The best game of Melissa Margulies' football career was her last.
The Los Angeles Temptation's star tailback had already topped her career single-game rushing high, and it was only the third quarter. Her timing couldn't have been better: facing a physical Chicago unit in the divisional round of the 2013 playoffs, Los Angeles wasn't producing easy points through the air.
And yet, injuries on the defensive side of the ball had left Los Angeles' bench desperately thin. Margulies' coaches had no choice to but to rotate the engine of their offense in at safety.
"I was blitzing the quarterback," Margulies told VICE Sports. "I'd just made contact with her when she released the ball. I didn't really finish the tackle, since I knew she didn't have the ball anymore. I was getting back up, to follow the play. That's when one of my teammates, who was running perpendicular to me, she didn't see me and just kind of mowed me over. Her knee hit me in the side of the head."
Margulies had taken countless hard hits over three seasons in the Legends (neé "Lingerie") Football League. She had seen things that troubled her, too: low and non-existent pay; inadequate equipment that put her and other athletes at unnecessary risk; a micromanaging league owner, Mitch Mortaza, who sometimes seemed more concerned with players' physical attractiveness than their football ability.
Still, Margulies loved football. So she figured she'd do what she always had done: get back up and continue on.
"That's when I was like, 'Whoa! That's not right!' and fell back down," she said. Temptation assistant coach Scott Talanoa knew something was wrong, too.
"I was the first one on the field," Talanoa told VICE Sports. "I was hovering over her, and the first thing she says to me is, 'What does my face look like?' I said, 'Melissa, you look as beautiful as always.'
"What came out of her mouth, I'll never forget: 'Scott, you need to shut the fuck up because my face is broken.'"
Growing up, Margulies played a little of nearly every sport she could. While she was seriously into soccer, track and volleyball, her parents encouraged her to try everything—softball, tennis, even horseback riding. A natural athlete, she hardly needed encouragement.
"I loved being part of a team," Margulies said. "I'm a very competitive person, and I love being physically active." She didn't think about football, though, until eleventh grade, when she started attending a high school with a varsity squad.
"Once I had a team to follow and cheer for, that's when I was like, 'OK, I'm in love with this sport. Wish I could play.'"
USC recruited Margulies to run track. During the golden years of Trojan football, she excelled: She made the Pac-10 championships in the 800 meters, and the Pac-10 All-Academic squad. After graduation, however, reality hit Margulies, as it hits nearly all female athletes: There are almost no opportunities for women to compete outside of college.
"A friend of mine who'd played volleyball at USC somehow found out the LFL was having tryouts," she said. And so both women attended. All they knew ahead of time was that they were supposed to wear something that would show they'd look good in the LFL uniform: A bikini-style top and bottom trimmed in lace, garters and bows—plus socks, kneepads and minimalist shoulder pads, cut to show cleavage.
"I wore a sports bra and some spandex shorts," Margulies said. She laughed, adding "there were girls out there wearing even less than that." The hopefuls were put through footwork drills, agility drills, their ball skills tested. Margulies couldn't help but notice LFL Founder & Managing Partner Mitch Mortaza—both his outsized personality, and his influence on the process. Margulies estimates about 200 women tried out; in the end, she was one of 25 or so invited to join the Los Angeles Temptation.
"I was really excited," she said. "I was a little hesitant, at first, to tell my parents, because … well, you know, your first impression when you say 'Lingerie Football League.' It's like, 'The what?'"
Margulies was comfortable with the uniform; it wasn't much more revealing than what she wore at USC. "But then the focus wasn't on our bodies," she said. "When we run track, they're not taking boob- and butt-shots of us."
On the field, her athleticism stood out, but her vision and instincts set her apart. It looked as if she'd been playing football her whole life—an invaluable asset in a fledgling league starved for polished talent. "She brought something to the table we didn't have," Talanoa said. "She was the threat in the LFL."
Not a slasher like Trojan hero Reggie Bush, Talanoa compared Margulies one-cut to legendary Denver Broncos tailback Terrell Davis. "Teams knew if you could stop Melissa Margulies, you had a very good opportunity to stop the LA Temptation," he said. That didn't happen often; LA won three straight league titles from 2009-2011. Their 2011 team MVP was just as beloved off the field.
