Stumbling, Bumbling, Tumbling

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It was not a good day to be a member of the Orlando Lightning. Rain showers the afternoon of Sept. 8 turned their home turf, Showalter Field in Winter Park, into a 100-yard-long wet sock. Sloppy play was evident everywhere, even during warm-ups. The ball squirted through receivers' hands the few times that quarterback Christine Shaw threw a catchable pass.

During the game, which drew maybe 150 spectators, Shaw wasn't much better, completing more passes to opposing defenders than to her own teammates. Even so, she was hardly the only problem on the woeful Lightning team. Its players stood around like tackling dummies while running backs for the opposing Miami Fury galloped past. Missed assignments were routine. Punter Shelby Berkheimer threw the night's best pass, a perfect 30-yard spiral. But her intended receiver, Gail Tryon, unaware that a fake punt had been called, didn't look for the ball.

The Lightning received no mercy -- or sportsmanship -- from Miami coaches. Leading 13-0 minutes before the half, the Fury tried unsuccessfully for an on-side kick. Later in the game, up 39-0, the Fury faked an extra point, throwing to a wide open receiver for a two-point conversion. Then to top off their classless act, as the clock wound down inside five minutes, Miami coaches instructed their quarterback to chuck the ball downfield for a touchdown instead of running the ball. Final score: Miami Fury 48, Orlando Lightning 0.

After the game, Lightning players were even more stunned by what occurred in Showalter's parking lot than by the pounding they took on the field. According to a Winter Park police report, Lightning co-owners Marsha Beatty and Casandra "Sandy" Miller -- lovers off the field -- were involved in an altercation after Miller accused Beatty of stealing a water cooler. Miller tried to wrestle the cooler away from Beatty, the report said, then allegedly bit the knuckle of Beatty's right thumb when she refused to drop the cooler. Miller also tried to grab a camera that was hanging from Beatty's neck before coaches and players separated the two, the report said.

The following Thursday, after a tear-filled, curse-laden meeting at Red Bug Lake Park, the Lightning were history. The team had bounced five checks, and Beatty and Miller weren't speaking to each other. Indeed, while Beatty and players argued under a covered patio, a Seminole County Sheriff's deputy served Miller with a restraining order. (Half the team hadn't even bothered to attend the meeting, instead preferring to party with offensive lineman Lisa "Truck" McDonald, whose National Guard unit was being sent overseas.)

"It doesn't matter if we could crap money right now," one of the Lightning's captains, running back Tango McCall, said after the meeting. "If we have only 20 dedicated people versus 60 people who are dedicated, we'll get killed."

The final gun, however, has not yet sounded on women's tackle football in Orlando. Another team, the Orlando Fire, is ready to kick off its season Oct. 27 against the Tampa Bay Force. It is also a team with a bumpy history. At one point last spring, the Fire and Lightning were the same team. They split in June amid management bickering, including allegations that several owners wanted to receive a paycheck before players.

"I think the biggest issue was that they saw power leaving their hands," says Beatty, who was one of nine members of the Fire's board of directors. "They realized other people can do it better and they might get left behind."

Such is the world of women's professional tackle football, a sport with a short history that is laced more with off-field controversy than on-field heroics. Not just teams, but entire women's tackle leagues have sprung up only to crash and burn without completing a season. Allegations of double dealing and unethical business practices have become so pervasive that one of the nation's five leagues, the Women's American Football League, has declared its intention to be the "ethical, credible" professional women's league and has mandated that its teams open their books to players.

The 17-team WAFL, derisively called "the waffle" by its critics, is operated out of a Daytona Beach office by Carter Turner, a 48-year-old businessman who was part owner of the semi-pro St. Paul Pigs among other athletic ventures. Turner is the self-proclaimed founder of contemporary women's football because he barnstormed the country in 1999, showcasing two women's teams, the Minnesota Vixens and the Michigan Minx. He helped start the Women's Professional Football League a year later. But it dissolved after a shortened season amid allegations of fraudulent investment schemes and, according to a March story in Sports Illustrated for Women, $100,000 in debt. Promises that players would be paid a $100-per-game salary never materialized. Several lawsuits reportedly have been filed over the league's breakup. "We had some investors who borrowed some money in the name of the league and we never saw them again," Turner says. "They were in it for an easy buck."

But people involved with the WPFL don't give Turner much credence either. "Carter Turner is a pathological liar," says Catherine Masters, a consultant with the WPFL. Masters formed her own league, based out of Nashville, called the National Women's Football League, which played its first championship game in Pensacola in July. "Nothing he tells you is true."

(Turner denies he has lied and challenges Masters to produce evidence to the contrary.)

Marsha Beatty doesn't like Turner either, claiming he distributed an e-mail saying he'd smear the Lightning name in the media. "I don't think that was fair or ethical," the Lightning owner says.

As reputations continue to get pulverized, some observers wonder why people like Beatty have emptied their bank accounts into a sport with almost no chance to build a fan base beyond the players' friends and relatives. Who else would be willing to plop down $10 on a Saturday night to watch women -- who don't even look like women underneath helmets and pads -- block and tackle one another?

