Sexism and Sport: Looking at the LFL

Violence, tackles and lingerie – what’s not to like? So reads the majority of commentary surrounding the Legends Football League (LFL), formally the Lingerie Football League. Evolving out of a singularly American phenomenon known as the Lingerie Bowl, the LFL is a 7-on-7 all-women’s tackle football code played competitively in the United States. While the league does attract women with enormous athletic talent, the uniform requirement and marketing of the league calls into question the legitimacy of the sport and has opened it up to criticisms of sexism. The discussion surrounding the sport is extremely frustrating. How is it possible that in 2013 we are still asking ourselves whether a sport in which the female players are chosen for their “beauty, athleticism and confidence,” a sport which requires women to sign an accidental nudity clause and provide a full-length bikini shot to be selected, is sexist. We are kidding ourselves if we believe that the LFL is marketing itself on anything other than the objectification of female bodies. Is the LFL sexist? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

Of course, the LFL is not all bad – it is a sport that normalises female aggression and full-body contact, and showcases some incredibly impressive sporting talent from athletes from different backgrounds. However, this celebration of female aggression, of physical competitiveness stereotypically reserved for men is a complete double-edged sword. The LFL’s blend of sex appeal and athletic prowess implies that women are to be celebrated for their sporting achievements only if they can look fuckable while doing so. The fact that this assumption is the basis for a sporting code attempting to be professional is retrograde at best, and extremely insulting at worst.

Proponents of the LFL often point out how impressive the skill displayed in the League is, and it is exceptionally important not to underestimate the effort and training put into the sport. Many League players are semi-professional or professional in other sports such as track, football and body-building. Australian Chloe Butler, who plays for the Los Angeles Temptation, was training for the London Olympics in hurdling before stress fractures diverted her towards the LFL.

League players such as Butler have also been dismissive of the criticisms of that the LFL is sexist – Butler says that she runs in a similar outfit to what she plays in, and others have noted that there is little difference between the League uniforms and those worn for track-and-field or volleyball. There is definitely truth in this, as in January 2013 the LFL underwent rebranding pending their launch in Australia. Founder Mitchell S. Mortaza noted that the League was at a “crossroad of gaining credibility as a sport or continuing to be viewed as a gimmick.” Mortaza and the LFL management changed the League’s name, revised its tagline from “True Fantasy Football” to “Women of the Gridiron,” eliminated marketing which used “sexy female figures” and redesigned the uniform. No more garters, stockings and delicate bras, players are now granted shoulder pads, sports bras and boy-cut panties. Ahead of the Australian launch in December, the League has attempted to distance itself from its sexualised roots, but the League’s promotional video and branding still rely almost exclusively on images of large-busted, long-haired, thin women in bare uniforms. Rather than, you know, portraying the women as aspirational because of their dedication and talent, or something.

Defences of the LFL fall along well-trodden several lines. Several players and key organisers maintain that the League’s image does not matter. “It’s not really a factor in the squad,” stated WA Angels coach J.R. Rogers, “everyone knows what we do is a football-based product…” To claim that the essential marketing strategy of the League has no relationship with how the players or the audience views the status of the League is ridiculous. While the players might not be thinking of the pertness of their bottoms mid-tackle, to claim that the product the League is marketing is solely based on athletic talent is simply untrue.

Sadder still is the convoluted claim that the LFL is actually promoting women being taken seriously in sport. With media coverage and salaries of sportswomen being hugely unequal to that of their male counterparts, perhaps a bit of raunchy girl-wrestling is exactly what we need to boost interest and funding. Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport, points out exactly why that view is faulty. Kane argues that sex appeal “doesn’t sell women’s sports” as it alienates its core fan base, women and families. Kane points out that the most successful American women’s sport, Division 1 college basketball, sells not because of sex but because of the same focus as in men’s sports, that of “competence, athleticism, tradition, [and] rivalry.”

The most depressing defence for the LFL is also the most convincing, as it speaks volumes about how we value women today. Players like Liz Gorman and Angela Rypien make the point that they would prefer not to play in skimpy uniforms, but that they have to generate interest and start somewhere. LFL does not exist in a vacuum, it exists in a society in which women’s sport accounts for only 9% of total sports coverage, a society where our national Football Association refused to publicise and even open the gates for the Matildas international fixture against New Zealand because of stretched resources. A society where the Diamonds, Australia’s world champion netballers, have had to resort to industrial action to haggle their pay from $10,000 p.a. to a mere $20,000 p.a. In a climate like this, Chloe Butler’s statement that “you’ve got to work with the cards you are dealt” seems to make sense.

Ultimately, this is a problematic and ridiculously frustrating bottom line. If we demand that female athletes such as Liz Ellis keep their full-time jobs in order to support themselves while competing at an international level, it is understandable that we turn to that one timeless trick – female objectification. But that isn’t enough if we want to challenge that vicious cycle of female legitimisation through sexuality. In 2013, we shouldn’t still be accepting the notion that the only way to sell tickets to a women’s sport is by reducing them to their underwear. We need to expect more of ourselves, and each other. We need to be braver media producers and consumers, we need to encourage our female athletes on their own terms, and we need to do it pretty darn soon.