Meet the unpaid, underappreciated, and underprotected stars of underwear football
Published: May 22, 2013
“For me, the hardest thing was when I put the uniform on,” says Angela Rypien, quarterback for the Baltimore Charm. “It feels like you’re in something you’d wear to the beach. But when you’re at the beach and wearing a swimsuit, you’re not wearing shoes.”
Angela Rypien, 21 years old, 6 feet tall, 150 pounds, wears number 11, just like her father, former Redskins quarterback and Super Bowl XXVI MVP Mark Rypien—except Rypien Sr. never had to play football in a bra and panties. But that’s the lay of the land for players on the Baltimore Charm, one of 16 North American franchises of the Legends (formerly Lingerie) Football League. The Charm start their 2013 season this Saturday, May 25, against the Jacksonville Breeze. Their home debut, at 1st Mariner Arena, comes two weeks later, against the Philadelphia Passion.
Spectators who come to see Charm games will see football—a 50-yard field, four eight-minute quarters, seven women per side—played by fierce, capable women wearing a bizarre combination of tacky and fearsome: cleavage-baring bras and boy-short panties in “performance material,” topped by football shoulder pads covered by a strange, elastic-hemmed piece of cloth that doesn’t hide the bra, giving the player a constant pulling-up-her-shirt look. It’s equal parts titillating and bizarre, a jarring mashup of the hypermasculine, he-man drag of football attire and “I dreamed I was playing tackle football in my Maidenform bra.”
But Rypien is sick of hearing about what’s wrong with the clothes.
“If you feel like you have an opinion about it but know nothing about it, come check out our game and see what we’re all about, or meet one of us,” Rypien says. “We’re the first ones to tell you, we don’t go out there to run around [in our underwear], we really bust our ass.”
It’s said that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels. Like so much of women’s lives in a confused, post-feminist era, the reality of lingerie football is more complex than a simple equation of exploitation versus empowerment; of women’s rights to their bodies’ freedom in public spaces versus our culture’s omnipresent, leering gaze, of the right to get banged up like men weighed against the right to be treated better as women. And players like Rypien—tough, beautiful, vulnerable, trailblazing, and driven to win—are at the bottom of the dialogue’s dog pile.
“Redskins Fan Appreciation Day was awesome,” Rypien burbles, her voice appealingly ragged in a screamed-so-hard-at-the-game way. “I went up there today just with my dad to take a tour of Redskins Park. We got to go hang out in the big dome there and watch a little bit of the walk-through.”
When your father is a football legend and your mother is a former Redskins cheerleader, people assume you’re born with fight in your blood. But fate had extra pitfalls planned to toughen up young Angela. When she was 8 years old, her younger brother Andrew was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor that caused his death at the age of 3—an unimaginable ordeal made worse by her mother’s simultaneous fight with cervical cancer. Thankfully, her mother pulled through, but her parents’ marriage didn’t survive. And then, after discovering she was pregnant at age 17, her infant daughter had a life-or-death medical crisis requiring emergency brain surgery. In a horrible echo of the experience with her brother, she and her family were again nervously hovering around a small child in a hospital bed.
“We were in the hospital for three months,” recalls Rypien of that trying time. Her daughter would recover but needed more medical supervision, with a nurse visiting them at her father’s home for weeks after discharge. Terrified after the medical scare, exhausted from caring for an infant, stressed about single motherhood, and still burdened with 60 extra pounds of baby weight, Rypien remembers those early, frantic days of caring for her daughter as being “pretty much on lockdown,” a feeling many post-partum women can relate to.
It was during that time that, while “flipping through the channels,” Rypien saw the Lingerie Football League for the first time.
“I absolutely fell in love with it,” she recalls. Something about the fiercely beautiful women and the promise of their energetic camaraderie beckoned to the housebound young mom. But rather than being dazzled by the spectacle, her first thoughts were for her daughter. “Because I was at the worst health possible [at that point in my life], I just figured if I got myself strong, I could be stronger for my daughter.”
She’s stronger now. In the three years since joining the LFL, first for the Seattle Mist and now for the Baltimore Charm, Rypien’s sports nutrition regimen and training routine—six days a week with a trainer, one day a week with the team—has whittled her 6-foot frame into a lean 150 pounds.
“I’m down to 14 percent body fat,” she brags. “I’m still lowering, my goal’s going to be around 12 or 13 percent. I’m pretty comfortable right now, but I’m always looking to get better and faster and stronger.”
She takes her role as the Charm’s quarterback and its leader more seriously than the casual fan might imagine. “You really have to be self-motivated,” she says. “I push myself because I expect so much more. Especially with my position—I have to be a leader, so I have to be at the front of the pack, pushing everybody. I don’t have a chance to show any sort of weakness or anything like that.”
