Ladies Who Crunch

The hard-hitting Knighthawks are bringing a new edge to women¹s football

It was an exchange that hinted that women's full-contact football might be comfortable enough with its already edgy identity to let its players, whatever their persuasion, speak frankly. That didn't turn out to be the case, exactly.

The owner of that league complained that Wykes' candor hurt the league. However, Liberty Belles owner Marie Olsen disagreed, telling a reporter, "What shocked me is that they printed [Wykes'] weight. Every woman in America is going to laugh at that -- that's more sacred than anything else."

Robin Howington, the WPFL honcho in charge of expansion, was not as amused. "If they did that in the WPFL, I would have been furious," she says on the phone from Houston, where she owns a bearing supply company called Texas Oilpatch Services and a demure football team by the name of the Houston Energy.

Knighthawk Sophia Russell believes it's all about the competition; that's what keeps her going when she's tired or hurting.
Emily Piraino
Knighthawk Sophia Russell believes it's all about the competition; that's what keeps her going when she's tired or hurting.
Center Tamara Jansen thought 36 years old was a little late to begin a full-contact sport, but she couldn't resist the challenge.
Emily Piraino
Center Tamara Jansen thought 36 years old was a little late to begin a full-contact sport, but she couldn't resist the challenge.

"It's not that I think homosexuality is inappropriate," says Howington. "But it's about trying to build credibility. If the sport already had credibility in everybody's eyes, if a player was credible first, then it wouldn't be like the gay football player.

"I have a customer in Oklahoma," says Howington. "He said to me, I ain't gonna see a bunch of dykes play football.' He's a redneck, but other people think that, too."

This is coming out presented as chicken-or-egg conundrum. Come out after you're successful (but also have much to lose). Or come out when things are just beginning and kill your opportunity. Somehow it always winds up sounding like "don't come out."

"All we tell the girls is if they come out to the media, they should do it because they want to," says Lydia Vargas, press liaison for the Knighthawks.

This rather simple approach to the players' personal comfort zones -- gay or straight or, as folk on the team seem fond of saying, "bi-curious" -- turns out to be not so simple for some.

"It's very important for owners, coaches, to set a respectful atmosphere for all their personnel," says Helen Carroll from the National Center for Lesbian Rights' Homophobia in Sports Project. (The project was instrumental in getting a non-discrimination policy written for the Philadelphia Liberty Belles, the only one of its kind in women's football.)

"Being able to recognize your athletes and those important in their lives -- family, partners, kids -- is a positive force in their athletic ability," says Carroll. "The huge fear is that this issue takes over all of women's sports. But this is a way to manage that. To say, We're going to be fair to everybody, so let's play ball, and then it's done.'"

The Knighthawks' Deena Roach-Canty goes further into her philosophy for the team. "Do I think it's an issue?" she asks one night, as she sits rebuilding her 9-year-old son Ryne's computer. "No. I don't. But it's become an issue.

"In a way, I'm torn. I would like to say, What does it have to do with football?' But the reality on our team is I don't discourage people from being who they are. I don't allow my ladies to lie about who they are. A lot of these women have life partners -- in my case, my wife.

"I don't deny myself. I don't deny my being. I married my wife, I took her name. Therefore, I wear it proud. If someone asks me if we're related, I say 'yes' and leave it at that. If they dig deeper, I'll tell them more."

Roach-Canty, who speaks with the same quick energy she uses to pace up and down the sidelines, takes an atypical breath. "What am I going to do: ask people to lie? Please."

So, for personal and professional reasons, Roach-Canty doesn't view the issue of lesbian players as a marketing nightmare. Still, for some, having lesbian players on a team and selling femininity are at odds. It's as if no one's ever heard the term "lipstick lesbian."

"You're not very feminine in football equipment," says Robin Howington, who also plays on her Houston team. "It's not like basketball where you can look very feminine. You can wear pretty shorts, have your hair done.

"Tina Thompson wears lipstick," she adds, pointing to the Women's National Basketball Association. The WNBA's enviable relationship to the moneyed NBA is a model for a unified women's football league. A future WNFL.

How to capture the imagination of fans for a new sport and its players, how to make clear this isn't a football drag show, is uncharted terrain. Last month, Miami QB Anita Marks, who plays for the IWFL's Miami Fury, decided to try the old-fashioned way: She posed for Playboy.

The Knighthawks and the WPFL are trying to make the game family fare. No surprise, then, that the first women they put in front of the TV cameras were working mothers: running back Desiree Belliard and hard-hitting Nadia Delco. Belliard is a nurse, the mother of a teen daughter, and one of the fastest Knighthawks. Delco, whose husband Bashu is the special teams coach, is a swift, aggressive defensive player. Both have compelling stories. Both could, but won't, give Marks a run for her money in the looks department. And each is the real deal on the field.

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