“Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League”, by Britni de la Cretaz and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo, is most decidedly not one of those sports stories that tugs at the heartstrings as a scrappy but unpolished team beats insurmountable odds to become a champion, though you will find yourself rooting for the underdog. It’s also not another “insider’s view” of a superstar who’s become a household name, though you will get to know the backstory on several the league’s most intriguing athletes.
This is an altogether different sort of a sports story.
“Hail Mary” unfolds the tangled history of the NWFL, a professional women’s football league that had its roots in exploitation but became far more than anyone thought possible. More importantly, it’s also an examination of how, despite dominant teams, intense rivalries, scintillating performances and fascinating characters, almost no one has heard their stories. All, I repeat all, football fans should know about the juggernaut that was the Toledo Troopers.
As “Hail Mary” unfolds the decade-plus history of the entire league, it introduces us to a fascinating cast of characters. There are the women who tried to hide their participation in the league from friends and family for fear of the backlash, as well as those who flirted with national stardom because of it. We learn about dominant athletes piling up ridiculously impressive stats as well as women who seldom made it onto the field but found refuge in the integrated locker rooms of the NWFL. We’re introduced to women who were forced to hide their sexuality from both their families and the public but could be their authentic selves amongst teammates.
The troubles and pitfalls that eventually doomed the NWFL will seem all too familiar for fans of women’s sports today. “Hail Mary” details the underfunded teams and poorly paid athletes, substandard facilities, and horrific travel accommodations that plagued the athletes. And let’s not forget the all-too-common leering gaze of male fans who were consuming the sport for all the wrong reasons.
Learning about a league that many people never knew existed is fascinating and well worth the price of admission. But the strength of “Hail Mary” doesn’t lie in the game stats and day to day action. It lies in the authors’ examination of WHY we don’t know the stories that they’re telling.
D’Arcangelo and de la Cretaz peer into the darkness of the media and sports world of the 1970’s to reveal a culture that, despite growing interest from the public, was in no way ready to shine anything like a light on women playing tackle football. On the heels of both the Civil Rights Movement and Title IX, American culture was evolving rapidly, but the concept of women playing the most violent of sports on fully integrated teams was simply a bridge too far. Newspaper headlines were often demeaning, coverage was seldom aligned with the sports writing standards of the day and interview questions were frequently downright insulting to athletes and readers alike.
And that, dear reader, is why you MUST own a copy of “Hail Mary”. It’s a painfully relevant examination of the ways that women in sports are constantly being considered “less-than”, or “other” to this day, even as today’s women’s professional leagues are enjoying unprecedented growth.
“Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League” not only gives us a glimpse at how far we’ve come, but also reminds us of how far we still need to go.
“Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League” by Britni de la Cretaz and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo (Bold Type Books) will be released on November 2nd, 2021, but can be preordered here. We highly recommend that you do exactly that!