Rypien’s intention is to play the best game possible, but her physique is also being critiqued. Unlike a male football player, the way she looks, as well as her performance on the field, is grounds for termination.
“We obviously have to pass the criteria of what we look like,” she says. “The commissioner of the league tells you, ‘OK, you can play and you can’t play.’ Last year, we had girls that got cut from the team because they can’t keep their body the way [the league] wants it.”
The LFL’s commissioner and founder is Mitch Mortaza, who, depending on who you ask, is either a canny marketer providing an unprecedented opportunity to thousands of football-hungry women shut out of the even-more sexist NFL, or the sleazeball Svengali risking young athletes’ lives to make a buck.
Promotional photos taken during a less-cautious phase of his tenure show a grim, orange-tanned Mortaza flanked by sweaty, unbuttoned women in abbreviated sports garb. As of late, however, he’s been positioning himself as practically wholesome, making much ado about the rebranding of Lingerie Football into Legends Football (read: no more mudflap women on the logo) and sponsoring football clinics for preteen girls. In a move that feminist blog Jezebel described as “a bid to remain ever creepy,” Mortaza extended an invitation to Paris Jackson “to become the spokesperson for the LFL’s youth program,” with the proviso she could possibly join the LFL when she came of age.
It seems almost unsporting to mention his arrests for public intoxication and drunk driving that every other news outlet brings up as a means to discredit him, or, even richer, to loll around in the Zima-scented schadenfreude that is his mid-’90s appearance on the reality show Blind Date (in which he is rejected by a statuesque blonde). But his penchant for touchy-touchy litigation is legendary, including a cease-and-desist against a satirical sports humor website whose 140-word parody about the LFL, he claimed, caused “serious and irreparable injury to it, its reputation, and its business.” Mentioning the Blind Date episode in an otherwise flattering article about the league in the Broward-Palm Beach New Times was sufficient to have the paper banned for life from covering the Miami Caliente team (guess City Paper can kiss its Charm press passes goodbye).
Not surprisingly, Mortaza spins the LFL as a gift to the players, and not simply a vehicle to make money off of their semi-naked bodies.
“I consider myself someone that enables women [to pursue] another opportunity in life,” he says in what is likely his first and last interview with City Paper. “These are all highly educated women that can choose for themselves whether they want to take advantage of that avenue or not.”
And Rypien has nothing but nice things to say about Mortaza.
“A lot of people have mixed feelings about him, but we have a great relationship,” she says, recalling how, in the aftermath of the suicide of her cousin, hockey player Rick Rypien, in 2011, he rose to her defense.
“We were getting ready to go into our first game when that happened, and he was the first one to call me, saying ‘Let us know if you need anything, we’re here to support you. If you don’t want to talk to anyone, let us know. If you do want to talk to someone, let us know.’” She describes him as “awesome” and justifies his sometimes overwrought management style with an understanding of how the LFL “is his baby. This is the product that he’s putting out on the field. He’s extremely supportive to all the girls who are playing, not just myself.”
Michelle Crispe, however, begs to disagree.
“I congratulate Mortaza for building what he’s built,” says the former player for the Toronto Triumph of LFL Canada. “But I don’t know if I would play in a league where he was the one in charge again.”
Crispe’s six-month odyssey with the Toronto Triumph began, not unlike Rypien’s, with seeing a photo of the team in media. (As she recalls, “I saw a photo in the newspaper of a woman with a football helmet on, straight-arming this other girl, and I was like, ‘Awesome.’”) It ended with her and 20 members of the 26-woman team either being fired or walking out in protest over unsafe conditions, after Mortaza invoked a clause in their contract giving him the right to terminate players for “creat[ing] any unnecessary turmoil within the team” and demanding via email that the women should simply “SHUT UP AND PLAY FOOTBALL.” Termination, as described in the same contract, carries with it a $5,000 fine paid by the player. The contract also forbids players from wearing underwear or other sports bras under their uniforms and contains an “accidental nudity clause” that holds the league blameless should part of the player’s skimpy attire get ripped off during play, as happened to Anonka Dixon during her inaugural game with the Miami Caliente: During a play, an opposing player grabbed at the upper part of uniform, ripping the flimsy fabric and leaving her topless on the field.
“Football isn’t ballet,” says Crispe, speaking from her Toronto wellness practice, where she draws on her degrees in chiropractic, kinesiology, physical education, and personal training to help clients. “There’s contact. If I’m going to put my body at risk like that, I want someone with football experience, so at least I was learning the right skills to protect myself and my teammates.”
Crispe’s athleticism isn’t up for debate. One look at her in lean, tan, and ripped form at the 2007 Sudbury Bodybuilding Championships, where she won first place, puts Ryan Gosling’s rumored-to-be-Photoshopped abs to shame. And she maintains the tryouts were “super-fun” and “one of the toughest things I’ve been through. I was learning everything the first time, from catching to throwing to blocking. It was an absolute blast.”