"I don't see how women in football are going to have much of a following," says Lawrence Wenner, a Loyola Marymount professor who has studied fan motivation and behavior. "I applaud their efforts and there's nothing to say that women aren't capable of playing football. But who is interested in watching them play and why? That answer doesn't pop out at me."

Women's tackle football is not a new concept. As far back as the 1920s, women played as a novelty during halftime of NFL games. In 1965, Sid Friedman, a Cleveland theatrical agent, founded the Women's Professional Football League, a semi-pro league with eight teams that played until the early 1970s. Some of Friedman's teams merged into the National Women's Football League, which began play in 1974. The league's dominant team was the Toledo Troopers, a squad of women who went 39-1-1 over a five-year period.

Another women's league formed in Germany in 1986, but not before the NWFL folded, in part because a group of California teams spun off to form a now-defunct separate league.

Failed leagues and teams aren't unique to women's football, however. The Xtreme Football League, which promised football fans a more exciting product than the NFL, folded after one season -- even with the backing of a major television network and Vince McMahon, who helped turn professional wrestling into a prime-time, teen-age soap opera. Wenner, the Loyola Marymount professor, points out that contrary to the image projected by televised athletics, most pro franchises aren't moneymakers. "It's more a history of failure than success," he says.

Even so, it's obvious that women want to play football. Some members of the Fire drive three hours from Jacksonville for practices and games. Nomadic players, like the Lightning's McCall, Berkheimer and Danielle Moody, hopscotch from city to city, team to team, because of their love of the game. More than 300 women tried out for the Miami Fury, 160 for the Carolina Cougars and 260 for the Denver Valkyries. These tryouts didn't come cheap: Teams charged between $35 and $100 just for the privilege of participating.

Part of the surge in interest in football, and women's sports in general, can be traced to the enactment of Title IX, the landmark federal legislation that, among other things, mandated financial equality in collegiate athletics. Participation in women's sports has increased from 300,000 in 1972, the year Title IX was enacted, to some three million today, according to a recent Sports Illustrated article.

With the loosening of the purse strings at the collegiate level, the mores surrounding athletics have changed, allowing women to explore uncharted territory. Much to the surprise of many people, quite a few women have long craved to buckle on a helmet and knock an opponent senseless.

Women like Marilyn Williams, a 47-year-old grandmother who works at Baptist Hospital in Greensboro, N.C., have wanted to play football since they were small children running around in their backyards with their brothers. Williams is now a 5'-5" 169-pound backup linebacker for the Carolina Cougars.

"We play for the love of the game, like it was when I was little," she said after the Cougars beat the Lightning 12-0 at Showalter Field Aug. 25.

The word "professional" is a loose term in women's tackle football. There are many expenses players must soak up. They pay for travel, helmets and other equipment, as well as medical insurance. Players are expected to do any number of social-service activities, such as build homes for Habitat for Humanity. They hold car washes to raise money, and beg companies for donations.

Teams usually practice two or three times a week, though practice is also a relative term. Players often skip it because they must work or attend college classes. Several weeks ago, at Red Bud Lake Park, rain forced the Lightning from a nearby field to the covered patio (the same patio where the team would hold its final meeting two weeks later). The players should be given credit for practicing in such limited conditions, especially since their head coach, John "Pappy" Perras, was unable to drive from Daytona Beach. Even so, practice was sloppy. Players talked when they should have been listening. None were in uniform, choosing to wear baseball caps and sandals rather than cleats and shoulder pads.

At least the practice was better than the week before. Instead of hitting the patio when their practice field was closed, Lightning players met at Gators Dockside on Aloma Avenue, ostensibly to study the playbook. Instead, they watched NFL preseason football on the big screen and drank beer.

At the time, nobody had any idea about the future of the team. Everybody was upbeat and optimistic. (Indeed, the team would travel to Tennessee and win its first game of the season, 14-3, two days later.) Tango McCall, a running back and the Lightning's emotional leader, sat at the bar, wearing a T-shirt, shorts and a straw hat on her head. A silver bar poked through one of her eyebrows. She joked that she would someday be the best player in the women's pro football hall of fame. "My grandkids could make millions," McCall said, her hands lifting in a raise-the-roof gesture.

Next to her sat Marsha Beatty, the Lightning owner and director of operations. Beatty, a 40-year-old Michigan native, became involved in women's football during the Daytona Beach Barracudas' inaugural season. Beatty was one of two fans who bought Barracuda season tickets. The other was her girlfriend, Sandy Miller.

The Barracudas, under Pappy Perras' leadership, were successful on the field last year, going 6-1 in the shortened WPFL season, before being bounced from the playoffs in overtime by a visiting New England Storm team.

But off the field, the Barracudas were a mess. The team switched stadiums and dates often -- even on the day of the game -- without bothering to notify their fans. Not only that, Daytona Beach wasn't an ideal city for hosting football. "Daytona has a lot of transients," says Cyndi Long, the Fire's general manager, who was a Barracuda fan last season. "You might get a tourist [to a game] here or there."

