Heather Furr just twitched: a quick nod toward the women behind her, who wear football pads and eyeliner and garments that — depending who you ask — may or may not be lingerie.
“Turn around, bitch!”
The women are screaming at Furr. They would like her to turn around. They play football for the Los Angeles Temptation, the winningest franchise in the Legends Football League, better known by its previous name, in which the first L stood for “Lingerie.” They are standing in the tunnel at the Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, California, right next to Furr and the Chicago Bliss. It’s the night of the 2014 Western Conference Championship. Tensions are running high.
“You scared?” the Temptation players yell. “We the baddest team in the league, bitches!”
Furr and the Bliss are not scared. They are the defending champions. Furr is a two-time MVP. Her league is filled with women like her, a former Division I athlete who found football as an adult. Her sport has generated dazzling highlights and created a previously nonexistent competitive forum for semipro female athletes. It has also produced its share of debilitating injuries, spurred class-action lawsuits, and inspired arguments over how much its players are worth. But this is the game Furr has chosen.
And now here comes another choice. She has remained stone-faced and front-facing for several minutes, but Furr can’t help herself. She turns around. She smiles as a challenge to her opponents. This does not go over well.
“Fuck you, bitch!” a Temptation player screams. “Fuck your skinny ass! I’m putting you on the ground all night! All fucking night!”
On the JumboTron, there are close-ups of breasts and butts, plus intermittent shots of women playing football. The lights have dimmed. Machine-generated smoke rises from the field. The public address announcer screams his introductions. And here, finally, the Bliss players scream too.
“No regrets!” one of them yells. Through the smoke, out into the arena, in front of the crowd of cheering men, they run.
Furr knows what you’re probably thinking. All the women who’ve played in the LFL do. They’ve dealt with their parents’ concerns about the league. They’ve held their ground against prodding interviewers: How do you keep your breasts out of the neutral zone? Do you wax before games? They’ve dealt with the strangers who hear about the LFL and are neither repulsed nor intrigued, but rather instantly confused.
A primer: Yes, they play football while wearing next to nothing; and yes, the spirals and tackles and playbooks are real. No, most players are not aspiring models or actresses; and no, they do not get paid. “If we paid a dime to a player, we wouldn’t sustain a season of play,” says Mitchell Mortaza, the league’s founder and chairman.
They practice seven to eight months a year, often three times a week. They show up in tank tops to sports bars and tailgates, where they sell tickets and promote the league. When they walk into the arena, they are transformed. “There is nothing,” says one former player, “like stepping onto that field and getting ready to knock a bitch out.” Although their sport can be a source of intense joy, it also creates acute pain. Bones break. Ligaments tear. Medical bills mount, and often, no support arrives. For some, hopelessness sets in: Are my skills really worth nothing? Few complain about the lingerie. They’re bothered more by what their uniforms seem to represent: that they are replaceable bodies, each no more valuable than the last.
“No one is here to watch you play football,” players say Mortaza has told them.
The LFL’s core audience wants to see skin. The players want to play real football in real arenas, to feel the rush of high-stakes competition. The commissioner wants to make money. The LFL, for better or worse, is their middle ground.
It can be jarring to attend an LFL game, scan the arena, and notice all the people there who seem to be earning money — concessions workers, ushers, even mascots. Yet for the players, there is no money. So why play? They speak of camaraderie, of the thrill of competition — the same reasons people play sports at any level. But there are also societal factors that guide their decision to stick with the LFL. “Women athletes are accustomed to playing for less than men or for nothing at all,” says Charlene Weaving, a professor at Canada’s St. Francis Xavier University who has written widely about sports and gender. Even in childhood, boys receive more external rewards — attention, popularity, praise — for athletic achievement than girls do. “It becomes systemic,” Weaving says. “It seems to be, ‘Is this all we’re going to get? Well, OK then.’”
If a woman wants to play football, and she wants fast-paced play and glitzy arenas and games that will be shown on TV, then she must put on her uniform and smile for the cameras and go home with bruises and no pay. This is the reality of her sport and her gender.
It’s the LFL or nothing. There is no other choice.
Team: Chicago Bliss
Experience: Five seasons in the LFL, more than a decade of competitive basketball, all-conference track athlete in high school.