The other pleasant surprise was discovering a tremendous camaraderie with the other players on the 26-women team (including the daughter of a prominent Toronto politician) and total acceptance of her lesbian identity. “I was completely, 100-percent embraced by my team.”
That camaraderie would come in handy when all of the women—not just Crispe—started to have reservations about what they’d gotten into.
“A few red flags went off for me when I got to know some of the coaches and their backgrounds,” says Crispe. She had no complaints about Sebastian Colvis, a former Canadian Football League defensive back who had been brought on as a volunteer coach; she says his coaching was “unbelievable . . . I felt great with him.” But the head coaching positions had been given to coaches with minimal tackle-football experience, including one whose credentials were only in basketball. Even worse, to her chiropractor’s eyes, the safety padding and helmets were virtually useless, “one size fits all,” made only of foam rather than hard materials. But after seeing the “football helmets”—hockey helmets drilled with extra holes to accommodate a chinstrap—Crispe knew for sure the powers that be at the LFL did not have their athletes’ best interests at heart.
“Anyone who knows anything about helmets, as soon as you drill into them they lose their integrity,” she says. The LFL’s helmets are not the full-protection helmets used in football but are smaller and more compact, with clear plastic face guards where NFL players have metal bars. “I knew they couldn’t use real football helmets because of how much skin was exposed [in our uniforms]. Real football helmets would have just torn the skin off women in the game.”
Alarmed by what she’d seen, Crispe knew she had to take action when Mortaza, bafflingly, released Colvis, the only coach on the squad with pro-football experience, from his coaching duties. “When we found out [about Colvis’ firing], practice was going to start like nothing had happened,” recalls Crispe. “We just stopped the practice and voiced all of our concerns at that point.”
Crispe and three other players (including the politician’s daughter) went public with their concerns on Canadian news programs “and spoke for most of the girls on the team,” says Crispe. “As a result of that, the four of us were let go from the team.” Another 16 players resigned in protest, decimating the Toronto team.
Crispe is conciliatory about the decisions Mortaza made that forced her off the team.
“I think he was sort of at an arm’s length, and made a bad decision [firing Colvis], which he did apologize for. . . . I’m a big believer in everything happening for a reason, and I think the little stink we turned up is part of the reason why Mitch and management are changing some of the safety concerns now. I couldn’t be happier because of that, for the girls that are in it now.”
But the concerns she voiced about player danger from insufficient protective gear are legitimate. The NFL has taken a hard hit in recent years as evidence mounts about how playing the game of football has a high risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), an early-onset dementia brought on by repeated, concussive hits to the head. More than 4,200 former NFL players—including Angela Rypien’s father, Mark—have asked the NFL, in 200 separate lawsuits, to recognize how not being warned about the lasting damage wrought by the hard knocks of football has brought pain and suffering in the form of “memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia.” (The Rypien family also contends that brain trauma may have also been a factor in the depression-related suicide of Rick Rypien, although he is not included in the NFL lawsuit.)
Angela Rypien is no stranger to head injury. “Last year I suffered a concussion after my last game. That was refreshing,” she laughs. “I was blindsided and I hit the turf pretty hard.” What hurts worse, being blindsided or being in labor? She hesitates and can’t decide.
“Anybody who wants to play in the LFL has to take a [concussion test] prior to even being cleared to play,” says Mitch Mortaza in a phone call from the LFL’s corporate headquarters in a Las Vegas office park. “We take it very seriously. In fact, we take it a step further than the NFL where, if you sustain a concussion at practice or in a game, you cannot return, no matter what grade of concussion that is.” As for mounting evidence that women are more susceptible to concussion? “I don’t think concussion is any more prevalent in women from all the studies that we’ve seen,” Mortaza maintains.
Dr. Kevin Crutchfield of the Sandra and Malcolm Berman Brain and Spine Institute at LifeBridge Health disagrees. “The data leans toward women being a bit more susceptible to developing symptoms post-concussion,” he says. “There’s scientific evidence and published literature regarding that.”
So should women, who may be more susceptible to brain injury, not be playing contact sports? “Adults make their own choices,” says Crutchfield. “That’s my answer to every athlete who comes to see me.”
The women of the LFL are free to make that choice, but here’s the league’s dirtiest secret: The women aren’t getting paid for risking brain injury and public nudity. While players in the early days recieved a share of ticket sales and crowd attendance, in recent years Mortaza has converted the league to strictly amateur status. They’re also not getting health coverage beyond immediate injury care.
“If I were to get hurt on the field, I would have to submit through the league within 24 hours to get any medical expenses paid for anything,” says Rypien, who works a day job as a personal stylist to earn regular, non-injury wellness health care for herself and her daughter.
