Women Tackle Flag Football, With Gusto
The defensive lineman hit the right guard with an ominous thud. Oh, my goodness, said lineman Kathleen Howley, I am so sorry. The victim responded with a ferocious glower and, on the next play, a hit that left Howley smarting from a bruise below the eye.
Such was Howley’s introduction this fall to the emergent sport of women’s recreational flag football. The 43-year-old Bloomberg News correspondent quickly caught on to game rules that she said translate smoothly from the playing field to the arena of professional life.
At first, for example, Howley said she hit her opponents gently, “just enough to slow them down. Now I hit as hard as I can.”
“And I long ago stopped apologizing when I hit people on the field,” she added.
Despite decades of progress by women in formerly “guy” sports such as soccer, hockey and basketball, football has remained an almost exclusively male domain.
Ann Bilyew, the 35-year-old coach of Howley’s team, the Jamaica Plain Lava, recalled feeling devastated at age 12 when her father said she could not go out for football like her brothers. The town did not permit it, and, he added with paternal compassion, it just was not a girls’ sport.
“That was the first time I ever heard ‘girls can’t do’ something,” said Bilyew, a partner in a venture capital firm. “That was a major thing for me. And you know what? That’s not the reality anymore. I don’t want to make this sound too lofty, but this is a way to make a claim to stuff we’ve been held apart from.”
Women’s professional football never has found much of an audience. But recreational football -- played without helmets or pads -- now attracts about 80,000 women and girls in leagues around the country, said Diane Beruldsen, founder and president of the International Women’s Flag Football Assn.
Though launched in the United States about 30 years ago, the sport has grown precipitously in the last five years, Beruldsen said. More than 100 women’s flag football leagues are scattered across the U.S. and Canada, she said, and nearly 50 teams competed recently in the sport’s largest tournament in Key West, Fla.
Many leagues mirror the composition of Boston’s Jamaica Plain district: professional women in their 30s and 40s who missed out on many of the benefits of Title IX, legislation that 30 years ago extended federal funding to women’s athletics.
“It really takes generations for a law like Title IX to take effect,” Beruldsen said.
Members of the Lava -- who joke that their unofficial slogan is “Remember Pompeii” -- say they play football because they love the game’s physicality. Special-needs teacher Diane Mazzaglia, 31, called the sport a stress reliever, because “you can’t think of anything else besides playing when you’re on the field.”
Law librarian Ellen Beckworth, 44, cited the game’s cerebral qualities: “the play-calling and the strategy.” Quarterback Linda Kaczor, a 41-year-old psychologist, said that as a lifelong athlete, football was something “new and challenging.” Besides, she quipped, “they offered me all the Gatorade I could drink if I joined the team.”
But player after player said the real allure is camaraderie.
“Football is a special sport,” said Bilyew, the coach. “You really have to operate as a unit. The bonds that are formed on this team are just tremendous. We get together socially, we care about one another, we support one another.”
Flag football takes its name from bright banners that dangle from each player’s hips. Tackling is taboo. Instead, opponents stop a ballcarrier by ripping off one of her flags. Leagues have some latitude to craft their own rules -- and in Jamaica Plain, this means eight players on each side. A game consists of two 20-minute periods, and field goals are forbidden.
Bruises abound, as do injured knees, fingers and wrists. Female football players also claim the occasional gender advantage, such as the ability to twist an unused mouth guard around the strap of a sports bra for handy storage.
Peter Roby, director of the Center for the Study of Sport and Society at Boston’s Northeastern University, said that even if it is unlikely to put the NFL out of business, women’s flag football should not be underestimated.
“Sometimes as a society we get hung up on the idea that unless you play a sport at the highest level, it doesn’t count,” Roby said. “I don’t buy that. Think about all the benefits these women are getting from this sport. It’s about playing, challenging yourself, sacrificing for the good of the team, overcoming adversity and understanding what that means.
“The other great thing is that it smashes another stereotype -- that women either are not tough enough, athletic enough or tough-minded enough to play football. We know that is hogwash. It’s another barrier shot down.”
Flag football may represent a confluence of the political and the recreational, but with the thermometer 1 degree above freezing this Sunday morning, no Lava player had rolled out of bed with the sole goal of making a statement. A win against the Parkers might earn the Lava -- named after a defunct neighborhood bar -- a berth in the league championship game.
But the Parkers roster included five members of a semipro female football league -- the Lava had none -- and Parkers’ middle linebacker, Katia Paskovich, had played hockey for the Russian Olympic team. Babies, dogs, spouses and grandparents filled the sidelines. Shouts of “Nice pass, Janice!” burst from the field. When two Lava players executed a deft move, center Carol Schacker offered some encouragement to her teammates.
“Kathy and Donna,” she called out, “great job staying with that little chickie doing the hokey-pokey out there.”
This being New England, Kathleen Howley paraphrased John Adams as her team went down to a 42-0 defeat. “We do not know that we will win,” Howley recalled the patriot’s declaring as the American Revolution began, “but we make ourselves worthy to win.”
Never mind, said her teammates as they packed up for a postgame brunch. “We do like to win,” Bilyew said. “But the first thing is, it’s fun. It’s thrilling -- and it’s really, really fun.”