On a woman’s right to play football in her knickers

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.

Stephanie Convery

Stephanie Convery is the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia and the former deputy editor of Overland. On Twitter, she is @gingerandhoney.

More by Stephanie Convery ›

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  1. I was blissfully unaware that this sport even existed until I saw it at the gym yesterday. They’re not paid!? They can’t ensure that the little flimsy articles of clothing they have remain on during the game!?

    We can’t watch women play sport if we could be watching men play that sport instead, unless we find it sexually arousing at the same time!? WTF? This story makes me RAGE.

    Not to mention this ugly little fact: gridiron is a really brutal, dangerous sport, with brain and spinal cord injuries extremely common. And yet Mortaza and the League seem to be creating situations where these kinds of injuries could more easily occur.


    1. I could not actually believe they weren’t paid until I actually watched a couple of players confirm it in a video interview.

      “We can’t watch women play sport if we could be watching men play that sport instead, unless we find it sexually arousing at the same time!? WTF?”

      Well, exactly.

  2. Fantastic post, Stephanie. I posted about this, too, yesterday at the group blog Hoyden About Town, but I like your post so much more.

    It seems the feminist-silencing tactics of the 80s never went away:
    -Wowser! (AKA, don’t complain about anything which presents as “sexay”)
    -Victim feminism! (AKA, don’t complain about anything at all)
    -Aren’t there more important things you could be complaining about? (See above)
    And so on.
    More likely, they never went away.

  3. US woman predominantly watch football for sex appeal. tight pants, chiseled jaws and hard muscled bodies. They gush over favorite players and buy posters and tees with players numbers. Men watch for brutality, strategy and skill. Both watch for favorite teams.

    1. Marc, even if your incredibly sexist and offensive comment were true (it’s not by the way in case I wasn’t clear) that wouldn’t change anything argued in the article and wouldn’t change the fact that it is something we have to take a stand on.

      It used to be the case that racism was accepted as something that just existed naturally in AFL. Racism still exists but because people have taken a stand around the issue – eg Nicky Winmar, Michael Long and most recently Dale Thomas – it is now seen as unacceptable. Likewise, sexism exists in sport but that does not mean that we simply accept that fact and allow it to continue.

      Thanks for your article Stephanie.

  4. Sexist, degrading, exploitative – all those things and more. It makes me realise that gender equality under late capitalism isn’t one step forward but three steps back.

  5. If the women see this as primarily a chance to play football (as it seems they do), then the argument for the Left seems pretty straightforward: clearly, we should support their right not only to get paid properly but to not have to wear sexualised uniforms.
    My question is what happens, hypothetically, if the sport markets itself as an adult entertainment, the women sign up on that basis (that it’s a job akin to working in a strip bar or some such) and are paid according to the norms of the adult industry. Does that change the argument? Would the Left take a different position then? If not, what does that mean for the Left’s position on things like strip clubs, lingerie bars, etc? Should the Left be campaigning against them?
    I’m not trying to troll — it’s a genuine question.

    1. I guess in that case a lot would rest on whether or not sex work is inherently sexist, or exploitative in and of itself. There are many sex workers who would (and do) argue that it isn’t, that they have control over their hours and their income, that they enjoy it, etc. Obviously that’s not all there is to it but it makes outright condemnation extremely problematic.

      1. But that does seem to make the argument quite strange — a partly sexualised football is problematic, an entirely sexualised one isn’t. Can that be correct?

          1. I see what you are saying but I still wonder how that plays out from the POV of the male consumers.

  6. Really interesting post, Stephanie. This also raises the question of spectators and fans and women’s involvement there.

    There was a very serious and thorough academic study published and quite widely reported here in NZ last year on women fans of rugby union. The findings – as they were reported – seemed at first totally banal: women fans follow rugby because they’re interested in rugby, and are keen on sports. Women fans were much like male fans – they hold strong opinions on various players, support their teams passionately, etc etc etc.

    The point the study made, though, was that this quantification of the bleeding obvious cuts against the entire way female spectators are interpellated and framed by the rugby union’s own advertising, sponsors etc, who push this incredibly sexualised line that female fans are involved primarily to ogle, swoon over the hunks etc. Their involvement *as fans* is everywhere denied in marketing that purports to focus on them as a group.

    As with most research of this kind it was reported with a ‘who would have thought it?’ tone, and nothing much has changed since then.

