Overlooked in the speculation about luring the NFL back to Southern California is the fact that two professional football teams are already here, both with ties to Orange County. So why does our Gridiron guinea pig think the term “professional” is misleading?
1 The NFL doesn’t hold open tryouts.
Entire high school and college athletic and coaching careers are dedicated to creating the athletes who make it to the highest level of sport; in football’s case, the NFL. But there’s a lot of truth in the NCAA slogan posted in my Division 1 college’s athletic training rooms: “There are over 380,000 student athletes, and most of us go pro in something other than sports.”
Still, some of us don’t give up the dream after college. Both the Arena Football League and the Legends Football League host open tryouts in or near Orange County. Arena Football—a thus far all-male league played indoors and on a field about the size of a hockey rink—came to O.C. last year thanks to co-owner and rock legend Gene Simmons. It has a contrived, Angels-like naming conceit that has the “LA” KISS playing at Honda Center in Anaheim.
Women’s professional football arrived in 2009 with the LA Temptation of the Legends (formerly Lingerie) Football League. That team has been practicing in Garden Grove and playing in Ontario for the past four seasons, though it now is headquartered in Los Angeles, having just secured the storied Coliseum.
I tried out for both teams in February. The open LFL tryout is free and held at an inauspicious, uneven baseball outfield at a park in Carson, next to kids playing basketball. First, we fill out a form asking important questions, such as if we have tattoos or if we have a favorite NFL team. That’s followed by a photographer who takes pictures of each potential player. Next there’s a veteran-led stretching and calisthenics routine complete with jumping jacks spelling out “L.A.T.E.M.P.T.A.T.I.O.N.”
The open AFL tryout costs $85 and takes place on artificial turf at the team’s official practice field at Santa Ana College. Everyone gets a tryout T-shirt, though I had to tie my XL—“The smallest size we have!”—into a knot and roll up the sleeves to be able to move in it. The AFL has an elaborate system for choosing players, so this tryout—the final in a series of open tryouts around the country—is a last-ditch effort to find a hidden gem.
The coaches divide the group into orange shirts representing offense, black representing defense. I choose black because it photographs better. Further segmented by position to run through drills, I go with the defensive backs, mainly because once I’m wearing black it’s impossible for me to go with the linemen, my only other option.
2 The NFL’s gimmicks aren’t quite as shameless.
Part of the LA KISS allure is the team’s affiliation with KISS, the ’70s-era rock band known as much for elaborate makeup and tight leather clothes as for its music. Bassist Gene Simmons and rhythm guitarist Paul Stanley are partial owners of the team. Games featured pyrotechnics and other showy elements that helped obscure the team’s inaugural season record of 3-15.
After the Orange County open tryout, I was the gimmick. “L.A. KISS Makes History with First Female Tryout,” read the headline of the news release the team issued. Coach Bob McMillen told me over the phone beforehand, “Hey, if you’re better than our guys, I’m not afraid to put you on the team.” And defensive coordinator Walt Housman sure wasn’t afraid to yell at me when, backpedaling as a defensive back, I let the receiver get past me for a reception. But in the body of the news release, this line sticks out: “Unfortunately, Lyssa Allen did not get an invite to camp.”
The gimmick of the Legends Football League, on the other hand, is old-fashioned sex appeal. At the tryout, 38 hopefuls wearing sports bras and shorts form a semi-circle. A veteran player holds up a deep-V-neck sports bra, another holds up some boy-short bottoms. “We need to make sure you’re all comfortable playing football in these uniforms,” the captain says. “Are you all comfortable?” All of the women, most already clad in similar attire, murmur their assent.
The word “lingerie” has been dropped from the league name, but the uniforms remain unchanged.
3 The NFL understands what makes a player a professional.
NFL teams have fled media-rich and wealthy Southern California. San Diego’s Chargers? They’ve never been our team. Orange County lost the Rams in 1994 after stealing them from L.A. in 1980, and L.A. lost the Raiders in 1995 to Oakland, which was their home to begin with.
Since then, other teams and leagues have filled the void, including a handful of other women’s leagues calling themselves “professional.” But we’re ignoring them because they fail to a) pay their players even small amounts; b) promote the league through traditional media; and c) televise some or all of the games.
And I’m counting reality TV stunts as coverage, by the way. But the AMC show “4th and Loud,” chronicling the inaugural year of the LA KISS, lasted one season. The Legends Football League just inked a deal with Oxygen network for a reality show called “Pretty. Strong.” chronicling the Chicago Bliss team. Even with that aspirational title, I predict the show is likely to suffer the same one-and-done fate.
4 AFL and LFL hopefuls wouldn’t stand a chance in an NFL combine.
Certainly not me. Growing up in Texas, I played backyard, toss, flag, and touch football for as long as I can remember—but I never suited up in pads or even played tackle football. My collegiate basketball career was hampered by my inability to be aggressive enough to succeed at the Division 1 level. Football, it turns out, is not really the place for a finesse athlete with little experience getting hit.
He teaches me the proper starting stance for the 40-yard dash, making me confident I can improve on my LFL time of 5.5 seconds. I learn the crossover step that initiates the 5-10-5 shuttle drill—which the LFL coach set up incorrectly when I ran it at that tryout—and the pattern for the three-cone, or L-Drill, an archaic cornerstone of football testing, which Tom assures me has everything to do with repetition and little to do with actual speed. Which isn’t reassuring at all, since I’ve notched maybe 10 reps while the guys I’ll be going against have been doing this drill since Pop Warner.