"Everybody loves Little Baby," said Talanoa, using her squad nickname. "As a person? Outstanding person."
Margulies' trouble with the league started in the first half of her first game, back in August 2010. On a blitz, she wrapped up and dragged down the other team's quarterback, who landed on top of Margulies. She got up woozy and disoriented, and was immediately benched.
"It was probably a good thing in terms of my having a concussion," Margulies said, "but it was strictly for the reason that I did not celebrate my sack." When she made it to the sideline, her coaches took her aside and told her she needed to be more entertaining. At halftime, she said, Mortaza scolded her team.
"You guys are boring to watch!" Mortaza said. "I had to bench Margulies because she didn't celebrate a big tackle!" Over the next few years, she heard, Mortaza told other players and teams to "ask Margulies" if they didn't think he was serious about tying playing time to entertainment value.
Eventually, Margulies realized Mortaza was tying playing time to other things.
"Some of the bigger girls," Margulies said, "and by 'big' I mean not big but not skinny, either—muscular, the kind of girls you want blocking for you. Well, they were really, really stressing about their weight. And I was like, 'What? I don't want some skinny waif trying to block for me!'"
"Girls that should never have to worry about their weight, great athletes, were very concerned and resorting to extreme measures: Yo-yo dieting, taking water pills before the game, trying to look skinnier. That's when I was like, 'What the hell's going on here?'"
Several former players told VICE Sports that Mortaza benches players who don't meet his standard of attractiveness. Atlanta Steam head coach Dane Robinson told VICE Sports he's never had lineup decisions dictated to him, but that, "like the NFL," coaches "get a pretty good sense" of which players the owner prefers.
For what were these athletes starving themselves, injuring themselves and being berated? Competition, camaraderie—and practically nothing else.
"My first year," Margulies said, "we were paid based on ticket sales, and whether you won or lost. We were undefeated and so it added up to, like, a couple hundred bucks." After that year, Mortaza sent players a letter, obtained by VICE Sports, describing his regret at "unknowingly creating a culture" where players expected compensation:
"The moment it became clear to us that the league needed a shift in culture was following this season's Lingerie Bowl. As the confetti was coming down and the champagne was being sprayed, a player celebrating the Lingerie Bowl victory immediately turned to a league representative and asked, 'So when are we getting our checks?' It was at this moment, that should have been joyous and filled players with a sense of appreciation for the experience, that we realized we needed a drastic change in our policy to rid ourselves of these players."
Mortaza wrote that he'd terminated a host of insufficiently grateful players and league employees. Then, having brandished the stick, he dangled the carrot:
"We will eventually revert back to a compensation model. The irony will be that the players that are playing for the love of the game and the experience, will ultimately reap the benefits of national exposure, compensation and endorsements as the league builds."
Mortaza's zealous, possessive micromanagement pervades every aspect of the LFL. Name a hat and Mortaza wears it: owner, commissioner, even color commentator. His official title is "Founder & Managing Partner," but there are no other partners, no Board of Governors or Executive Committee to report to. The LFL is his ship to steer; those who aren't on board with that are thrown off.
It began in 2004 as the Lingerie Bowl, a screwball pay-per-view stunt with models in lingerie quote-unquote playing football during the halftime of Super Bowl XXXIX. It was successful enough that there was a Lingerie Bowl II, and III, but grander plans for subsequent games—including, per the Broward-Palm Beach New Times, playing in a Las Vegas nudist resort—failed to coalesce. In 2009, Mortaza re-envisioned the game as the championship match of an actual competitive league, and assembled ten teams across the country.
Unlike most sports leagues, there is no local ownership or executive staff; Mortaza oversees nearly everything directly through the league's Las Vegas headquarters. Head coaches, reporting to Mortaza, run the squads. Over six LFL seasons, 18 different teams have operated in the U.S, of which six are active; a seventh (19th) has been anounced for next spring. There have also been off-again, on-again satellite leagues in Canada and Australia.
