You can spot the new recruits in about five minutes. They launch their wounded ducks underhanded or from the side, keeping their feet planted next to one another on the ground instead of stepping forward into the throw to get more power behind the ball. They catch, or at least try to, as if they're double-jointed and trying to make intricate and horrifying shadow puppets. They run not in long, athletic strides but plodding shuffles, long past having any shame regarding their state of physical conditioning. They clearly do not know a buttonhook pattern.
More easily, you can spot the veterans. They have mouthpieces firmly clenched, scowls etched into their faces, ankles taped, long hair tied up in buns high atop their skulls, shuttle from one activity to the next without hesitancy or lack of understanding, and speak in curse-laden dialects that wouldn't be out of place in a bachelor party's 12th hour. Tessa Berrara, a brunette Texas import who plays lineman on offense and linebacker on defense, is the loudest. “We're switching again,” she shouts to a newbie who wants to know why they've stopped the drill, “because we're fucking dynamite!”
These vets are why the Los Angeles Temptation is the dynasty of the Lingerie Football League. They've won three straight titles, lost a mere two games in franchise history, and are favored once again to win it all again when the league resumes play. “It's a team a lot of fans don't want to win,” admits league president Mitch Mortaza. “And they win because they work at it in the offseason.” This Sunday morning practice in the city of Carson, California is exactly 201 days before they play their first game of the season against the Seattle Mist. Training camps and wind sprints are probably not how most LFL fans think the players would spend their offseason, unless it's training for Hooters waitressing gigs and sprints to the nail salon.
“THOSE OVERLY MANICURED LANKY PLAYMATES?
THAT'S YOUR GRANDPA'S LFL.”
Since its founding in 2003 as a pay-per-view alternative to the post-NippleGate and decidedly unsexy Super Bowl halftime show, the Lingerie Football League has since been a punch line for late night shows or Sunday afternoon NFL viewing parties. Some receiver fails to haul in a pass because of an approaching linebacker? Sign them up for the Lingerie League! While this year's quick end to the NFL's referee lockout was certainly due to the blown call at the end of the Packers-Seahawks game, what was equally damning was the revelation that the replacement refs were actually fired from the Lingerie League for their incompetence. If they weren't good enough for that joke of a league, how could they be calling real football games?
But that was mostly a misinformed point-of-view. Those overly manicured lanky Playmates awkwardly colliding into one another? That's your grandpa's LFL. (Or, more accurately, your slightly older sibling's.) See, something happened to the league that once featured Angie Everhart as a team captain: It got serious.
There's a YouTube video titled “Nikki Johnson destroys Devine Burton” that's gotten nearly six million hits in less than two months. An actual description of the video's contents is probably pointless with a title like that, but Nikki Johnson, playing for Canada's Regina Rage, destroys Devine Burton, from the Toronto Triumph, on her way to the end zone. Their encounter is not a minor limp-wristed accidental shove to the ground that results in the shovee stumbling down like a drunk coed after last call, but a legitimate shoulder takedown that plants the defender into the ground. Chris Johnson would be so lucky to cause an impact like that.
“IF THE LEAGUE WAS SOLD ON SEX APPEAL, IT WOULD HAVE DIED A LONG TIME AGO.”
This is the new version of the LFL, one where clips of girls ramming into each other at full speed and coming out of dog-piles with bloody noses go viral. Instead of trying to get the male half of the species excited about the prospect of girls playing football by appealing to their sexual primal instinct, they trade it in for the urge to see violence. “If the league was sold on sex appeal,” says Mortaza, “it would have died a long time ago.”
The change was made in 2009. Instead of just dressing up another fourteen models with the hand-eye coordination of toddlers in lacy Underoos and throwing them onto an arena football field, they decided to start an actual league with actual players. “Models Playing Football in Lingerie,” the original and to-the-unabashed-point slogan of the league was replaced with simply athletic women playing seven-on-seven football. And it's proven to be a boon.
“It's not just a sports league that was launched in the midst of the worst economic depression in 2009, but it's also a sports league that's built around women, and we know the challenges that women have had,” beams Mortaza. “It's pretty impressive what we're been able to accomplish.”