Strengths: Running the option, reading the quarterback’s eyes, inventing celebrations for her interceptions and touchdowns.
Weaknesses: Rarely wore makeup before she turned 23, has at times had a gnawing suspicion that this league may not be worth her time.
Furr did not want to become a lingerie football player. Not when she first heard about the league, and not even on the morning of her initial tryout. It was 2010, the LFL’s second year in existence. She showed up late, only after a friend convinced her to come, and Furr joined about 70 others in running routes and sprints, throwing hits and passes. She wore a cutoff T-shirt and mid-thigh shorts, and the workout was so strenuous she nearly threw up.
She loved it. “It was like I was back in college,” she says. Back then she’d played basketball and competed in the heptathlon, first at Valparaiso University, then at Division III Elmhurst College. Since graduating, though, Furr had felt adrift. She’d always defined herself by the sports she played, but after her college career ended, Furr was running out of places to compete. She tried semipro basketball, but her team was a barely functional disaster. She trained for triathlons and joined slow-pitch softball leagues, but she was never at home among the weekend warriors. She needed something, she says, “that would push me beyond my limits.”
She found it in football. And across the United States, dozens of female athletes, many of whom had considered themselves retired, were finding the exact same thing. They were thrilled by the game’s pace and intensity. “There was a void,” says Melissa Margulies, a former USC sprinter who had grown up playing volleyball and soccer and was now starring for the Los Angeles Temptation. “When you spend your life competing in team sports, and then you lose that, you’re desperate to get it back.” In the LFL, Furr found a group of women who shared her athleticism and passion. Some had grown up playing organized football. Others were discovering the allure of a violent sport that had long been off-limits to their gender. “It was amazing,” says Amber “Ambo” Mane, who’d wrestled on the boys’ team in high school and later joined the LFL’s Green Bay Chill. “I’d never been around that many girls who were all just as hardcore as I am.”
So Furr joined the Bliss. She studied her playbook and the way her model friends posed. She tried on her uniform for the first time. “Is everything tucked in?” she remembers saying. “Is anything going to pop out?” She moved from receiver to quarterback after her first game, and soon she was connecting on short passes, running the option, and turning Chicago into one of the best teams in the league. Furr won the LFL’s most valuable player award in her first season with the Bliss. That year she also earned money: a few hundred bucks per game based on attendance.
She did interviews and photo shoots; she had her picture plastered all over arenas and the Internet. A video of her went viral after she celebrated a touchdown by taking a swig of a fan’s beer. She won a championship in Vegas and stumbled to her hotel, long after the sun had come up, wasted and elated. She went with an all-star team to Mexico City, and she scored a touchdown and stood on a platform before thousands of fans. At the time, she thought, This might be the coolest moment of my life.
That was then. In the years since, Furr has never lost her love of football, but she has wrestled with her love for the league. After her first season, the LFL stopped paying its players. “That’s the hardest thing,” says Furr of the lack of money. “If we were being paid, there’s so much more we could put into it.”
Team: (formerly) Philadelphia Passion
Experience: Played soccer and ran track at Temple; 2010 and 2012 LFL Offensive Player of the Year
Strengths: Power, speed, ability to play through pain
Weaknesses: Concerns regarding her appearance
Marirose Roach is 5-foot-3 and 155 pounds, with a surgically repaired meniscus and a law degree. The first time she put on a football uniform, it came with a jersey and pants and full pads. Not long after she began playing the sport, she sent a running back off the field on a stretcher. Her teammates screamed and called her Lawrence Taylor. She was 10. The running back was 11. He was also a boy.
Roach gave up football in adolescence. She adored the sport, but since she was female, there was no future in it. She eventually earned a track scholarship at Temple University, but as an adult Roach returned to the game she loved. She joined a fully padded 11-on-11 football league, and one afternoon she talked to Chandler Brown, who had just been hired to coach the LFL’s Philadelphia Passion. “We need you,” he told her.
Roach says now, “As a woman and a football player, the very idea of the LFL was embarrassing to me.” Embarrassing, yes, but also fast-paced and competitive and, at the time, televised. Roach had been dominating the women’s football circuit for years, but she’d never been interviewed on TV. She envied NFL players, the men who made a living playing the sport that she loved. “Even looking at the WNBA or tennis or anything else,” she says, “you can make a living. That can be your career. I just wanted to make football my career.” Eventually, Roach’s passion for competition won out. She called Brown: “I’ll play.”