"It was very unorganized," Beatty says. "We were supposed to get five games, but we only got two. They'd change venues with no notice. With only two season ticket holders, it wasn't like they couldn't call me."

Beatty jumped in when several principles of the Barracudas, including Perras, Long and several players, decided to form a team in Orlando. But several months later, the Fire ownership began feuding as well.

Tensions spilled over into the clubhouse and players were asked to choose: Lightning or Fire. Some players didn't like the Fire's offer because the team's schedule was incomplete. And the Fire demanded its players sign exclusive two-year contracts.

The Lightning, on the other hand, were offering $50 a game, though no players were ever paid.

Eventually, eight Barracuda veterans joined the Lightning, 10 chose the Fire. Pappy Perras, a wiry, bearded former bar owner who chain-smokes Marlboro cigarettes, and his defensive coordinator went to the Lightning. Leon Bright, a former Tampa Bay Buccaneer and the Fire's offensive coordinator, became the Fire's head coach.

A rivalry instantly developed. Fire players were angry that the Lightning wore the Fire's orange-and-white team colors and that Lightning players went on the radio claiming to be Orlando's only women's tackle football team. When Fire players attended the Lightning's first game -- to show support, the Fire say; to sabotage their game, the Lightning say -- they were treated rudely. "They tell everybody that we hate [them]," says Renee Kelley, a Fire defensive tackle and Oakland police officer. "That's not true. They dislike us but we wish them well."

When the Lightning dissolved, Beatty gave players the option to re-join the Fire. Players were concerned because some said they had been bad-mouthed by the Fire. But Kahs Sky-Deer, the Lightning's injured quarterback, says her former teammates would be welcomed back by the Fire. "They don't have any biases. That coaching staff is the one that took us 6-0 [during the Barracudas' regular season]."

Even when the tension settles among former Lightning players and the Fire, other problems remain. Chief among them is who will constitute the Fire's fan base. The answer isn't as clear as owners and managers of women's football would have you believe. They claim that, when the public finds out about their sport, fans will want to see the best women athletes play football. "We have the Lawrence Taylors and Michael Jordans of our sport," says Turner, the WAFL league executive.

The attitude of women's football officials is similar to the well-worn slogan, "If we build it, they will come," made famous in the movie "Field of Dreams."

But Wenner, the Loyola Marymount professor, says that idea works only if you're building something unique: "You don't put the equivalent of a high-school band in a philharmonic hall," he says.

Indeed, the women's pro game is slower than many a high-school game. Fans won't see defenses that swarm to the ball or exhibit good form tackling. There are also likely to be few displays of superhuman feats, such as the incredible diving interception Dre Bly made in St. Louis Rams NFL season opener or the 90-yard punt during the first "Monday Night Football" game of the season. In the Lightning's game against the Cougars, there were three fumbles, one interception and two penalties in the first four minutes of the game. In the Lightning's game against the Tennessee Heat, Orlando was penalized more than 120 yards.

Of course, women aren't as skilled at football as men because they have had no playground, high-school or college leagues in which to develop. "There needs to be a feeder system," says Mary Jo Kane, the director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. "There need to be girls playing football their whole [school] careers."

But even if women become as skilled as men on the field, why should men watch? Why would men turn their allegiance from male teams they more readily identify with? These are important questions because it is men who are more likely to watch sports. According to Wenner's analysis, 20 percent of men consider themselves hard-core sports fans. But only four percent of females regard themselves as committed.

Players and managers of women's pro football offer rather vague answers to questions about fan demographics. "There are more women in the world than men," says Wayne Bass, the Fury's general manager. "If we can attract women to the sport, then we'll have a league greater than anything seen so far."

So the league needs to attract mostly women spectators?

Not necessarily, Bass says, arguing that anybody with $10 can get into a Fury game.

According to Shatoya Coogle, a Lightning linebacker, men should attend games to learn that women, too, can play ball: "Men don't think we can play football. That's supposed to be the reason [they] come to games."

But after they see one game, why would males return?

"Because we're women," she says.

Is that good enough for most men? Probably not. What most men want to see is not only great hitting but also courage, precision and execution. "If there was excitement, I'd watch," says Walt Smith, a patron of Smokey Bones Restaurant, the evening of the Lightning's final after-game party. "But they might have to change the rules to somehow make it more exciting. The XFL promised more excitement. But they didn't deliver what I'd thought they'd deliver. It wasn't much different than the NFL."

Still, the desire to be part of something big can be very intoxicating to those who champion women's pro football. For example, John Clow, owner of the Jacksonville Dixie Blues, claims that his team is worth $250,000, although it isn't clear how his WAFL team will ever earn a quarter-million dollars.

Anybody loony enough to pay that price for a team should take a breath and realize that women's football is still a long way away from its main goal: sponsorships and endorsements from the NFL. For women's football to make it in America, it's up to the sisters to do it for themselves.

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