“The ultimate goal is to be playing across the world.”
BusinessWeek recently called them the “fastest growing sports league in the United States.” The U.S. league is taking the fall off, scheduled to come back in the spring, as Mortaza and company focus on starting the Canadian version. (The video of Nikki Johnson's shoulder-plow, uploaded in September, is the first viral sensation for the new league.) An Australian-based export is going through the final planning stages after the LFL's first-ever All Star Game, held in Sydney last May, drew 18,000 fans. 2014 will see the start of an LFL Europe league, with teams in the U.K., Germany and Ireland. When that happens, the LFL will be playing year-round... somewhere.
“The ultimate goal is to be playing across the world,” says Mortaza, “and to make a serious case to turn this into, believe it not, an Olympic sport.”
“You can be beautiful and play a sport and be good at it,” says Amber Reed, the Temptation's running and defensive back.
Stoic in practice, exerting maximum effort while making it look anything but, Reed runs her routes with crisp precision, never dropping passes thrown within her wide wingspan. (It certainly doesn't hurt that Reed, according to some very scientific front-facing comparison, has hands about a knuckle larger than mine.) The only difference between her and Hall of Famer Jerry Rice is that the 49ers' number 80 never wore decorative pink bows on the backs of his practice thigh-high leggings.
Reed, 29, has always been athletic. Coming from a sports background that included basketball, volleyball and track, she was looking for a way to get out of the sending-out-job-applications-waiting-for-your-life-to-really-begin doldrums that meets most post-graduates these days. Simply trying to find an excuse to leave the house, she found a Craigslist ad for the Los Angeles Amazons, a local 11-on-11 women's tackle league. After a few seasons with them, an ad on TV happened to catch her eye. After a follow-up Google search for something called “lingerie football,”, she went to the following season's tryouts. One year into the league's attempt to actually find legitimate athletes, Reed was a shoe-in for a spot on the San Diego Seduction. (As you would expect, sexually suggestive team names — Dallas Desire, Atlanta Steam, Philadelphia Passion, Las Vegas Sin — are ubiquitous in the LFL.) And when that team folded after the 2010 season — the LFL's continually trying to find which markets are right; 2013's season will see franchises open in Omaha and Atlanta — she decided to give it a go with a team closer to home.
During this extended offseason, while staying in shape with near-daily track workouts, Reed pulls double-duty in the working world, as a user-experience architect at an advertising agency by day, and launching her independent financial advisory business by night. With her sister Tiffany, Reed helps clients deal with the intricacies of the fiscal world, from rollovers to mutual funds to debt programs. “In other countries, finances are built into the education system,” says Reed. “But here, we never really learn about it. So I think it all starts with education, sitting down with friends and family and telling them what I'm doing with their money, why, and how.”
During the season she worries less about finding tax loopholes than just getting her shoulder down and hitting holes created by her line. In last February's Lingerie Bowl IX, Reed rushed for 44 yards and two touchdowns, a performance in the 28-6 rout over the Philadelphia Passion that not only meant she got her first taste of an LFL championship, but also took home co-MVP honors. The other half of the Temptation's MVP tandem was Ashley Salerno, the team's star quarterback, who threw for 125 yards and three TDs.
In fact, nobody really throws
like a girl.
Let me put it this way: If you're a man who's ever used the phrase “throws like a girl,” there's a great chance Salerno would embarrass you. In fact, nobody really throws like a girl. People throw in two styles: Like those who have a lot of experience throwing a football, and like those who do not. Women tend to fit into the former camp because of the societal pressure at a young age for them to participate in “more girly” activities, like ballet or tap-dancing. Watching Salerno uncork a 40-yard pass with ease — the ball's tip rising through the air like a zeppelin taking off, hitting the top of the parabolic arc, seemingly pausing in mid-flight before changing its trajectory, heading back down to Earth precisely where her receiver is — makes you wonder what could happen if more girls were given the opportunity to start throwing at a young age.
“The earlier you get into sports, the better your mechanics are going to be,” says Salerno. “Even before 8 years old, I'd been playing football in the street with my dad. At 10, I could out-throw him. I remember going to my sister's soccer games, and I'd be launching the ball across the field, and they'd all be like, she really has an arm.”