Only she wasn’t allowed to play at first. Before the 2009 season opener, Mortaza, the commissioner, asked Brown to send pictures of his players in revealing outfits for the league to review, Brown says. “She doesn’t have the look,” Brown remembers Mortaza telling him. Roach was kept out of the league for being “too big” in her first season, but she was approved the following year and wound up playing three seasons for the Passion.
The LFL requires its athletes to fit a certain aesthetic. Not pale, but not baked in the tanning bed. Makeup must pop. Tattoos should be covered. And, yes, players should be thin. The shoulder pads are positioned so fans can see cleavage, and the players wear hockey helmets — not football helmets — which allow fans a better view of the women’s faces. “The helmets are horrible,” Furr says. “Horrible.”1 Some players have complained that the helmets are flimsy enough to bend with their hands. Mortaza defends the use of hockey helmets, saying that football helmets tend to be “used as a weapon” and citing a 2013 league survey that found that players preferred hockey helmets.
1. Furr said this in an interview last fall. Shortly before this story was published, she asked, via email, to clarify her statement: “I’ve never worn a helmet for any sport, so I’m not sure how exactly they are supposed to fit or feel. All I know is that I have a big head and a lot of hair, but it’s definitely not comfortable.”
If Mortaza deems a player below league aesthetic standards, he has been known to instruct coaches not to let them play, several former coaches say. On game days, Mortaza has arrived to find athletes who have gained weight and then had their teams bench them before kickoff.
“When you’re talking about a true football player, you’re talking about someone who’s thick, solid,” says Dion Lee, a former Las Vegas Sin coach. “You’re not going to see rib cages. [But] Mitch doesn’t want that — he wants rib cages.”
Football uniforms, regardless of players’ genders, can be thoroughly dehumanizing. NFL players look less like people than like crustacean warriors, pounding each other into the turf while fans clap and scream. So it is in the LFL, only with less padding. From the stands, LFL players tend to resemble anonymous collections of thighs and butts and breasts.
“This is awesome,” says Paul, who looks to be in his mid-thirties and who stands near the end zone on the ground level at the Arena at Gwinnett Center, during a game between the hometown Atlanta Steam and the Jacksonville Breeze. Paul just got a new job, he says, so he’d rather not give his last name. This is Paul’s second LFL game. The first was also awesome. The pace was fast, the contact appropriately jarring. They hit way harder than the Falcons, he says.
Paul likes the uniforms, yes, but also the accessibility. Afterward, the players line up in the concourse for a meet and greet. They take pictures. They sign autographs. “You can’t go sit on their side of the table,” Paul explains, “but you can hug them if you lean over.” The first time he came to a game, Paul took pictures of the players. Now he carries an envelope full of prints of those photos. After the game, he will ask the women to sign them.
It’s not just him. On the other side of the arena, Joe Martin and Dwight Turner don’t mind revealing their last names or that they are each a little drunk. They are having fun, they say. When Turner is asked to name his favorite thing about the game, he nods at one of the players and says, “Number nine.” When asked for his second-favorite thing, he nods to another and says, “Number eleven.”
The LFL apologizes for none of this. “We’re never going to lose the marketable athlete,” Mortaza told me. “That’s not going to change. The Danica Patrick, the Anna Kournikova, the Gabby Reece — that’s our brand.” Yet there have been subtle changes. In 2013 the league changed its name, replacing “Lingerie” with “Legends.” It changed its logo, swapping out a sexy silhouette for an NFL-like shield. And it changed its uniforms, removing “all lingerie aspects” and replacing them with “performance wear.”
At a press conference, Mortaza unveiled the changes. A promo video began with a shot of a player’s legs, taut and glistening, and then panned upward. The uniform was virtually the same. Abs, thighs, and cleavage were all still on display.
But still, this was a “pretty historic” announcement, Mortaza explained. “There’s no longer garters,” Mortaza said. That wasn’t all — they also got rid of the lace and the superfluous tassels, as well as the chokers players wore before games.
