October 20, 2011
When the Lingerie Football League decided to open a Toronto franchise this year and talked of teams across Canada in 2012, it seemed like a bad idea from the beginning. Beyond the league sending all the wrong messages about women's sports, it's also been accused of plenty of shady operations, doesn't pay its players (beyond travel expenses) and has previously threatened to sue players who wanted out. The LFL's Toronto Triumph did manage to get off the ground and even recruited local celebrity Krista Ford (daughter of city councillor Doug Ford, niece of city mayor Rob Ford, who have their own questionable football affiliations), and they even played a game (seen above). However, after just one game, 22 of the team's 26 players have quit as of Thursday, including team captain Ford (seen at right below). The reasons why are fascinating, and a series of e-mails between players and league commissioner Mitchell S. Mortaza not only illustrates that the LFL is in serious trouble, but also raises the question of if Toronto and other Canadian cities should allow this league to continue to operate north of the border.
There were problems with the Triumph franchise from the moment it opened, but the biggest issues revolved around coaching. Those issues came to a head when assistant coach Sebastian Clovis (a former Saskatchewan Roughriders' and B.C. Lions' defensive back) was forced to quit. As one of the Triumph players who just quit (names are kept out of it at their request) told me, that raised significant concerns about the players' safety (some of which are discussed here), as the other coaches had little to no high-level football experience.
We would like to emphasize the fear of our safety, the egotistical attitudes of the two other coaches and Mitch. Coach Don Marchione is a 60-year-old high school basketball coach and Mary Kennedy is a flag football ref. Our only experienced coach was an ex-CFL player whom the coaches kept trying to shut out of the organization of practices and the playbooks.
We were learning the football skills incorrectly by Don Marchione, and we simply asked that the CFL guy be put in charge. All other teams have ex-NFL coaches and the girls are learning correct execution. Instead Don Marchione hopes this will be his last hurrah as a head coach and wanted to continue.
The dismissal of Clovis sparked outrage amongst the team's players, and their scheduled practice turned into a team meeting. That in turn led to players e-mailing Mortaza (who's been arrested for drunk driving and public intoxication, and even went as low to appear on Blind Date) about the situation, and he responded with anger, vitriol and threats to replace the complainants, eventually escalating the situation to the point where 22 of the players quit. His comments included attacks on some of the players, such as "Some of your roster is more in love with the concept of playing on this team and the celebrity that comes with it, versus truly diving into becoming a football player and a football team." You can read the full e-mail exchange here.
Four players were initially cut following the protests, and that prompted the mass departures. One player told me the cuts were highly questionable.
"The four girls let go were accused of being "I" players and not down for the team, when we were the most dedicated, acquired almost all sponsorship and marketing perks as well as being great leaders on and off the field. We had two scheduled practices a week, no permit! Girls had to take time from work to practice on fields in the city with football friends. Bottom line, we put so much into this, our fans are pissed, the coaches are lying about us. All we wanted was a coaching upgrade so we could be the best and represent Canada!"
As one of the players told me, it's troubling that the league doesn't have higher standards with regards to their coaches.
"Mitch needs to ask himself what the requirement is to become an LFL coach!" she said. "These guys pick up any Tom, Dick and Harry off the street. Those interested should go through a series of tests to qualify just like the players do."
It's not just Toronto that has coaching issues. In Minnesota, the Valkyrie underwent a sudden coaching change earlier this month, elevating former Minnesota Vikings' guard Everett Lindsay to head coach (while keeping the previous boss, Tony Nguyen, as "co-head coach" and offensive coordinator). Maybe that contributed to Nguyen's meltdown after his offensive line messed up this past weekend, leading to a hit that broke quarterback Jana Skrtic's wrist (which might even be possible to blame on the in-attendance Donovan McNabb). Here's how Nguyen reacted later in the locker room (warning: language):
There are serious safety concerns with this league, especially considering the minimal clothing and padding players are mandated to wear and the issues around proper coaching. There are also real problems with how the LFL treats its players; it may be "highly profitable", but it doesn't pay players, and as Mortaza's e-mails show, it clearly sees them as pretty replaceable. Many of the women in the LFL are very talented athletes, but this isn't a league that's about the sport; Mortaza has made it very clear that the league picks people based on physical attractiveness. Essentially, he's running a show where people come and pay money to watch attractive women in lingerie; sounds like a strip club, no? Actually, strip clubs may be less problematic; the chances of injury are lower and the performers actually get paid.
What can be done about this? Well, there are plenty of options. If municipal politicians in the five cities targeted for Canadian expansion next season (Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Quebec City, and Montreal) kick up a stink, the LFL may go away; that worked for Oklahoma City. If they don't want to ban the league outright, they can always put it in the category of "adult entertainment parlour" under the bylaws. Toronto's bylaws define that as "any premises or part thereof in which is provided services appealing to or designed to appeal to erotic or sexual appetites or inclinations ... services of which a principal feature or characteristic is the nudity or partial nudity of any person," which certainly would seem to apply to the LFL. Those stricter bylaws would probably be enough to stop the LFL in its tracks.
It's not all up to politicians, though. If fans don't pay the league money to support this junk, it won't last. Even more importantly, if women aren't willing to risk injury and get ogled for free, the LFL's business model goes down the drain. Any women who want to give it a shot are obviously free to do so, but I'd recommend reading Mortaza's e-mails to see what the league thinks of its players first. There are plenty of high-level alternative women's football leagues, too, including the Western Women's Canadian Football League. In leagues like that, unlike the LFL, the focus is on football, not lingerie.