  7. This made me think about tennis. Women now get the same prize money in the grand slams (Wimbledon was holding out at one stage; I don’t know how that was resolved). Everyone loves the way the players, both male and female look (Rafael Nadal is undeniably perfect, for example,) but that is not the sole focus and does not detract from the skill.

    And in a lesser, but entertaining, form of the sport, women and men actually compete alongside.

    Somehow I think tennis will outlast LFL. But perhaps I’m a (non-)cock-eyed optimist.

  8. Great article and focuses on the right issues, too. It should go without saying that women should have the right to play American Football but that they
    (a) Deserve to be paid well
    (b) Deserve safe playing conditions, including proper safety equipment and proper insurance
    (c) A uniform, which as in all sports maximises safety and performance.Just wearing underwear while playing Gridiron is by itself very unsafe and will lead to injuries from burns (male players wear pants for this reason)

  9. I actually enjoy watching this game. Those women are damn good at what they do, they smash each other and play like any other sportsperson would, with passion.

    As for the lack of clothing… I gotta say it gets rather grating after a while. The constant barrage of shots on their asses and boobs make it uncomfortable to watch just for the sport.

    The sport needs to compensate the participants AND new camera workers/retraining them so they stop fixating on their asses so much (which is lovely, really, but it gets old after a wile and in the way of the sport)

  10. I think there’s more than a few holes in this argument

    First, a fact correction – there is professional and semi-professional US women’s football of a sort. In fact there’s about four separate leagues, with about 80 teams. Most of the players are amateur, but the best ones get paid. There’s also a number of women playing in US indoor football – a version in which physical differences between men and women matter less – in mixed teams. Secondly, I havent seen any evidence that people think the quality of lingerie football is that good, and you havent quoted a source. Some of the participants are drawn from semi-pro womens football – most are from the wider penumbra of light sex-work.

    But the main problem seems to be a tangle in the argument.

    1) You’re saying that the structure which makes lingerie football is sexist because there is no (or very little) women’s professional football in the US, and so women who want to play pro football have no choice but to get their kit off (literally).

    But I think there’s a bit of a confusion here over the word ‘professional’, which in this case simply means the absence of a market (rather than being barred from a profession).

    Nothing is actually preventing a pro women’s football league – there’s just very little market for it. Maybe that’s due to a superficial cultural sexism, or a deeper cultural anxiety about women expressing force, or a yet deeper (and intermittent) cultural anxiety about women being wounded. Maybe it’s that the number of women who actually want to turn out for football is so low that the talent pool is small, and the games arent very good on their own terms. Or all of this. The fact that some sports – tennis, athletics, gymnastics, etc – rapidly came to something approaching equality from the 1960s social revolutions onward, that there are significant women’s soccer etc leagues, suggests that superficial cultural resistance argument can’t explain it. The lack of a market for (non-lingerie) women’s football suggests the lack of desire for it comes from deeper wellsprings.

    Your position seems to suggest that we should focus not on the activity – can a woman play football if she wants to – but on the capacity to commodify that activity. Ie, can a woman turn her free life activity into alienated labour if she wants to? To say that women should have access to all activities on a fully equal status, is the legitimite progressive cause (as has come up in boxing for example). To say that the absence of commercial demand for that activity, when done by women, is sexist, could only be meaningful if you subscribed to the theory (as per above) it’s superficial prejudice that prevents pro women’s football from taking off – rather than a deeper seated lack of interest (among women as much as men). For reasons above that seems to me discredited.

    The other way through the knot is the simpler argument that taking the activity ‘lingerie football’ at its word, is a category error. It’s football-themed erotica, and it’s no more part of sport than jelly-wrestling in a pub leads onto a bronze in the Olympics. Some participants may be genuine footballers, but some strippers are ballet dancers, etc. Look, a lot of people may go and see lingerie football – but if they missed the game, no-one is going to check the scores, and that indicates what you’re not dealing with sport per se.

    That certainly makes it part of the structural asymmetry that makes the sex industry possible, but it suggests that it’s neither a colonisation of an existing non-sexual practice, nor a restriction on women’s choice through sexualisation in the manner you’re describing.

  11. I don’t mind women playing in their own football leagues but its rather stupid they complain of injuries when they run into the game with skimpy clothing. There’s a reason why NFL players look like walking tanks.

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