The relationship between the LFL’s uniforms and the players who wear them is complex. “I mean, yes, we’re wearing basically a bathing suit,” says Melissa Margulies. “But you can’t argue [with] sex sells. That’s going to fill the seats.” Even among players deeply critical of the league, there is often little patience for this debate.
They joined the league knowing full well what it sells. They agreed to market both their bodies and their talent. But that choice is limited, bound by certain realities. “Sometimes, when you’re a female athlete, you have to suck it up,” says Nikki Johnson, another former player with the Las Vegas Sin. “You have to do whatever it takes to get people to your games.”
Team: (formerly) Team Euphoria
Experience: Three years as a New England Patriots cheerleader, model, actress in TV movies and late-night cable specials, player in the very first Lingerie Bowl
Strengths: Fits the desired aesthetic for Lingerie Bowl
Weaknesses: Learned she was pregnant and had to start avoiding contact
Mia Church isn’t sure how she heard about the businessman looking to hire models who could play football. She saw something online, she thinks, or maybe she got a call from her agent. She was in L.A., trying to make it as an actress. She’d grown up in Boston and had been a Patriots cheerleader before moving west. She dreamed of a spot on a soap opera, then perhaps prime-time television and movies. For now, every gig was a stepping-stone. Maybe lingerie football would lead to something bigger.
The inspiration that put Church and other women on a football field came in 2003, when a young marketing executive named Mitchell Mortaza attended Super Bowl XXXVII. Tampa Bay dominated Oakland in the first half, and at halftime, while No Doubt and Shania Twain took the stage, fans ditched the performance to hit the bathrooms and nacho lines.
The exodus stunned Mortaza, so he came up with an idea: models playing football, on pay-per-view during halftime of the Super Bowl, in lingerie. That would get people’s attention. He contacted casting agents. He signed up Playboy models like Angie Everhart and Nikki Ziering. They planned an over-the-top spectacle — “a joke,” Mortaza now calls it — complete with catwalk player intros. He signed up sponsors. He told the New York Times: “It will play well with men and women. With men, for the obvious reasons, and for women it’s an incredible lingerie fashion show, with red carpet arrivals and more.”
Millions of people reportedly paid $19.95 and watched. The viewership numbers were strong enough for Mortaza to return the next year for Lingerie Bowl II, then again for Lingerie Bowl III. Some players treated it like any other promo modeling gig, but others say they stuck with it because they loved football. Church found out she was pregnant weeks before the game, “so at that point, I wasn’t hitting anybody,” she says. “I was just going to put on the uniform, smile and pose, and see if it led to anything else.”
For most players, it led nowhere. But for the organizers, Lingerie Bowl led to the LFL, formed in 2009 with teams such as the Dallas Desire and the Miami Caliente. Players were paid, and their games aired on MyNetworkTV. The following year, LFL games moved to MTV2, where they were edited to fit 30-minute windows and broadcast on Friday nights.2
2. MTV declined to make anyone available for an interview, but a spokesperson said by email that the league owned and produced the series, which MTV2 licensed until early 2012.
“It felt,” says Furr, who joined in the second season, “like we were really building something amazing.”
Team: (formerly) Los Angeles Temptation
Experience: Sprinter and middle distance runner at USC; wide receiver and running back on two LFL championship teams
Strengths: Shifty; has the vision to find holes in the defensive line and the speed to burst through them
Weaknesses: Injury-prone; doesn’t always celebrate tackles as desired; is actively suing the league
Melissa Margulies didn’t see the knee that sent her out of a game, into a hospital, out of the league, and into litigation. It was a freak accident — Margulies was rising from the turf after blitzing Furr in 2013, just as another player was running by, and her knee struck Margulies in the head. Margulies felt the impact, but she still rose to follow the play. Then she fell. She was unsteady. She’d broken her face.
No, seriously, Margulies says a year later, sitting in a Manhattan Beach coffee shop, “I broke my face.” She had fractured bones in her cheek and around her eye socket.3The area just below her eye swelled up like a golf ball. Soon came the painkillers, anti-inflammatories, and surgery — several metal plates implanted to reinforce her skull. Then came the bills.
