Football in the shadows | Ohio Northern University
UN history professor writes book about women athletes who are breaking barriers on the gridiron
This year, women’s sports are in the spotlight as the nation commemorates the 50th anniversary of the passage of the groundbreaking Title IX legislation.
While great strides have been made over the past five decades, much work remains to be done to give female athletes a level playing field and recognition on par with their male counterparts. Ohio Northern University history professor Dr. Russ Crawford is working to advance this field.
Crawford has become a leading voice for a long-overlooked group of athletes: female soccer players. He is the author of a book coming out this November titled “Women’s American Football: Breaking Barriers On and Off the Grid.”
Published by the University of Nebraska Press, the book is the culmination of Crawford’s extensive research over the past six years on women’s soccer teams and leagues. As part of her research, she has conducted hundreds of oral history interviews with players around the world who have followed their passion to play a sport long considered taboo for women.
“See them everywhere”
NFL teams bring in billions of dollars in revenue and millions of viewers, so every American who isn’t living under a rock is aware of the league’s top teams. But have you ever heard of the “Arizona OutKast” or the “Cincinnati Sizzle” or the “Boston Renegades?”
Hanging in the hallway outside Crawford’s office in the Hill Building is a large world map covered in hundreds of colored dots. He and his students, collaborating with Dra. Katy Rossiter, associate professor of geography, produced the map using ArcGIS mapping software. Each dot represents a women’s football team. It’s a visual reminder to Crawford—and her students—that some history is being made in the shadows, and that it’s up to intrepid historians to bring it into the light.
Crawford admits she knew little about American women’s soccer teams until she came across a game in France while working on a different soccer research project. Once the words were out, she says, “I started seeing them (women’s teams) everywhere.”
Football has been Crawford’s sport of choice since he played in Nebraska for the Ainsworth High School Bulldogs. Although he has lived in the Buckeye State for many years, the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers are still his number one Big 10 team. UNL is also Crawford’s alma mater, where he received both his master’s and doctorate in history
Crawford’s lifelong love of the game and the fact that he lives and teaches in Ada, Ohio, the hometown of all Wilson football players, inspired his research interest in the sport. However, Crawford also likes to explore “subjects that no one else has done.” Women’s soccer players certainly fit into this category as they have garnered very little academic attention.
After returning to the United States from France, Crawford began attending more women’s soccer 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 noted that the games drew only modest crowds, typically 100 to 200 friends and family of the players, although some games drew 1,000 to 2,000 fans. She admired the passion and determination of the players, mostly women in their 20s and 30s who put in a lot of time and money, just for the chance to play. It piqued her curiosity and she wanted to know more about the history of the sport and the motivation of the women who played it.
Teams around the world
Amazingly, women have been playing football since the late 1890s, Crawford says. In the early 20th century, sports were primarily dust games played for the parody and entertainment of high school students. A few women’s soccer teams were formed in the 1930s, but it wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s, after businessman Sid Friedman founded the Women’s Professional Soccer League in 1965, that the sport began to formalize and attract more players. A local team, the Toledo Troopers, gained notoriety for winning seven consecutive world championships between 1971 and 1977.
Currently, in the United States, 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. The WFA consists of 61 teams, while the WNFC has 16 teams. In addition, many countries have their own women’s soccer leagues. When Crawford and his students created their map, they documented 570 teams worldwide.
For the love of sport
For Crawford’s book, she interviewed about 250 female tackle soccer players from the United States, as well as from 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 United States, but plans to write a second book that captures the voices of international players.
Summer research funding from the Getty College of Arts & Sciences and the University helped support Crawford’s research. He also had the help of UN history students who transcribed his interviews and helped him in other ways with the project.
Crawford says his research surprised him in two ways. First, I hoped more women would share stories of setbacks and barriers. And indeed, it tells the story of an 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 his story was not typical. “I was expecting this narrative of women facing a lot of resistance,” she says, “so it was pretty cool to see that they weren’t getting pushed around by society that you might expect. They felt like they had the freedom to live the their lives and do what they wanted, including playing football.”
The second surprise was the love the players had for this sport. “I had a lot of players tell me that soccer saved their lives,” Crawford says. Women told stories of playing with torn rib cages and other injuries due to their extreme drive and competitiveness. Others told him that they had wanted to play the sport since they were little girls, so they were fulfilling a lifelong dream. “I deeply appreciated the motivation these players have to play this game,” he added.
Breaking down barriers
Crawford notes that the sports world is starting to pay more attention to women’s entry football. ESPN2 is even televising some games. In turn, Crawford writes match summaries for American Football International (AFI), a leading source of global American football news and information. Last summer he posted dozens of articles on the AFI site, reporting on the games he attended.
In addition, women are breaking barriers in the NFL, which in recent years has employed more women in coaching and administrative positions. Many of these coaches come from the ranks of women’s soccer leagues. Take Sam Rapoport. She was the quarterback of Canada’s first women’s tackle football team, and is now the NFL’s senior director of diversity and inclusion. There’s also Callie Brownson, who played eight seasons as a safety, running back and slot receiver for the DC Divas and is now the head of personnel and assistant wide receivers coach for the Cleveland Browns.
Every other spring, Crawford teaches a course on the history of women in sports at the UN, and often invites the best female soccer athletes she’s met through her research to videoconference with her students as guest lecturers. . “It gives students that first-hand perspective,” he says. “There’s a whole world out there that people don’t really know about.”
If you would like to learn more about women’s tackle football, you can purchase a copy of Crawford’s book at https://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/nebraska/9781496233332/.
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