Playing in youth football leagues led to her getting instruction from a legit quarterback coach, who taught her footwork, handing the ball, and play-action. She played “with the guys” in every league growing up, eventually even becoming the first, and so far only, female to start at quarterback for the Ruben S. Ayala High School's junior varsity team in Chino Hills, California. Contrary to what you'd think from every female-tries-to-play-a-male-sport movie out there, her team welcomed her. “I was always the tomboy, so they all knew me,” says Salerno. “It was kind of fun, actually. I'd have my own keys to the girls’ locker room.” The resentment and casual sexism, however, would rear its ugly dual-heads when opposing teams came to play. “They'd try to break me down any way, try to get in my head,” she says, “but after I threw the ball all over their defense, they always came up to me and were like, 'Dang, you're the real deal. Never thought I'd play against a girl and actually be challenged.'”
Although she had to give up the sport when it came time for varsity because the guys started getting too big for her (“I couldn't see over the line,” says the 5'7'' Salerno, “I was like Drew Brees back there”), she never got rid of the football bug. She was toiling away in local soccer leagues when her parents saw an ad for the LFL and she immediately took to it. As soon as she got out there, she realized there was something different about this league. Namely, the rules.
To promote a quality piece of entertainment and not just girls continually running into the line and falling down, Mortaza instituted a two-pass-every-four-downs rule, along with complicated blitz regulations that make the game a bit more like street-ball than the NFL version. “There was a lot of confusing rules that your average football fan had a tough time following,” explains Mortaza. Now that players are more up-to-speed with the intricacies of the game, and stands are being taken over from the legions of drunk middle-aged perverts by families looking for a cheap night out, they're chucking the exotic rules and simply using traditional ones for both sides of the ball. Salerno can't wait. “I'm looking forward to them,” she says. “I need a bigger challenge.”
“It's probably not so good for
But the stronger quality of the game also means more safety concerns. While the athlete is getting more adept at playing the game, the equipment has yet to catch up. “Sometimes when I drop my shoulder and get hit, there'll be a big spark or a quick shock in my head, like a blue and yellow light,” says Salerno. “I just shake it off and go back and do it again, but it's probably not so good for my brain.”
2012 Lingerie Bowl highlights
“I don't think anyone can produce a contact sport nowadays that doesn't look at concussions,” Mortaza says. “We have the same program as the NFL, ImPACT, where every player has to take a test before the season starts. If they sustain a concussion, they're evaluated that night, and with a follow-up test they're compared to the one they took prior to the concussion.”
Instead of the tried-and-true football helmet you've seen players wearing since Pee Wee league, LFLers wear hockey helmets. When questioned about why, Mortaza promises the league is working with manufacturers to come up with a more customized version, also pointing out that NHL players sustain a whole lot fewer concussions than NFLers because they don't have the false safety that comes with strapping a gridiron-locked plastic shell on their heads. “When was the last time you saw an NHL player lead with his head?” he asks. “It doesn't happen.”
There's another reason lurking around the margins. Not only would the addition of classic gridiron bars to the already-present see-thru plastic block his product's biggest selling-point — think about the difficulty of recognizing a baseball player's face versus a football player's — but also because the possibility of injuries due to lacerations. “We got more exposed skin,” says Mortaza. Metal facemasks would not do well intermingling with flesh on the field. See, while LFLers have the same shoulder, knee and elbow pads that NFLers do, their uniform lacks two vital features that professional male players, or any males for that matter, take for granted: Shirts and pants.
- Ashley Salerno, QB for the L.A. Temptation, runs away from a tackler. (Getty Images)
- Ashley Salerno runs a play action fake. (Getty Images)
- Lingerie Football League founder Mitch Mortaza poses at a press event for the All-Star game in Australia. (Getty Images)
- Nikki Johnson, the player who gave the LFL its first viral video. (Getty Images)
- Nikki Johnson leads the Las Vegas Sin. (Getty Images)
- Amber Reed of the Los Angeles Temptation celebrates a TD. (Getty Images)
- The Las Vegas Sin celebrate after beating the L.A. Temptation last year. (Getty Images)
- LFL All-Stars pose before their game in Australia last May. Ashley Salerno is second from the right. (Getty Images)
- The Lingerie Football League All-Stars in Australia. (Getty Images)
- Team Euphoria from the first Lingerie Bowl in 2004. (Getty Images)
Which brings us to the svelte, hairless and naked 120-pound elephant in the room: Just how exploitative is all this anyway? From the outside looking in, the answer is an easy “very.” Especially when you find out the players aren’t paid.