3. Margulies posted an image of her face after the injury to Instagram and wrote about her experience.
Margulies knew this could happen. The league stopped paying players after its second season. LFL players have been required to carry their own health insurance since the league’s inception.4
4. Mortaza says the league has always offered players the option of paying for a supplemental insurance plan, although Margulies and other players say that in 2013, no such plan was offered.
Still, Margulies was hopeful. She’d been a top player, a marketable star who possessed the league’s coveted combination of ability, appearance, and charisma. Sure, she believes that Mortaza once had her benched for not celebrating a sack, even though the league contends that only head coaches can make that decision. (“I think I had a concussion,” Margulies says, “I got up and stumbled. I didn’t celebrate. The very next play I got pulled off the field.”) But since then she’d been named to an all-star team that toured Australia. She’d been used to promote the LFL, both at home in L.A. and elsewhere around the league. She’d helped the league grow. Surely, it would find some way to help her recover.
Mortaza sent her flowers. He tweeted his support. Margulies asked the league to cover some of her medical bills, and according to emails obtained by Grantland, the LFL initially offered to help. After a couple of months, though, LFL officials told her they could only cover a fraction of the $3,860 she owed. In an email to Grantland, the LFL responded that Margulies did not choose to purchase the league’s supplementary health insurance plan (which Margulies denies she was ever offered), and that she also didn’t respond to the league’s offer to “off-set a portion of her medical expenses.”
“I’m a major contributor,” she says. “I was someone the league promoted as everything the LFL is supposed to be. But they’re not going to take care of me? Then they’re not going to take care of anyone. So why am I still doing this? Why am I taking the risk? I can’t possibly rationalize doing this anymore.”
Other players’ injuries were just as bad. Marirose Roach, the Philadelphia lawyer, tore the meniscus in her knee and popped a ligament in her neck.
Ambo Mane, when she was playing for the now-defunct Green Bay Chill, took a helmet to the face while rushing for a touchdown. She had a broken nose. Blood gushed onto the field, and minutes later, in the tunnel, Mane collapsed. Soon she would have $3,000 in medical expenses, all preventable, she believes, if Mortaza had not instructed her and other players to adjust their chin straps so that they could rip off their helmets to celebrate plays. The LFL calls Mane’s account “inaccurate throughout,” although former Green Bay assistant coach Darius Jenkins remembers it the same way.
Mane left the league almost immediately after her injury. Even after all her injuries and shredded cartilage, Roach played another year. “I felt like I couldn’t abandon my team,” she says. Margulies waited for a check that never arrived, and then, finally, she quit.
Back at the coffee shop in Manhattan Beach, Margulies shakes her head. “You can’t toss us around like rag dolls anymore,” she says. Margulies contacted a lawyer about putting together a lawsuit against the league. Actually, there would be two suits — one in California state court, and another in federal court. Margulies would serve as lead plaintiff for the California suit. For the federal suit, Margulies knew who to call. A few hours away in Las Vegas, another former LFL player had already begun speaking out against the league.
Team: (formerly) Las Vegas Sin
Experience: Grew up playing quarterback for all-girls youth flag football teams; continued as quarterback of an undefeated team in the LFL
Strengths: Throwing accuracy; ability to read coverages; grasp of the West Coast offense
Weaknesses: Dislikes wearing lingerie; has requested to get paid
She thought there would be money. Nikki Johnson isn’t shy to admit it. She never expected to get rich playing football, but she’d dedicated much of her life to the sport, choosing it over pursuits that could have earned her college scholarships or possible pro careers. Johnson started playing competitive flag football with boys at age 10. In middle school, she was a founding member of an all-girls league in the Vegas area and she lobbied, successfully, for girls’ flag football to become an official varsity sport in Nevada high schools. She spent three years in the fully padded 11-on-11 Women’s Football Alliance. It was a plodding game played by out-of-shape ex-jocks, more like a social club than a sports league. She wanted something fast-paced and competitive, something like the LFL, only without the lingerie.
On that last point, however, she was flexible. “I figured if we get paid, then whatever,” she says. But by the time Johnson tried out in 2011, the LFL had stopped paying players. When Johnson learned this, on her second day of practice, she walked out. Her coach begged her to return. He needed her: Johnson was one of the only women on the planet who had been playing quarterback since childhood. She relented: “To me it felt like this is the highest level of competition if you’re a female football player. So if I want to keep playing, this is where I need to do it.’”
