant." I was introduced to the New York Sharks in 2002, the year they won the championship game for the Independent Women's Football League (IWFL).

“It is unfortunate that, after ten years, women’s pro football has to charge players a training fee,” Andra tells me, “and that sponsors are few. It is also disheartening that the media readily covers women’s tackle football as long as the women are playing in their underwear. Lingerie Football is both insulting to women and the sport of football.”

You read it correctly. There is more interest in women who are playing tackle football in their underwear - pads on their shoulders and all the rest exposed. Exposure is what they want as these athletically built models are clear that their bodies are viewed on cable television. There is money in men paying more bucks to attend these games, which are degrading to women in general, let alone to the thousands of women who look to women’s tackle football as a viable sport with NFL rules.

Due to the absence of college leagues for women’s tackle football, the experience of the female player is different than that of her male counterpart. For one thing, the feeder system for women does not come from varsity teams. Athletic ability, endurance, drive, and a passion for football will get women 18 and over on a team that includes players in their 40s, which is rare in men’s professional sports. Great coaching and a spirit of sisterhood lead women pro-football players to victory as they learn on the job.

A visit to some of the nation’s many sports museums ought to educate the world about sports and women’s role in them. Yet, having taken a tour of the NFL Pro Football Hall of Fame, I noticed that nothing was displayed about women's football. I was told that this is because they are not associated with the NFL. I thought, "And your point is?" Several weeks later a football signed by the New York Sharks’ players was the first item ever to be displayed.

Wichita's Museum of World Treasures now hosts a New York Sharks exhibit of another signed football, Andra Douglas' retired jersey, a collage of historic photos, and a photo of Douglas accepting an award from the Women's Sports Foundation. I also visited the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, which devoted a space to Sharks wide receiver Jen Blum (#84), who competed on “American Gladiator.” She is the first female football player to have a spot in the museum.

The beginning of 2010 brought members of the New York Sharks to television as cornerback Toni Salvatore (#41) landed a house repair gig on “$10 Grand In Your Hand,” and players Adrienne Smith (#10), Leeann Brzozowski (#86), and Melodie Abrook (#34) requested funding from Bank of Hollywood to help fund the NY Sharks 2011 season as well as covering expenses for players chosen to compete in IFAF's first ever International Women’s Tackle Football Tournament held in Stockholm, Sweden in June.

Also in 2010, USA Football and the IWFL chose five Sharks players - Adrienne Smith, Karen Mulligan, Melissa Pickett, Lauren Pringle, and Jennifer Blum as well as two alternates, Chante Bonds and Yatia Hopkins - to be part of Team USA. Team USA took Austria 63-0, Finland 72-0, and Canada 66-0 as they clinched the gold medal. Team USA also brought home the silver medal in flag football.Bloomberg.Photograph courtesy of the author.

This was not the first time that the NY Sharks had entered a worldwide tournament. In 2008, an International Flag Football Tournament was held in Canada. USA Football selected the Sharks for the five-on-five competition out of close to 100 women’s tackle football and many other women’s flag football teams. The Sharks took four of the five preliminary games, beating the 20-1 odds and prompting USA Football to choose 12 players - more than a majority of them New York Sharks - to enter this year’s August tournament in Ottawa where Canada took the gold and Team USA took silver.

I imagine that before reading this you were totally unaware of the above, considering the lack of coverage of women’s football. There were no media reporters or photographers scrambling for interviews near the airports when members of Team USA came home from either tournament.

Yet in August, here in New York, recognition materialized as Mayor Michael Bloomberg honored the five gold medalists at City Hall and declared August 9, 2010 as "New York Sharks Day."

In my experience of sports and life, women do not tend to be supportive of women and especially women's football. Having several leagues only divides them. Is headway being made? An official announcement just rolled my way that the Women’s Football Alliance is banding together the top teams in the country for the April 2011 season to include the New York Sharks. Perhaps in the future players will get paid and the media will have a “field” day covering the action.

Merle Exit is a graduate of Queens College in New York. Her interests lie in travel, dining, entertainment, and especially music, having learned to play many instruments. With a background in show business as a comedian, singer, and actress, Merle is the host of an internet radio show Whirl with Merle. Merle presently writes for Queens Times, La Voz Latina, Empty Closet and Giornal Italo Americano as well as the online publications, USA Travel Magazine and American Chronicle. Past publications include Edge, Destinations for Men and Long Island Impulse as well as her autobiographic book, Whirl with Merle: It's a Humorous Life. Merle's goal is to visit all 50 states and her dream is for women to rightly rule.
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