Toledo is the birthplace of professional women’s football.
It’s also now home to the Toledo Crush of the Legends Football League — better known by its former name, the Lingerie Football League.
And that doesn’t sit well with Mitchi Collette, who has been part of the city’s female football tradition for decades, first as a player with the Toledo Troopers in the 1970s and now as owner-head coach of Thee Toledo Reign.
It’s not that she begrudges the competition, rather it’s their style: attractive, athletic women dressed in skimpy uniforms with just enough there to keep the players from being arrested for public indecency.
“I believe in real football,” Collette said. “To me it’s sexist and they’re exploiting women.
“My players will have their numbers on their jerseys and not their underwear.”
For the record, The Toledo Crush’s “underwear” are tight shorts. Each player on the seven-member teams also wears a sports bra, shoulder pads, and a hockey helmet with see-through visor, all while playing tackle football on 50-yard turf fields.
To quote a Gladiator movie line turned ironic meme, “Are you not entertained?”
Certainly Collette isn’t. And neither is Lucas County Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak, who voiced her displeasure about Toledo’s newest sports franchise during a Toledo/Lucas County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau board meeting, which she followed up with a note sent to the other board members.
“I want our community to thrive in the way that young men and young women know how to excel through education and through academics and sports and in a variety of ways that are healthy,” she said in a phone interview. “I just feel like this is not the way that we want women to feel that they have to express themselves.”
Tyler DeHaven, spokesman for the LFL, is well acquainted with this kind of criticism.
“Usually [the] detractors are individuals who are not familiar with the sport or its athletes and are simply making a judgment based on what the athletes are wearing,” he said in an email interview. “Our uniform is more conservative than several other sports such as volleyball [and] track and field.”
If anything, he stressed, the LFL is less risque and more conservative now, after the league rebranded in January.
The image and marketing overhaul included dropping “lingerie” from the league’s name in favor of “legends,” and adopting a more “sport-centric uniform, which includes a change of fabric to a sports compression fabric, similar to workout gear,” DeHaven said. Shoulder pads were also modified to be larger and more traditional, while all of the lingerie elements from previous uniforms were removed.
“Anyone who doubts that this may be a legitimate sport, obviously does not know of the preparation that goes into becoming an LFL athlete, with off-season mini-camp, training camp, and in-season weight room, game film, etc.”
The LFL was born as a one-off pay-per-view event, the Lingerie Bowl, during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. The game drew millions of viewers and what seemed at the time to be an equal amount of critics. Five years later, Lingerie Bowl founder Mitchell Mortaza expanded his sex-and-sport concept into a league, which now features a dozen teams in North America, including the Philadelphia Passion, Baltimore Charm, Atlanta Steam, Las Vegas Sin, and Los Angeles Temptation. (And you thought the XFL had horrible team names like the New York/New Jersey Hit Men.)
The breakdown of those attracted to these games is what you would expect: 70 percent male, young professionals, and most likely between the ages of 21 and 34, the LFL’s primary demographic.
Globally, the LFL and its leagues in Australia and Europe have drawn as many as 25,000 fans to a single game.
Clearly, that wasn’t the case for the Cleveland Crush, which is leaving its home at Quicken Loans Arena only two years after joining the league, and now as a Toledo franchise will play its May 10 and June 21 home games at Huntington Center.
Steve Miller, general manager with SMG at Huntington Center, said the LFL’s move to Toledo is about size and revenue, with the rental of the 8,000-seat Huntington Center a better cost structure than playing to as many fans in the 20,000-plus-seat Quicken Loans Arena.
“Three thousand to 4,000 people in the Huntington Center looks a lot better than 3,000 to 4,000 people in Quicken Loans Arena,” he said.
As a public facility, the Huntington Center could not legally reject the LFL based on free speech and discrimination. Financially, the arena isn’t at risk because it gets paid by the LFL no matter how many fans show up to the two games.
But Miller said he believes the Toledo Crush can be successful. And if it’s not, well, that’s the marketplace, aka the public, deciding what is and what is not appropriate for the community.
Despite the attention to the LFL, women’s football played in titillating uniforms isn’t something from this century. Or even the last. A New York Times article from Nov. 23, 1896, references “a football game by girls” played at a casino that was halted by police after a “crowd of men looking on, excited by the struggle” of a writhing heap of athletic women, rushed the field.
The two teams, incidentally, were alternately attired in sailors suits and short dresses, with the colors of either Yale or Princeton pinned to them. Stay classy, late 1800s New York.
On a more serious note — specifically, a letter penned by an angry Mrs. Herbert Hoover — the Toledo-based women’s tackle football teams from the early 1930s were disbanded after complaints by the First Lady and others that the female players were being exploited by their male coaches.
Those teams wore Little League uniforms.
DeHaven said the LFL “sends a message of empowerment” and “fight[s] the stigma that women are welcomed on the sidelines as cheerleaders but not on the field as actual competitors.”
But after decades of women’s struggles for progressive rights and gender equality, the idea of a league that outfits its players in uniforms that would make a Hooters waitress blush does seem antiquated and out of place. Only, it isn’t, said Sharon Barnes, an associate professor at the University of Toledo in the department of women’s and gender studies.
“My conjecture would be that since [President] Reagan, we have had a period of backlash against women’s gains,” she said. “You see this with all sorts of examples that people are complaining about” in video games, music, TV, and movies.
It’s a trend of “hyper-sexualization,” Barnes said, as young women are taught that their empowerment comes through objectification.
“That’s a dangerous message. Treating a person as an object is a really bad precedent and certainly lingerie football continues that.
“[The LFL is] not evil incarnate,” she added, “but it continues a culture of sexual objectification of women.”
So, instead of buying tickets to see the Toledo Crush, Barnes urged the community to instead support Thee Toledo Reign and women’s sports at UT.
Collette, for one, would welcome the increased attention on her team.
“We play smash-mouth, NFL-rules football ... [and] we’re lucky to get 100 people to our games,” she said. “This is our 12th year and we really put it out there. And I just can’t get anyone to take us serious.
“I feel like they don’t look at us as a real football team anymore.”
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.