She loved football but hated the league. She took a hit to the face and felt unsatisfied with the league’s response. She thought about the injuries players had suffered and the sacrifices they had made. She decided to form a players’ union. Johnson consulted lawyers who explained that it would be nearly impossible to certify a union of workers who don’t actually earn wages. Even if she couldn’t form an official union, Johnson thought, she could at least organize a group of players to approach Mortaza with demands. She started calling around. This isn’t right, she told other players. We can’t let them treat us this way.
“She contacted me and I was like, Eeeeeeeek!” Furr says. “What are you doing? In a perfect world, that would be a great decision, and that would be the way that you need to go: create a union, form a group of players that know the league best, that can present it to Mitch, but I’m not going to put my name on anything. I don’t know how this is going to go.”
Soon, Johnson found out how it would go. Someone told Mortaza about Johnson’s plan to organize. He sent her a Facebook message.
Hear more and more bullshit about you talking trash about the LFL from other LFL players. Honestly, why do you play and take advantage of the opportunities yet still shit on us? We are so done with you. All the best and goodbye, you have no idea what you have pissed off. Best of luck in nothing in football, now you get to watch what you could have been part of if you actually appreciated the opportunity and were thankful.
Best of luck and goodbye,
So Johnson was done. She tried returning to her old league, but it was too slow and casual — nowhere near the LFL’s quality of play. She became lead plaintiff in the federal case. The suits allege that LFL players have been unlawfully classified as independent contractors when they are actually employees. In employment law, the difference is in theory fairly simple. Independent contractors can control the terms of the services they provide. Employees are subject to terms demanded by their employer. The reason this matters: Independent contractors do not have to earn the federal minimum wage and have no right to overtime compensation under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
“This is really a no-brainer,” says Michael Morrison, the attorney representing Margulies in California. “These women have to be there for practices, or they don’t play. They have to be there for promotional events, or they don’t play. They have to look a certain way. That’s not an independent contractor-client relationship. It’s an employee-employer relationship.”
It remains to be seen how many current and former players will be a part of the class, but those who do will seek the wages the suit alleges they are owed, as well as funds to cover legal fees as well as penalties.
Mortaza declined to discuss the lawsuit for this article. He says he wants to pay the players, but for now, that’s unfeasible. On the possibility of a union, he says: “Anyone who has any business savvy — this is an amateur league. These players pay [a $45 fee each season] to play in this league. So there is no union. There can be no union.”
And on Johnson: “She was a cancer. This is her last fifteen minutes of fame. She’ll never be heard from again.”
Johnson laughed off Mortaza’s comments. “This is to make a point,” she says. “You can’t take advantage of us just because we’re women and we want to play a sport. We’ve been doing this for free to build your business. Now we’ve built it. We deserve something in return.”
Team: Los Angeles Temptation
Experience: Played soccer at USC and for the under-19 Mexican national team; competitive CrossFitter; LFL champion
Strengths: Toughness; tackling; leadership; commitment to the LFL ideal
The LFL’s perfect athlete is a defensive destroyer with long brunette hair and a high tolerance for pain. She talks trash. She welcomes contact. Occasionally, she models. She never complains.
By now, Monique Gaxiola’s story should feel familiar: A college athlete enters adulthood in search of new competition; she joins the LFL; she sacrifices untold hours and suffers injuries; she dominates the league, wins championships, and finds joy. And for Gaxiola, it’s that simple. There is no next chapter of disillusionment, no sense that her worth is unseen. She has tears in both ACLs. She was there when Margulies broke her face. She has no complaints about her helmets or equipment. “I see rugby players,” she says, “and they don’t have equipment.”
Gaxiola embraces the uniforms. “I worked hard for my body,” she says. “It’s like the bikini competitors — you’re being an athlete and showing others that I look good in this uniform.” She cares little about her lack of pay. “When the money is there, we’ll get it,” she says. “This league isn’t making enough to be able to operate.”
Mortaza insists that the LFL has always been profitable, but just barely. The league has contracted, down from 12 teams in 2013 to just six. Yet after a hiatus, the LFL has returned to television this season, with games broadcast on Fuse a week after they’re played. A reality show, following the Bliss, is set to air on Oxygen. Mortaza references a possible movie: “A next-generation League of Their Own,” he says, “featuring a Who’s Who of the female actress world.”