Nonetheless, we’re both excited by my aptitude for the drills and confident that I’ll impress the KISS coaches with my knowledge of them, if nothing else.
Unfortunately, I don’t beat my 40 time, nor do the coaches show any enthusiasm for my ability to run the L-Drill correctly, if at a speed that’s the second slowest among defensive backs in my group. I broad jump 7 feet 9 inches, which is two feet longer than I am tall, but two feet shorter than the longest jump by a guy in our group.
I take some comfort in knowing that the guy who ran a tryout-best 4.6 in the 40 doesn’t make the final cut, either.
5 You can respect an NFL coach.
The KISS staff tends to be a little casual, but in my experience they were always professional. The Temptation, not so much.
If you make the final tryout cut for either team, the next step is camp, and if you make it through camp, you’re on the team. Though I make the cut for the Temptation, I choose not to attend camp for reasons I’ll explain later. Nonetheless, I’m part of a group text message from one of the Temptation coaches that arrives before the start of camp, two weeks after the tryout, reminding us about camp, what time it starts, whether it’s canceled because of rain, when the time change occurs, and so on. Nearing the end of the second and final weekend of camp, yet another text reminder about camp is followed by this text message response from an anonymous former-hopeful: “Thanks for the reminder, but you eliminated me from camp yesterday.”
Even after that gaffe, the following day the coach texts the entire group: “I need names to these #’s ladies…” and then, when not everyone responds, “I’m assuming since I haven’t gotten a response that u all have been cut from camp?”
6 The NFL doesn’t confuse the genders.
“We want you to hit like men! You need to hit hard, like men! You’re playing football, you need to play like men!” hollered the Temptation coaches before putting us into a light hitting drill.
I can’t help rolling my eyes. I’m not a man, nor will I ever be. I’d like to think a women’s professional league encourages its athletes to play football like women—strong, aggressive, athletic women. Playing like men is missing the point.
At the KISS tryout, the men are friendlier than I’d expected, generally impressed that I’m there at all, and happy to have me working out with them in field and positional drills. But when I make the second cut during the tryout and it comes to one-on-one contact drills, they’re in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation by lining up against a woman. I have the most respect for the player (No. 3, hi!) who didn’t mind going hard against me. I’m out there to play football.
He was out there to play football, too, but this tryout meant different things to him. It was a chance for him to earn a living—if he was that hidden gem. Others were more into it for the love of the game: “I work in shipping, and it’s all right,” one hopeful says, “but it’d be real nice to play.”
But some of the men were clearly there to relive their high school days, including the overweight hopeful who said, loudly, while waiting in line: “You should have seen me quarterback back then. Man, I was sweet. I still got that accuracy. I’m not a running quarterback anymore, though.”
7 At least the NFL acknowledges its hypocrisy.
Amid conclusive concussion research and domestic violence scandals, the NFL continues to select for aggression and create ample opportunities for, and even actively encourage, big hits. At the same time it’s paying millions in damages to veteran players, the league staunchly defends the virtues of professional football.
I can’t say the same for the LFL, which continues to pretend that it’s really about football while shamelessly exploiting its players’ sex appeal. Sure, the league can argue that women’s football is part of the body-image debate (strong-and-healthy vs. skinny), but that’s undercut by a marketing strategy that relies little on athletic action shots and instead focuses on sexy staged shots in those lingerie-inspired uniforms.
At the Temptation tryout, a coach with a heaving beer belly explains to us, “the girls,” how it’s their responsibility as coaches to teach us to play football, but it’s our responsibility to get our bodies in shape by dieting and hitting the gym.
The coach is winded by the time he finishes his speech.
8 The NFL might not be as ageist as some players in the LFL.
“It seems like everyone here is in their 20s,” declares a pushup sports-bra-clad girl to the circle of women stretching before start of the Temptation tryouts.
“I’m 30,” I say without looking up from my half split.
“I’m 18,” she says. “You’re 30? I could have brought my mom to try out.”
9There’s no NFL substitute (Or there’s a reason we’ve overlooked these teams).
I’m a 30-year-old beach flag-football player 10 years removed from a collegiate-level training program—though I can squat twice my body weight and run a six-minute mile. I’m not out of shape. At the end of the Temptation tryout, I am one of about 13 asked to go to camp.
Ultimately, I decide not to go. Although thrilled by the chance to play a professional sport—a dream I thought had died with my college basketball career—ultimately I can’t reconcile the sexist tradeoff of playing in the LFL. Plus, a bruised ankle suffered on the shoddy LFL tryout field underscored the idea that the Temptation isn’t exactly the pro-level sports team of my dreams.
In that moment of uncertainty after my final tryout, though, before my professional football fate was finally decided, I sling my bag over my shoulder and walk to the parking lot. A couple of the guys high-five me. The one who eventually will make it to camp, but get cut there, says while fist-bumping me, “I know some of those dudes were mad when you made the second cut. Congrats, girl, you earned your spot.”
All AFL photos by Christopher Hartman
Uniform photos by Priscilla Iezzi