Just how exploitative is all this anyway?
“At this point, it's an amateur league,” explains Mortaza. “Once we get a professional league status, we can move to the point where they can do this as their full-time job. Everybody wins in that scenario.” Answering questions of player payment, Mortaza deflects to comparisons of other women's tackle football leagues, where the players actually have to cover their own equipment and travel expenses. Also, they don't get the perk of playing in front of fans, either live in the arena or for TV viewers at home. However, one thing that players in other leagues don't have to do is wear almost nothing.
“It's not really lingerie,” explains Reed about the uniform, “it's just like a bikini, same thing as beach volleyball.”
Salerno couldn't care less about the outfit; it was a league-mandated photo shoot that initially drew her ire. “I was like, fuck this,” she says. “This shit ain't for me. I'm not no model. I'm not going to sit up here and make no kissy faces. I don't even know what the fuck that is.” But after two years of putting on that show, not only has she gotten used to it, but actually enjoys it. “Now, I get in front of the camera and make a dumbass of myself,” she says. “I'm glad the league pushed me out of my comfort zone. I'd say that 100 percent it broke me out of my shell.”
As I said, any criticism is outside-looking-in stuff. Every player I spoke to only had glowing things to say about the league and, specifically, Mortaza. “Smart businessman,” was the common moniker used to describe him. And it makes sense. The league gives them an opportunity they can't find elsewhere: a chance to play, in front of a pretty rabid crowd, the sport they love. However, the flip side to that Faustian bargain is being dressed in revealing clothes, getting their photos airbrushed like crazy for the website, and having their curviest parts highlighted in promotional material. Mortaza is unapologetic. “Our overall retention rate is 96 percent,” he says. “The only ones we lose are due to cuts or from a lifestyle change, like a pregnancy or marriage. So that's pretty impressive.”
It is. It's also depressing as hell.
“We've had to cut some girls who might have been good athletes, but just didn't have the look,” explains Temptation assistant coach Jason Sands. “It's part of the product presentation. If you look at Victoria's Secret, they don't have a big girl’s’ line.” So unlike the NFL, where you have a continual arms race for players to get taller and wider and carry more muscle, there's a definite, albeit flexible, ceiling in the LFL for how large the women can be. In other words, if the LFL was a dating profile, "No Fatties" would be underlined and italicized.
For comparison's sake: How many times do you think during the scouting process did Colts management discuss the fact that Andrew Luck has the face of a duck-billed platypus, and what that would mean for T-shirt sales? Tom Brady's combination of boyish good looks and masculine jawline certainly didn't elevate his draft stock higher than the sixth round. Mel Kiper, Jr. does not have a category for “Best Ass.”
Gender equality is coming, but it certainly isn't here yet. The most recent U.S. election saw that the next incarnation of Congress will have the most females ever participating. That number is 20 Senators (out of 100), and 81 Representatives (out of 435). Add to that same landscape the fact that the most successful female sports league also has the word “lingerie” in the title, and you'll see we all still have a ways to go.
At the end of our conversation, I notice Reed has a tattoo on her forearm. “It's a hummingbird,” she explains. “It represents strength and freedom.” In nearly 200 days, when the Atlanta Steam take on the Jacksonville Breeze to open the U.S. league's fourth season, these are the qualities the LFL will be trying to highlight in their attempt to transition from stunt to sport, from exploitation to trailblazing. The odds will certainly be stacked against them, not least due to the hole they've put themselves in.
Then, with Halloween coming up, I ask Reed if she has a costume in mind. The woman who plays football in lingerie is a team player. “Sexy ref,” she says. ★