By Jesse Morrison/Cronkite News | Tuesday, March 31, 2020
“Women in football was the best kept secret in sports,” said Jen Welter, the first woman hired to an NFL coaching staff when she was Cardinals’ defensive coaching intern during 2015 training camp. “The key is that we didn’t want to be a secret anymore. And I think for the first time, you’re starting to see the recognition and acknowledgement that women are in football. They belong in football and that they can play the game.”
The WFA produced Welter; Katie Sowers, the San Francisco 49ers assistant coach who became the first female to coach in a Super Bowl; and Lori Locust, who is one of two women coach Bruce Arians named to his staff of assistants with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Phantomz were founded in 2011 by Tabitha McBride and compete in the WFA Division 3, the league’s largest division. They are made up of players from various backgrounds, most of which do not include playing football.
“I never played as a kid,” Clay said. “I didn’t feel like I wanted to take that away from my brothers. In the street, yes, that’s where all these scars come from. But other than that, it was definitely something that I’ve always wanted to do.”
Shannon Cooley, an Arizona State student and wide receiver for the Phantomz, said she grew up watching hockey but was never into football. She joined the team when she saw an ad for another team in the league. It led to her research the Phantomz and she is now entering her second season with the team.
Cooley is proud of her experience so far.
“It’s been crazy,” Cooley said. “I never thought last year that it would be like this. A year ago, I didn’t even know how to put on a helmet, and now I’m playing on a real team with some people who like to kick ass.”
“Really, it was social media,” Parker said. “I just started seeing some girls posting videos of them on teams. And I started researching a lot more and looking up local teams and just went out for a tryout in California; played with a team in California for four years and … really researched and found that there was an actual league for women’s tackle football and really wanted to be a part of it.”
Misconceptions are something the team has to deal with on a regular basis. Clay and Parker said when they tell people about the Phantomz, most people assume they play flag football or play in the X League (formerly the Legends Football League and Lingerie Football League).
“The first question, ‘Oh, what is it? Flag?’” Parker said. “Or, ‘It’s not lingerie, right?’ No, this is wearing pads and helmets. And then it really doesn’t hit them until I start showing them pictures and videos of us out there in pads and helmets hitting and running routes and stuff, and we’re really doing what the guys can do.”
Clay agreed, noting that the first thing she hears about when she mentions that she’s a football player is the X League. She said it is difficult to receive support outside of family members and said it is a challenge to be seen as “contenders” just as male football players are.
Clay said growing the league has to be done through networking.
“As for us individually, it is just getting our name out there, making connections and trying to make our presence known,” Clay said. “So (it’s) really making those contacts and doing a lot of our own scout work.”
Second-year Phantomz coach Joe Griffin, who took over the team operations role from McBride starting this season, said he enjoys coaching women’s football because it is teaching something new to most of the players.
“We’re 11-on-11 football with full pads, shoulder pads, everything, and so they want to play and they’re just as good as some of the guys out there, if not better,” Griffin said. “We’ve got a lot of talent.”
Welter believes that support from the NFL, like the NBA has provided the WNBA, would help and might be possible down the line. However, she said it will require that the best players come together on fewer teams to improve the quality of play before the NFL is likely to be sold on the potential of the women’s game from a business standpoint.
“If they were going to do something like that, I think that right now … what ne to happen is that less becomes more,” Welter said. “I think you need the best teams competing to really showcase what women’s football is capable of. I think the challenge is that there are so many teams and so many leagues that it would be really hard to do that unless they want to start from scratch and create their own thing.”
“It’s an easier jump for people to see girls who play in, basically like, peewee basketball and they’ve played junior high and they’ve played high school and then they go to college and play in big-time programs with scholarship funds,” Welter said. “They have all of that time to develop their game, and then they transition into pro players. There’s already been significant dollars put behind their development through the course of their athletic career.
“The challenge for football is that you have phenomenal athletes and phenomenal women and phenomenal people sacrificing everything that they have to put the best product they possibly can on the table, but they’re generally starting with people who haven’t gotten to play until after their college (years).
“So, it’s not a parallel path between basketball and football. That’s why the women playing the game will be directly impacted by earlier access and better coaching and more opportunities to play throughout their lifetime.”
She might be right.
State high school federations consider football a coed sport, and have resisted forming all-girls programs. That led Brent Gordon to help organize the Utah Girls Tackle Football League to give girls like his daughter Sam an opportunity to play tackle football against other girls.
Follow us on Instagram.