The first female football players have received medical criticism


This article is taken from Hail Mary: the rise and fall of the National Women’s Football League by Britni de la Cretaz and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo. Copyright © 2021. Available from Bold Type Books, a trademark of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

In October 1939, History was made when the first full-contact women’s football game to be played in Los Angeles was held at Gilmore Stadium. The Chet Relph Hollywood Stars took on the Marshall Clampett Amazons of Los Angeles in front of 2,500 spectators. The NFL rules governed the game, which consisted of twelve-minute quarters. The Los Angeles Times was on hand to cover the match in detail, and Life magazine would feature a two-page photo series of the players in the November 22 issue.

During a dead time, the Life The photographer took a playful photo of the girls pouring water jugs over their heads in an attempt to cool off from the heat. In another photo, Amazon half-back Babe Culler is smiling broadly with a large strip of white plaster bandage hanging from her bloody cheek. Of course, interspersed between the game-action shots is also that of Mary Zivalic, a 205-pound center, passing the ball between her legs on camera with the caption saying she loves playing football because that “it helps to stay slim.” (This ironic imagery in the media is yet another constant in the history of women’s football.)

The players wore regulation uniforms as well as their own tennis shoes and played with an undersized soccer ball. They also wore circular spongy rubber pads on their breasts to protect themselves (there is also a photo of this in the Life distribution of magazines). Lois Roberts, who played barefoot and could throw the ball fifty yards, and fast, curvy half-back and two-way back Shirley Payne were the stars of the game for the Amazons. Payne’s 45-yard intercept return helped seal the Amazons’ 12-6 victory.

Initially, the overall reception of the competition at Gilmore Stadium was positive, with newspapers across the country picking up the story and marveling at the athleticism of these future housewives and blonde maidens. Life magazine was particularly complimentary, and pleasantly surprised by the aggressiveness and quality of play on the field.

“It wasn’t a powder battle. The girls were rough and tough. They kicked each other in the stomach, got their faces dirty, attacked and blocked each other savagely, knocked out four girls, ”the magazine reported. “And, strangely enough, they played good football, rarely groping or shirking their interference.”

But, like in previous women’s football matches, the compliments didn’t go further. The article also described the reactions of “doctors” who had heard of the game and were “horrified” at the idea.

“Football,” they said, “is a dangerous sport for girls. A woman’s body is not very muscular, cannot withstand the blows, ”the article read. “A blow, whether to the chest or the abdominal area, can lead to cancer or internal injury. A woman’s nervous system is also too delicate for such brutal play. It would be better, they thought, if the girls stick to swimming, tennis and softball.

Dick Hyland, renowned sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times and a former Olympian, was not a doctor, but he was also appalled that women were playing football. He devoted an entire column to poking fun at the event, a week before the match was even played.

“What, WHAT, is the world going to?” Loving, clingy vines are now “crushing types and good tough blockers!” Hyland wrote condescendingly. “I don’t know what all this female activity is supposed to prove in the world of sports. In fact, I wonder if the report does not belong on the entertainment pages or with the crime news.

There was no follow-up column after the game. Perhaps Hyland felt there was no need to attend and watch on his own. He had made it clear that the game was not important enough for him to cover it or take it seriously. It doesn’t matter how well the athletes played or that despite coming out of the fray with a few bumps and bruises, they were still able to get home in time to put dinner on the table, like they would have expected it by the rules of society. Or that both teams kept playing, traveling to different cities for other exhibition matches – the Amazons and Hollywood stars even went abroad to show off their footballing skills in Guadalajara and in Mexico. For Hyland et al — and, it seems, the Los Angeles Times– there was no place for women in football.

Others, a little more open-minded, decided that a rule change was aimed at making gambling safer for women. Shortly after Los Angeles’ first game, a new brand of women’s football was introduced. Stephen Epler, a former Nebraska schoolmaster, introduced six-a-side football for boys in 1934 so the sport could be played safely and for fun in the city’s playgrounds and schools. In 1939 he decided to revise the rules to create a similar game for girls with no tackles, a smaller pitch and a lot more passing. It was essentially the start of what is now known as powder football, a seemingly less aggressive form of football played by women in high school and college.

Courtesy of Books in bold

Epler’s form of women’s football quickly caught on. After school programs and high schools across the country have adopted and used it. But not everyone joined. Tom Brislin, a writer for the International News Service, reported in December 1939 that the Pennsylvania Department of Instruction and the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, which controlled nearly nine hundred member high schools in the state, disapproved of the “establishment of women’s football. In high schools in Pennsylvania – even when played under Epler’s new rules – and essentially banned women’s football in the state.

When the Bradford Evening Star published part of Brislin’s article, the editorial staff put it in place of their usual sports column, “Speaking Of: Sports by Sikes”. At the end of the article, they added their own concise little comment:

“The writer and many others are against women who play football. The game is too hard and despite the recommended precautionary measures, serious injuries will be inevitable. Members of the fair sex had better try baseball or basketball to keep their curves instead of grid sport. (Ironic, since girls have also historically and consistently been excluded from baseball.)

But women haven’t stopped playing tackling football – doctors, Dick Hylands, the new rules and high school athletic associations around the world, to hell with it. In 1939, in Atmore, Alabama, 17-year-old Luverne Wise became a kicker for the Escambia County High School football team. Wise decided to join the team because she and her friends were tired of the ‘football is a men’s game’ rhetoric. Coach Andy Edington offered him a try, not expecting Wise to actually accept it. After training with the team and showing off her Carli Lloyd kicking skills, she went to college. Wise played again in 1940 in his senior year and did more than just score extra points and field goals. She also threw a few PAT passes and earned an All-State Honorable Mention as a quarterback. Wise’s goal after graduation was to coach a women’s football team.

In Montrose, Colorado, a group of enthusiastic women gathered to throw their own mud football game. No serious injuries were reported, but a few jerseys “were streaked in red with slightly bloody noses.” And in 1941, a professional women’s football league tried to get started in Illinois. The league would be made up of eight teams, including the New York Bombers, Chicago Bombers and Chicago Rockets. The two Chicago teams met in a midsummer exhibition game at the Spencer-Coals Field under regulation of football. The goal was to play a game schedule throughout the fall season. But this league has never gone so far. The lack of media accumulation and excitement that preceded this first exhibition game and the launch of the league fizzled out.

In some cases, extenuating circumstances allowed women to gamble. While most of the young men were still abroad during World War II, schools and colleges across the country suspended football seasons and activities on campuses, including Eastern State Teachers College in Madison, in South Dakota. But in the fall of 1945, Eastern State decided to host its Homecoming Weekend to help celebrate the end of the war. And what homecoming would be complete without a football match?

With just three men enrolled for the fall semester, the women of Eastern State dared to question whether they should step in, just like the women did in baseball, with the roster of All-American Girls Professional Baseball. League (AAGPBL). They decided, Why not? Roger Holtzmann from South Dakota Magazine wrote of the event, “the uniforms presented a minor problem, and not for the reasons that might come to mind first. After five years of storage, apparently without mothballs, the college jerseys were full of holes and most of the pads literally came off at the seams.

Fortunately, they were able to put together some spare uniforms for everyone to play. Although the game went according to plan and the return home was a success, the Eastern State girls who played that day never returned to the field. Despite all the fun they had and a strong turnout from friends, family and alumni, they never expected anything to come from the event. There is only one good memory, which they can happily share with their great-grandchildren – this time around. they or they had the chance to play football.

To buy Hail Mary: the rise and fall of the National Women’s Football League here.


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