For women, tackling NFL is a long shot
Okiima Pickett, a running back on the D.C. Divas women's tackle football team, has always loved her sport. She just hasn't always been able to play. When she tried out for her high school team in Charlottesville, Va., the coach told her he didn't want to see her get hurt.
"I've been saying I'll be the first woman to try out for the Redskins, because they need a running back," Pickett said, and she's more than halfway serious.
Pickett has played organized football for five years for the Divas, who were in the Independent Women's Football League the past four years but moved to the Women's Football Alliance this season. She got a late start honing the skills needed to play her position, but she would love to see a woman play in the NFL.
"There are some tough women out there, women who played football in high school and college, and it takes one to have the courage to do it," Pickett said.
When it comes to a woman playing a professional sport in a traditionally male league, the NFL just might be the longest shot. The sport includes tackling, which still carries a stigma when it comes to women, and locker room issues could be tricky. Much of the team building takes place there, but would a woman be welcome or feel comfortable in that environment?
Andrew Brandt, a former Packers vice president, said the decision to bring in a woman at any position would extend from the scouting and coaching staffs, where it usually resides, to include marketing, public relations and sponsorship. There might be teams that would reject any potential disruption, but perhaps not all.
"It depends on the organization," Brandt said. "They would be seen as early adapters."
Often when a woman is included on a team, it's at kicker. Arizona's Jay Feely has played that position since 2000 and said he thought a woman would be able to physically play in the NFL. The key question is whether a woman would have the power to consistently get the ball through the uprights from beyond 40 yards. And then there's the issue of potential contact.
"I think there are physical women who wouldn't have a problem actually tackling," Feely said. "It all comes down to the explosive [kicking] speed."
Feely admits that his opinion is in part formed by the fact that he has three daughters.
"I would never tell my daughters not to go for something they wanted, and there's no corresponding league for women," Feely said. "If they're good enough, great."
The locker room environment might be the toughest part if a woman were to make the NFL.
"I think that'd probably be the most difficult challenge for her," Feely said. "I think her teammates would accept her if her skill level merited her being there."
Katie Hnida --the first woman to score in an NCAA Division I-A (now Football Championship Subdivision) game -- was on the roster as a kicker at Colorado in 1999 and later played in games at New Mexico. She said she was sexually harassed while at Colorado, but did not press charges. Her experience there might have been painful, but she wrote that she found a true sense of team with New Mexico, reaffirming what she felt about the sport to start with.
"Those were the best playing days of my life," Hnida said.
She wonders what her experience as a football player would have been like if it could have been unshackled from the politics of being a woman in a sport where stereotypical ideas of masculinity are pervasive.
"That football mentality travels through all levels," Hnida said. "Whether or not it's open to females, it's still up for debate."
In the 2009-10 school year, 1,249 girls played high school football, according to a National Federation of State High School Associations survey. Jaline DeJesus, a sophomore at Miami Northwestern High School in Florida, played cornerback for one game this past fall when a rash of suspensions forced coach Billy Rolle to call up junior varsity players.
"She works hard and deserved the opportunity to dress just like the other athletes we brought up for the game," Rolle told The Miami Herald.
More girls are going to grow up with a football skill set now that a nationwide flag football program for them is under way. Samantha Rapoport, a former player for the Montreal Blitz, is heading up that program for USA Football and the NFL. Still, she isn't convinced that the goal should be playing professionally.
"I don't think that women's participation in the NFL should be the metric for their success in the sport," Rapoport said.
She points out that playing with women is an equally valid goal, and that knowing the game's rules at a young age will help women become equipped to be officials or to have roles in the front office or on the coaching staff of NFL teams.
"I think women will break barriers both on the field and in the administrative ranks." Rapoport said.
So even if a woman doesn't start at corner next season for a groundbreaking team, channels are being developed to get women closer to a sport many have loved, but few have been given the opportunity to play.
"If that woman is good enough to be there," Pickett said, "she'll prove herself."