When 22 of the Lingerie Football League's Toronto Triumph players quit last week following a bizarre series of e-mails from league commissioner Mitch Mortaza, Mortaza tried to portray it as a bid for attention from players only interested in fame. That ignores a huge part of the story, though. The players' comments about coaching issues were certainly notable, but they weren't all that unexpected considering the prominent issues with the league in the past. More information has come out since then, though, and that raises questions about players' safety. Are there are safety issues with the league's other teams, and should Canadian cities should look at blocking the LFL?
To start off with, members of the team told me they were ordered to hold contact practices without helmets, frightening considering what we know about concussions. "We were given shoulder pads but no helmets, and were engaging in contact at practice," one player told me. Players say they observed multiple injuries that they believed to be concussions during practices.
Even after helmets showed up, the head injury concerns didn't abate. According to players, the league sent them helmets that were totally inappropriate for football and had them modify the helmets themselves in dangerous ways.
"Two weeks before the game, we were sent hockey helmets and were asked to drill and attach football chinstraps and visors ourselves," one player said. "The coaches, of course, helped. This drilling compromised the integrity of the helmet."
Players said the safety concerns went well beyond just the helmets, though.
"More extreme concerns arose when our shoulder pads arrived a month before the game, and they were boys' pads with a maximum weight restriction of 120 pounds," one player said. "The majority of girls on the team weigh more than that."
They added that Mortaza was personally involved in a decision made on the day of their first game (seen at top) that saw them told to replace the pads they had been wearing with less-substantial models.
"On game day, Mitch Mortaza told us we couldn't wear the football pads we had been practicing in, and we were given 'Nerf-like' football pads to wear instead," a player said.
The names of the players I've spoken with are withheld at their request, as they're worried about reprisals from the league; some told me they have already received cease-and-desist notices. However, some players have been willing to make public comments about the equipment they were given. Here are some of those comments from The Toronto Star, which substantiate the claims I've heard.
Huddled in a booth at downtown Toronto restaurant, the four players described the ill-fitting hockey helmets and one-size-fits-all shoulder pads designed for young males that they had to wear.
"We would have headaches during practice," said Sandra Dalla Giustina, who was joined by Michelle Crispe, Jennifer Mancini and Krista Ford, daughter of Councillor Doug Ford and niece of Mayor Rob Ford. "They made a hockey helmet a football helmet, and that's not what it's for."
Players also told me that Mortaza failed to provide them with promised information about medical coverage.
"More concerns arose when the commissioner came to Toronto to speak with the team and didn't seem to understand or provide clear information about what medical coverage that would be provided to cover us as Canadian athletes," a player said. "He promised to have the information about the medical coverage to us before we had to sign our contracts. That didn't happen."
Players said they never received that information, and they weren't allowed to wait for it. Instead, they say they were pressured into quickly signing.
"We were given 72 hours to sign the contracts when they arrived with no medical coverage explanation," one player said. "Two of the original members of the Triumph chose not to sign their contracts within the 72-hour time allotment because they were waiting for the medical info. In response to them not signing, they were banned from the LFL for life."
No league official responded when I asked for comment Monday, but here's what Mortaza told the Star about the equipment situation.
In response, Mortaza told the Star that it is the responsibility of team coaches — not the league — to make personnel decisions and to supply equipment.
Players can be released for "lack of athletic ability" or if they "defame or slander or create any unnecessary turmoil within the team," he said.
The ex-players' complaints amounted to "sour grapes," Mortaza said.
Disputes over coaching and angry e-mails from league commissioners are certainly notable in their own right, but accusations that the league asked players to play football with inadequate protective equipment and no information on medical coverage are even more serious. Also, players' comments suggest the LFL's concussion policies are completely against the national framework laid out for every other level of football in Canada. That raises significant questions about the league's policies on protective equipment, and also if Canadian cities should continue to allow the league to put franchises in their cities.
Cities are not powerless here; the LFL stayed away from Oklahoma City after the mayor spoke out against them, and the City of Toronto's municipal government (which includes former team captain Ford's father and uncle as a city councillor and the mayor, respectively) certainly could get rid of the LFL if they wanted to. The Triumph play at a city-owned facility, Ricoh Coliseum, so they could intervene on that front.
It's also worth noting that the LFL would appear to fall under the city's bylaw definition of "adult entertainment parlours", which cover "services of which a principal feature or characteristic is the nudity or partial nudity of any person." If the city enforced that bylaw, the league would have to undergo an onerous licensing process and probably wouldn't qualify. Even if Toronto doesn't want to axe the LFL, the other Canadian cities the league apparently wants to expand to next year (Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Quebec City and Montreal) should take a serious look at this league and if they really want it.
Note: I asked the LFL for a statement or an interview about their policies, actions and plans as well as comment on players' particular criticisms Monday, but received no response by Friday. If the league would like to get their side of the story across, they're welcome to contact me by e-mail and I'll relay their comments.