The Lingerie Football League, or LFL, a version of grid iron played by women clad only in knickers and a bra, just this weekend played its first ‘exhibition’ game at Allphones Arena in Sydney.
The premise of the LFL is simple: brutal contact sport plus maximum exposure of female flesh equals entertainment people will pay for. And having set up a profitable and successful circuit in the USA, the owner of the league, one Mitch Mortaza, is now trying to make it global.
The fact that the LFL’s plans for international expansion include Australia encouraged the Minister for Sport, Kate Lundy, to pen a polemic against it for MamaMia. A couple of op-eds, petitions and arguments followed, as did the suggestions that to call the LFL sexist was snobbery and middle-class prudery.
It’s widely acknowledged that the world of professional sport is hardly a site of gender equity, but it’s a signal of how weird discussion about sexism has become that a debate can rage on the question of nudity yet focus so little on the economic structures and social patterns that give the charge of sexism meaning in the first place.
In the case of the LFL, as of March 2011, when the league officially became ‘amateur’, the players stopped being paid. In fact, instead of the ticket royalty splits they had been making per game, players themselves now have to pay dues for the opportunity to participate – about US$45 per game. If these women want to make a personal income from the sport, they have to negotiate ‘individual sponsorship endorsements’.
To be clear, the LFL is not community football or a women’s collective. It’s a successful business that sells out arena shows – and it does not pay. The corporation’s owner claims to have cut payments to ‘weed out those doing it for a paycheque’ – as if playing a game at an elite level because you love it negates the need to be financially compensated for the time and energy one puts into the fattening of this man’s wallet. (Mortaza’s close guarding of his profit potential has him apparently threatening legal action against a similar although reportedly non-profit version of the sport in Ipswich, of all places.)
Furthermore, LFL players have reported faulty safety gear, extremely problematic insurance arrangements and thousands of dollars in fines for dropping out of the league, as well as contracts that require them to neither take precautions against ‘accidental nudity’, nor speak publicly about any problems, safety or otherwise, that they might encounter with the League itself.
‘We were sustaining really severe turf burns … because we had basically elbow pads and knee pads that you could just buy at the dollar store,’ said Poles, who added that she got a staph infection from the burns after the league’s championship game last February.
A player’s primary insurance policy is used to cover any injuries resulting from a league-mandated practice or game, according to a 2010-11 Chicago Bliss contract obtained by the Star. If the player does not have a primary policy, she can opt to pay $250 (U.S.) for a league policy that covers injury up to $10,000.
‘A $10,000 cap is not going to cover any type of severe injury,’ Poles said. ‘There are a significant number of players that are no longer playing because their insurance didn’t cover injuries.’
If there’s anything ‘middle class’ about this whole situation, it’s how arguments about it descend almost instantly into a discussion about whether or not we have the right to obstruct someone’s choice to get their kit off over the fact that this a clearly exploitative business model existing in a world in which women’s bodies are primarily objects for consumption. To frame these issues by the ability of the individual to make ‘choices’ – you can choose to play sport in your underwear or you can choose not to – obscures the broader structures of disadvantage and exploitation that bring about the ‘choice’ in the first place. Our much-lauded choices don’t occur without context. The ability to make a choice is as much contingent on our relationship to power, money and politics as it is to our personal preferences and individual temperament.
Because there’s the bigger picture. Women in America cannot play football professionally. NFL players are regularly put on contracts of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year (the highest paid player in the NFL in 2012 is Calvin Johnson, whose seven-year contract is worth a staggering $132 million) but if an American woman wants to play the sport at an elite level – and all reports insist the LFL women are extremely talented footballers – she is required to strip off to do so. What is this, if not sexism?
Yet the dominant logic in these arguments seems to be: if women can choose to participate (or not) in these practices, then sexism does not exist. But that’s simply not true. The fact that men do not need to strip off to be noticed in the sport is not the end of the argument but it is a pretty good indicator of a sexist double standard. And by way of highlighting that double standard further – we would not attempt to make the argument if race were the variable. Because, like racism, sexism persists as systematic exclusion and exploitation, as well as individual prejudice.
We can oppose this and similar manifestations of it without calling for government intervention or suggesting that the women involved ought to be ashamed by the choices they’ve made. Yes, you have the right to choose to play football in your knickers and good on you if that is what you love, but the LFL still runs on an exploitative business model in a sexist society and takes advantage of those already existing structural inequalities that favour men over women and make women’s bodies commodities. Thus, it is sexist. And we should see it for what it is.