"Our biggest challenge has been simple," Mortaza wrote to VICE Sports in response to emailed questions. "Awareness and educating future fans that this indeed is a real sport, played by real athletes. Unfortunately, we do not have the massive UFC/WWE type budget or funding to create awareness and education of the public. However, with our recent deal with NBC Universal and the launch of our national reality series, 'Pretty. Strong.', we feel the series will be the 'lightning rod' to potentially launch the LFL as a mainstream sports franchise."
TV ratings have been Mortaza's goal since the beginning. Games have been televised in one form or another since 2010, when MTV2 filmed and edited the games to fit in half-hour time slots. Currently, the FUSE Network airs tape-delayed games on Saturday nights, and the league's YouTube channel offers a subscription with full-game access and behind-the-scenes footage.
Many current and former players, though, said to understand the LFL you have to watch it live. I applied for a credential to the 2015 conference-finals doubleheader, held August 15 in Toyota Park, the MLS stadium outside of Chicago. LFL marketing staffer Aimee Rodriguez, wary of "negativity and sensationalism," initially denied the request.
"We have been advised," she wrote, "that you have been reaching out to the few former players with an 'axe to grind'," as opposed to hundreds of players who've loved the experience. It remains unclear how the league office learned of VICE Sports' initial reporting.
"The truth," Rodriguez wrote, "is not always sexy."
When I replied I'd already spoken with active, satisfied players and coaches, Rodriguez relented. Not only did the LFL issue a credential, but on gameday granted me sideline access and made select players available for pre-game interviews.
As the contracted production crew began to set their cameras up, a freak downpour brought out the best in the hustling LFL staffers—and the worst in Mortaza. During a break in the rain, he walked across the waterlogged field and snapped.
Mortaza kicked a spray of water off the saturated grass. Everyone within earshot kept their head down and worked with silent intensity as his profanity echoed. A lightning bolt split the southern sky, the departing storm still too close for comfort. Staffers attacked the pitch with rolling squeegees, pushing water away from the freshly painted midfield logo. Production assistants, cameramen, and a DJ unwrapped plastic from cameras, amplifiers, and speakers. The teams should already have been warming up, and it wasn't clear if the rain—or lightning strikes—were done for good.
It's no wonder Mortaza was frustrated: the weather might have been the only aspect of the games he couldn't control.
In the first half of the doubleheader, the Temptation played the Seattle Mist for the western conference title. The Legends Cup final was to be played at Seattle's home stadium no matter who won—and given the few dozen Chicagoans who trickled in to watch warmups, it was fair to wonder how many Seattleites would attend that game if their hometown team wasn't playing.
Finally given the weather all-clear, Mortaza summoned the teams to the field. The Temptation emerged in cleats, uniform bottoms, and meme-surfing "STRAIGHT OUTTA LOS ANGELES" tank tops. The Mist did the same, in similar gear. They got in block formations and stretched: toe-touches, butterflies, hamstrings, quads, all the usual ways football players get loose.
Then, well, they played football:
As the teams ran through position drills, the fact that girls don't generally get equal opportunities to play youth football became clear. Boys start blocking and tackling in elementary school, but for all their athleticism most of these women are still learning leverage, hand placement, hip fluidity. Those who knew their craft stood out. One was league MVP Danika Brace, a TE/DE for the Mist. Another was the Temptation's Hall of Fame linebacker, Monique Gaxiola.
"I played soccer growing up," Gaxiola told VICE Sports before the game; like Margulies she was recruited to and played for USC. As many players do, Gaxiola found out about the LFL through her friend, a model who'd played in a Lingerie Bowl. When Mortaza set out to launch a competitive league in 2009, Gaxiola's friend suggested she try out.
"I've been an athlete my entire life," Gaxiola said, "and this is the highest level of competitive sports for women that is continuing to grow, that we have available to us." Gaxiola's lament was familiar: Save an extremely gifted handful of Oympians and WNBA players, adult female athletes have no options.