“We encourage [players] to go and pursue their own primary care,” says Mortaza. “If they don’t have it, there’s a policy they can buy into.” As far as injury care, Mortaza contends the league provides “medical groups in most of the markets.”
“It’s an amateur league at this point,” he says. “Until this league gets into a financially stable setting, then we’re going to be an amateur league.” When pressed about his own salary and the salary of the public-relations staff that this reporter negotiated with to secure an interview, Mortaza clammed up. “Well, I wouldn’t disclose that to you. We’re a privately held company.”
Well, if they’re not getting paid, how does he get them to keep them coming back? Some may say the outrageously punitive termination fees in their contracts keep them loyal, but Mortaza insists it’s because he’s providing the athletes with an unparalleled experience.
“You’re talking about women who’ve just come back from audiences of about 20,000 fans to watch them in Mexico and Australia on an all-star game tour,” he insists. “They love the experience right now because it offers them a competitive high that they can’t get elsewhere.”
Debra Miller, owner of the Baltimore Burn, the women’s football league that’s been here for 13 seasons, disputes that the LFL is the only place for football-loving female athletes to find that kind of rush. “I just get a high being on the field,” she says. “Back in the day, we couldn’t play football. I’m just so excited that women are now able to do these things.”
The Burn is held together by the dedication of Miller and her players. She acknowledges that the Burn can’t attract the same kind of televised attention as the LFL, but she assures that “when people come to see our games, they come back.”
For football purists, the Burn play a more orthodox game: 15-minute quarters, 11 players to a side. “Only thing about us is that we have a smaller ball, because women have smaller hands,” says Miller. “Everything else is the same—injuries, broken bones, concussions, all that.”
There’s room for every fit player in the Baltimore Burn, no matter their weight, height, attractiveness, or age. “I’m 53 years old and I’m still running around on that football field,” Miller boasts. The Burn’s roster also boasts more African-American players than the Charm, reflecting Baltimore’s 63 percent African-American population more accurately.
Miller is dismissive of the LFL. “I just think the lingerie football, [in] my opinion, is looking at the women half-naked,” she says. “That’s not football.”
The LFL uniforms cannot be overlooked, even though Mortaza, who designed them, sighs wearily about how journalists can’t get past “this ‘controversy,’ or supposed controversy, drummed-up controversy. Let’s talk about the female in the sport instead, but you know, that’s not sexy enough for media to talk about. They want to talk about anything that could be potentially controversial.”
The irony is, the people who feel the least controversy about the uniforms are the players wearing them.
“I embrace being a woman,” says Rypien, who rejects the false duality of sexy versus competent. “People say, ‘If you want to be a football player, why don’t you go out in full pads and pants and jerseys?’ That’s understandable, but then what would be the difference [from] just watching [men’s] football? I’m going to show what I have, because guys don’t have it. Why would I try to hide something? Why would I try to be equal to a man?”
Michelle Crispe looked at it in the same way.
“I found myself defending the lingerie aspect of it quite a bit to most people, because [it’s seen as] a bad thing for women, where I saw it as an empowering thing,” she says. “You can choose to see the glass half-full or half-empty, and I saw it half-full. What a great opportunity for women. It was the most fun I ever had on a team sport. I had an absolute blast.”
But the league’s neglectful policies toward its most valuable resource—its players—is what eventually forced Crispe and others out of the LFL. Maybe Mortaza is correct that all the emphasis on the uniforms is a distraction, but it’s a distraction that he should be grateful for. The more hand-wringing going on about the lingerie, the less focus on the real issue of how shabbily the league treats its athletes.
But right now, that’s low on Angela Rypien’s list of concerns. She’s disappointed in her performance last season and wants to double her efforts this time around.
“Being part of a new team, I’m learning a completely new offense, I’m learning a completely new wide receiver, completely new blockers,” she says. “It’s a huge difference for me.”
And then there’s the demands of her life off the field. “I’m trying to be the best mother, the best sister, the best friend, the best daughter . . . being a full-time mom, a full-time football player, working full-time, and there’s not a whole lot of time to put toward anything else,” she says, echoing the lament of too many women. In an age where little girls can grow up to be quarterbacks, not much has changed in how their work is still never done.
But then again, much has changed, much to the delight of Redskins fans whose team loyalty extends to the daughter of a favorite son, running the full nine yards in a strange, brave new sporting world. “They were fans of my dad, they were fans of my cousin, and they reach out to me,” says Rypien. “They tell me they love to see ‘RYPIEN’ on the back of a jersey again. That’s been really nice to hear.”
“Especially after losing my brother, that was my dad’s only son,” says Rypien. “A lot of my fans who reach out to me are like, ‘I loved watching your dad play. I never thought I’d see a Rypien play again.’”
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