The tensions between the league and some players, however, remain hard to ignore. During last season’s playoffs, arenas were adorned with banners promoting players who have left the LFL, including two — Johnson and Margulies — who are actively suing the league. And yet Gaxiola has remained. She has used the league as a platform to build her brand, she says, gaining followers on social media and earning sponsorships for CrossFit competitions. She’s won the Mortaza Award, which recognizes on- and off-field excellence. And last September, she became the first — and only — member of the LFL’s Hall of Fame.
Two thousand miles away, in Chicago, Heather Furr has agonized at times over her place in the league. For five seasons, she has been a dominant safety and an efficient, playmaking quarterback. Along with Gaxiola, she has become one of the faces of the league.
So about a month before last season began, Furr finally admitted something to her father and her boyfriend: She was thinking of quitting. She worked two regular jobs, as a personal trainer and a bartender. The rest of her life was devoted to the LFL. Practices took her away from lucrative Friday-night bar shifts. Her injuries had forced her off her feet and out of work for weeks at a time, she says, and the overall physical toll of football had left Furr questioning her future. She dreamed of someday having kids, of playing games of one-on-one basketball against them, just as her father had done with her. Yet her future was threatened every time she stepped on the field. One hit could leave her physically broken and financially broke, unable to claim the life that may otherwise have been hers.
The thought of quitting made her nauseated, but Furr needed the LFL to be worth her while. So one night she drafted an email to Mortaza. She needed compensation. She didn’t expect to get rich, or even to earn enough to make a living. She just wanted enough to offset the money she lost by taking time away from work to play for the Bliss. Maybe, she thought, the league couldn’t afford to pay everyone, as it once had. But what about its veterans? Its stars? In the past, she’d heard talk of a tiered system, whereby the highest-performing veterans would be paid.
She kept writing: “I love playing football. I love to compete. I love to win. I love being the best.” And yet, Furr wrote, she’d found herself disengaging, pulling away emotionally from both her sport and her team. “Why?” she wrote. “… The easiest way to put it is that I feel disposable.”
Mortaza responded that he liked Furr’s look and personality and game, although he would prefer she enter the season in better shape. After a follow-up email from Furr, he addressed the pay issue, saying that he couldn’t pay one player without paying all the others in similar financial situations.
So it was a no. And for Furr, this was it. Without compensation, the time and energy required to play were just too much. She went to her next practice and cried while telling her teammates that she was finished. But that next Friday night, when she knew her team was practicing without her, she felt sick. She couldn’t walk away. Not yet. So she went back, announced her return, and proceeded to lead the Bliss to their second straight LFL championship.
Months have passed. The LFL began its seventh season in April. Once again, Furr agonized over her decision to play. Yet as the season approached, she couldn’t quit. There is still no money, but she’ll survive. And more than anything, Furr says, she returned because she had to know if her team could keep winning. As long as she’s a champion, she won’t be able to walk away.
She says, “I always — always — come back to the game.”
It’s fair to criticize the LFL’s uniforms and its dynamics of gender and power. But the LFL didn’t invent the audience for nearly naked violence. It just found them. Likewise, it found hundreds of women, all so eager to play a sport that they’ve long been excluded from that they agreed to say and do and wear what the league wants. Anything to get on the field and compete.
Ask the players, and almost all of them can recall when they learned that the sport they loved was not meant for them to play. Marirose Roach realized in middle school that as much as she loved stiff-arming boys on her way to the end zone, she would never get a college scholarship unless she found another sport. Monique Gaxiola quit after a summer training as a kicker for her high school team. She loved the game but hated how her male teammates treated her — the invitations to join them in the shower or the request that she switch positions to center, so she could bend over while they took turns receiving snaps. Back then, football season also conflicted with soccer, and Gaxiola had a future there. Heather Furr played weekend games with boys in her backyard. For her, tackling neighborhood kids and scoring touchdowns in the snow was as good as football would probably ever get.
For these women, years passed, until eventually they met an LFL coach or league executive — a man who offered them a chance to play football, in real arenas and in front of real fans. All they had to do was play for free, with limited protective gear and barely any clothes.