ONU history professor writes book about women athletes who are breaking barriers on the gridiron
A spotlight is shining on women’s sports this year as the nation commemorates the 50th anniversary of the passage of the groundbreaking Title IX legislation.
While tremendous strides have been made over the past five decades, much work remains to be done to give female athletes an equal playing field and recognition on par with their male counterparts. Working to make progress in this sphere is Ohio Northern University professor of history, Dr. Russ Crawford.
Crawford has emerged as a leading voice for a group of female athletes who have long been overlooked—tackle football players. He’s authored a book coming out this November titled “Women’s American Football: Breaking Barriers On and Off the Gridiron.”
Published by the University of Nebraska Press, the book is the culmination of Crawford’s extensive research over the past six years into female football teams and leagues. As part of his research, he’s conducted hundreds of oral history interviews with players across the globe who’ve followed their passion to play a sport long considered taboo for women.
“Seeing them everywhere”
NFL teams rake in billions of dollars in revenue and millions of viewers, so every American not living under a rock is aware of the major teams in the league. But have you ever heard of the “Arizona OutKast” or the “Cincinnati Sizzle” or the “Boston Renegades?”
Hanging in the hallway just outside Crawford’s office in Hill Building is a large map of the world blanketed with hundreds of colored dots. He and his students, collaborating with Dr. Katy Rossiter, associate professor of geography, produced the map using the mapping software ArcGIS. Each dot represents a team of women playing American football. It’s a visual reminder to Crawford—and to his students—that some history is being made in the shadows, and it’s up to intrepid historians to bring it to light.
Crawford admits he knew little about female American football teams until he stumbled upon a game in France while working on a different football research project. Once the blinders came off, he says, “I started seeing them (female teams) everywhere.”
Football ranks as Crawford’s favorite sport ever since he played in Nebraska for the Ainsworth High School Bulldogs. Although he’s lived in the Buckeye State for a number of years, the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers is still his number one Big 10 team. UNL also happens to be Crawford’s alma mater, where he received both his M.A. and Ph.D. in history.
Crawford’s lifelong love for the game, and the fact that he lives and teaches in Ada, Ohio, the town where every Wilson football is born, inspired his research interest in the sport. Yet Crawford also likes to explore “topics that no one else has done.” Women football players certainly fit in that category as they’ve garnered very little scholarly interest.
After returning to the U.S. from France, Crawford began attending more women’s tackle football games. “I saw some pretty good football and some pretty bad football,” he says. “But the more games I attended, the more I saw really good football.”
He noticed the games drew only modest crowds—typically 100-200 friends and family of the players, although some games drew upwards of 1,000-2,000 fans. He admired the passion and determination of the players, women mainly in their 20s and 30s who put forth a tremendous amount of time and money, just to have the opportunity to play. His curiosity was piqued and he wanted to learn more about the history of the sport and the motivation of the women playing.
Teams across the globe
Surprisingly, women have been playing tackle football since the late 1890s, says Crawford. In the early twentieth century, the sport was mostly powderpuff games played for spoof and entertainment by high school students. A few female tackle football teams formed in the 1930s, but it wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s, after entrepreneur Sid Friedman founded the Women’s Professional Football League in 1965, that the sport started to formalize and attract more players. One local team, the Toledo Troopers, gained notoriety for winning seven straight world championships from 1971 to 1977.
In the U.S. today, two leagues—the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA) and the Women’s National Football Conference (WNFC) have regular seasons that run from April to July. WFA is comprised of 61 teams, while WNFC has 16 teams. Additionally, many countries have their own female tackle football leagues. When Crawford and his students created their map, they documented 570 teams across the globe.
For the love of the sport
For Crawford’s book, he interviewed around 250 female tackle football players from the United States as well as Germany, Finland, Sweden, France, Russia, Mexico, Holland, England and other countries. He gathered so much source material that he couldn’t use it all for his book. He ended up focusing this first book on players from the U.S., but plans to write a second book that will capture the voices of the international players.
Summer research funding from the Getty College of Arts & Sciences and the University helped to support Crawford’s research. He also had help from ONU history students who transcribed his interviews and assisted him in other ways with the project.
Crawford says his research surprised him in two ways. First, he expected that more women would share stories of pushback and barriers. And indeed, he recounts the story of one Italian player who had to hide her shoulder pads and equipment after every practice because her father would throw them in the trash if he found them. But her story wasn’t typical. “I expected this narrative of women who faced a lot of resistance,” he says, “so it was pretty cool to see that they weren’t getting the pushback from society that you might expect. They felt like they had the freedom to live their life and do what they wanted—including playing football.”
The second surprise was the sheer love that the players had for the sport. “I had many players tell me that football saved their life,” says Crawford. Women recounted stories of playing with broken rib cages and other injuries because of their extreme drive and competitiveness. Others told him that they had longed to play the sport ever since they were a little girl, so they were fulfilling a lifelong dream. “I came to deeply appreciate the motivation these players have to play this game,” he added.
Crawford notes that the sports world is starting to pay more attention to female tackle football. ESPN2 is even televising some games. For his part, Crawford writes recaps of games for American Football International (AFI), a leading source of news and information on global American football. He posted dozens of articles on the AFI site this past summer, reporting on the games he attended.
Additionally, women are breaking barriers at the NFL, which in recent years has employed more women in coaching and administrative positions. Many of these coaches come from the ranks of the women football leagues. Take Sam Rapoport. She was the quarterback for Canada’s first female tackle football team, and now she’s the senior director of diversity and inclusion for the NFL. There’s also Callie Brownson, who played for eight seasons as a safety, running back and slot receiver for the D.C. Divas and is now the chief of staff and assistant wide receiver coach for the Cleveland Browns.
Every other spring, Crawford teaches a Women in Sports history course at ONU, and he often invites the top female football athletes he’s met through his research to videoconference with his students as guest lecturers. “It provides students with that firsthand perspective,” he says. “There’s a whole world out there that people don’t really know about.”
If you’d like to know more about female tackle football, you can purchase a copy of Crawford’s book at https://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/nebraska/9781496233332/.