A (football) league of their own

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Okiima Pickett has been spending her days teaching kids how to be a running back. But more importantly, she is showing kids that the position can be played by both men and women.

Pickett is a running back with USA Football's women's national team. Yes, they tackle. It's the first team of its kind, and the players were picked after performing at a high level in the Independent Women's Football League (IWFL). Now, those women are helping boys and girls learn the game through the Play 60 expo at the NFL Experience fair, which is taking place at the Dallas convention center this week.

"It's opening their minds to something completely different," Pickett says.

If interest in the professional game is going to continue to grow among women, figures the NFL, it's going to be through participation. So the league is funding a program to bring girls' flag football to high schools.

Samantha Rapoport, the senior manager of flag and female football development for USA Football, arranged for women from the U.S. women's team, like Pickett, to offer pointers to local girls' teams during the week leading up to the Super Bowl. Those high school teams played a round robin event, and the winner played the women from the national team in flag.

"Everyone's initial reaction when women play contact sports is to be resistant to the idea," Rapoport says. "But in a country obsessed with football, there's no reason women can't play a version of it."

Rapoport points out that the women on the national team are playing at a high level, despite having learned the game as adults. But when girls start picking up football-specific skills in their youth, women's football has the potential to get even better.

Rapoport can help set up girls' flag football programs in interested communities, with equipment and support through the NFL. There is detailed information at NFLflag.com.

"People have a preconceived notion of what female football looks like, but after they come out to see it they're blown away," says Rapoport, who played for the Montreal Blitz of the IWFL.

Women have been playing tackle football for decades, but mostly on the margins. Today's league teams have uniform sponsors, and are out in the community to try to bring fans into the games.

Hitting Dallas for the Super Bowl is just part of that mission. But the bonus is letting little boys and girls know that the women can play, too.

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