"On top of that," Gaxiola said, "The women are absolutely beautiful, and they're strong, so it's the best of both worlds. In soccer you were kind of looked down on if—I don't want to say 'good-looking,' but if you were known to wear makeup on the field. Playing in the LFL, it celebrates the best of both worlds."
Quarterback play is key to any football league's credibility. In warmups, Temptation quarterback Ashley Salerno and the Mist's KK Matheny both impressed. Matheny (listed at 5'2") has excellent mechanics, and zips passes to all areas of the arena-sized field. Anyone who loves football would have loved watching Matheny and Brace work through the route tree.
Having established their football bona fides, then, the two squads stripped down to bikini tops, wiggled into their cut-down, peek-a-boo shoulder pads, and strapped on hockey helmets.
On the opening series, Brace rolled an ankle. The game was stopped, and Brace helped to the sideline. Any doubts about these players' toughness or athleticism were erased on the following defensive stand, when Brace—when did she come back in?—hunted down a scrambling Salerno, launched high in the air and engulfed the ducking quarterback.
On the following series, Temptation defensive end Theresa Petruzielo answered:
Deep into the second quarter, the Temptation were up 16-0—but Matheny and the Mist rung up two quick touchdowns right before halftime.
Up on the concourse, I found Gaxiola's father Hector chatting animatedly with Salerno's father, Chris, a former Temptation coach. They complained about Mortaza running the game clock, and allowing the Mist to call a phantom third timeout before one of their touchdowns.
Echoing a complaint I heard from players, families, fans and local sports media, Salerno said Mortaza's dictatorial leaves local marketing entirely to players, families, fans, and local media. Mortaza either doesn't have the resources or inclination to promote teams through in-market TV, radio, or print channels, instead fomenting buzz online and relying on coaches and players to entice crowds.
"It's impressive that he built all this up by himself, as much as he has," Salerno said, "but he just won't give up control." He shook his head and grinned. "I guess this is why I'm not the coach anymore."
"This concept," Gaxiola insisted, "is good for our girls. There's no other opportunity like this for our girls. It just has to be run right." Will Mortaza ever allow local investors to buy ownership stakes, or at least let teams manage themselves independently?
"Individuals with a vision tend to be hands-on," Mortaza wrote, "thus I do not see that aspect changing. However, my role will be significantly reduced from a day to day perspective as the franchise scales up. In fact, in the coming years we anticipate a former player will be named as Commissioner."
The league often uses posed studio images of players oiled up and lit like swimsuit models. Their All-Star squad is even called the All-Fantasy team. But these women aren't fantasies; they're athletes, and their revealing gear reveals the grind they go through: bruises, welts, turf burn; knee braces, shoulder braces, kinesio tape. As the second half slogged on, nearly every player was soaking wet and covered in grass.
With four minutes left, Los Angeles was up 24-22, and so was the pressure. The meager crowd finally got into it, and both sidelines were screaming before every snap. Monique Gaxiola and the defense just need to make one stop. Instead, Matheny hit Brace in stride down the seam; she turned it upfield and burned the Temptation for a 32-yard touchdown.
Undaunted, Salerno marched the Temptation back the other way. Down at the five-yard line and with just seconds left, Temptation tailback Sharri Agawah fumbled; the Mist appeared to come up with it. PA announcer Bill Dorn's baritone announced an official review, but who reviewed it? The only field-level display was in Mortaza's sideline tent.
The ruling was upheld.
The Mist went on to win the Legends Cup in front of a packed home crowd. The Temptation watched from home, on TV, a week after it happened—saving the league the cost of their flight, hotel, and travel per diem.
Margulies was knee-deep in a grueling rehab schedule when the Lingerie Football League was rebranded.
She'd ruptured her ACL and MCL, as well as tearing her meniscus, while practicing for the Australian leg of the 2012 All-Fantasy World Tour, embarked on after the 2011 season. Still on her parents' medical coverage at the time, she got help from supplemental insurance she believes was provided through MTV.
Just weeks before, Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson suffered a similar injury; Margulies was inspired by his remarkable recovery. She got another boost when Mortaza pushed the 2012 regular season back into April 2013, getting the league out from under the shadows of the NFL and NCAA. He also seemed to realize serious sports fans couldn't take "lingerie football" seriously: going forward, the first "L" in LFL would stand for "Legends."
"It was pretty unanimous," Mortaza told Forbes' Mark J. Burns at the time, "that the next step in the maturation of this would be more toward placing the emphasis on the athlete and the sport versus simply the marketing aspects of it." Current and former LFL athletes expressed great relief: the original name made the game hard enough to sell to friends and family, let alone the skeptical public.
As the NFL has discovered, marketing not just to single straight guys but families, women, and children pays huge dividends. Many sports fans who'd pay—and bring their daughters—to watch women play great football are turned off by the sleazy packaging.
Some players view the uniform as a necessary evil, others celebrate it. All are aware, though, that the full-gear women's leagues out there don't draw paying fans, let alone cable TV deals. Maybe that's why the upcoming reality show will air on Oxygen: Present LFL players to female viewers as talented-but-human women chasing their dreams, and maybe they'll look past the outfits.
"If I could design the uniform," Margulies said, "it would be a sports bra and spandex shorts, like you see any girl at the gym work out in. That would be my ideal mix: A little bit of skin, but definitely an athletic emphasis."
The revamped Legends uniforms did away with the garters, lace, bows, and chokers, but not the ultra-skimpy cut. The shoulder pads, supposedly improved in quality, were no more sensible. The helmet was unchanged.
When Marguiles donned the Temptation's so-called performance wear that spring, she didn't just pick up where she left off, she played the best football of her life.
The team's returning MVP was, more than ever, the focal point of the offense. She led the Temptation back to the postseason, where in the opening rounds she wild—until her helmet betrayed her.
"I had multiple fractures to my orbital bone, my orbital floor bone, and my cheekbone," Marguiles said. "I have three metal plates in my face holding all these little tiny bones together."
After the surgery, Mortaza emailed, called, even sent her flowers; Margulies was stunned by the out-of-character sensitivity.
"He kind of dragged me along," she said, "making me think, 'Okay, maybe he's going to help me, maybe he's going to help me with half my bill, maybe he'll help with a quarter of my bill, I'll take anything I can get.' Then, when he didn't end up helping me, I was like, 'What am I doing right now? How am I even entertaining the idea of playing for this guy again?'"
Moving the goalposts, several LFL veterans said, is Mortaza's M.O. There was always vague talk of better equipment, more functional uniforms, compensation just around the corner.
For Margulies, being led on about her medical bill was the last straw; she filed a class-action lawsuit. Her attorneys, Michael Morrison and Joshua Arnold of Alexander, Krakow & Glick, say the league wrongly classifies players as independent contractors, despite requiring many hours of labor for no compensation. Mortaza's 2011 letter seems to anticipate this: He wrote the league would "no longer ask" players to make promotional appearances, nor "mandate" players attend practice. Yet if players don't make promotional appearances, there's no local promotion at all—and competitive football can't be played without practice.
"The idea that these women could be independent contractors in a team sport like football…" an incredulous Morrison said to VICE Sports. "I mean, you can't freelance in a football game!"
Per Margulies's attorneys, Mortaza has failed to respond to, defend himself against, or even retain counsel regarding Margulies' suit; they are in the process of filing for a default judgment. Mortaza declined to comment on the allegations of Margulies, the pending lawsuits filed by her and former Las Vegas Sin quarterback Nikki Johnson, or the ramifications of any potential judgements against himself or the league.
Mortaza has built a sleazy stunt into a viable sports league, drawing thousands in attendance and pulling millions of cumulative eyeballs, he claims, on FUSE. Though he's repeatedly cited the league's relative infancy and poverty when discussing player pay, he's also cited his "very expensive mortgage" in defense of his business practices.
Given America's insatiable football appetite and the absence of a serious spring league, the potential audience—and revenue—is huge. But there's a reason NFL commissioner Roger Goodell considers defending the integrity of the game his first duty: if fans and players don't have faith in the on-field product, it all falls apart.