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Sports

Thighs, Blood, and Rampant Inequality: We Spoke to a Former Lingerie Football League Player

It might be thrilling to watch, but the bikini-wearing LFL players don't have salaries or health insurance.
November 11, 2014, 5:30pm

The Los Angeles Temptation team. Image  ​via Wikimedia Commons

​​The Lingerie Football League employs some of the toughest, most badass people in the world. It trains selected women hard, makes them thirsty for blood, spray tans ten shades of hell out of them, mics them up and lets them go HAM on a rival team. It was even renamed the "Legends Football League."

Being a female athlete is no easy job, with or without the push-up bras. Women who literally sweat for a living earn a hell of a lot less than their male counterparts. T he highest-paid female athlete in 2014 is Maria Sharapova, who banked $24.4 million. Which looks like an alright day at the office on it's own, but is shameful when you consider the fact that the highest-paid male athlete, Floyd Mayweather, ​netted $105 million over the same period

Eating disorders are also prolific among women in sports, and ​more than a third of female athletes are at risk of anorexia. In short, chicks have to fight tooth and nail to keep their heads above water.

Enter LFL, which promises women sporting glory and has recently started being screened on British sports channels and is  ​making inroads in Europe. Oh, and when I say "sporting glory," it's in underwear that's smaller than most bikinis. You'd need a pretty comprehensive wax before stepping out on the field, which is a problem that the Atlanta Falcons almost certainly don't have.

Another LFL player. Image  ​via Wikimedia Commons

Make no mistake: Whatever they're wearing, these women in the uniforms are often incredible athletes who, like all football players, want to smash some skulls and claim glory for their team.

That's exactly what Tessa Barrera, 29, a former LFL captain who played for  ​LA Temptation, was looking for. A Texas-born girl who grew up watching football and dreamed of being the first woman in the NBA, Barrera saw the game and wanted everything it promised—competition and a real athletic challenge. She played for three years before quitting in disgust at how players were treated. "I actually saw it on YouTube first," she says, "and the league has a website that posts tryout dates and makes the whole thing seem really glamorous. I was like: 'I can do this shit, these girls think they're so tough.'"

If you're unfamiliar with LFL, here's the basics: It's a seven-on-seven tackle sport that tours arenas and stadiums. It started out as halftime entertainment and was later made a sport in its own right in 2009. Now it has nearly half a million fans on Facebook alone. Said fans seem fairly evenly split between earnest female and male supporters but there's that "u pervert LOL" contingent who like to comment on the women's appearances with the occasional "who's the hottest LFL player?"  ​article. But then you have to consider the ​massive Playboy shoots and the fact that it was founded by Mitch Mortaza, who is, among other things, a man.

There's an underbelly to the LFL that goes beyond gender politics-y stuff like, "Is it morally OK for women to have to prove their worth in bikinis?" Beneath the fierce glamour of it all, these women play an incredibly dangerous sport with, apparently, no insurance or healthcare. Numerous players have launched lawsuits against the company—and player Marirose Roach claims she broke her neck during a game. Oh, and here's the real sweetener: The players don't get paid.

Barrera, who lives in Corpus Christi, Texas, and is the first female sports anchor in south Texas on KZ Action 10 News, compares LFL to "being in a bad relationship."

"You love your significant other even though you know you deserve to be treated better," she says. "You think: 'Oh, I'll stay and things just have to get better,' but eventually you just have to say: 'No this isn't right.' I would die for football but I'm not gonna play for a bad person who mistreats people. Mitch fired a lot of the real athletes because they were talking about forming a union. Ever since then it's not what it could be."

And is the stuff about no money and no health insurance true?

"Yeah, and I broke my hand playing. I'm still paying some of those bills off," says Barrera. "My first year we earned peanuts compared to the males. In my second we earned squat. I got to visit a bunch of cool places and that was paid for, but dang, we sold out those arenas so I feel like that's the least they could have done. I thought I could play and at the very least live off of my earnings but that was not the case."

But isn't it all incredibly dangerous? Like, doesn't your skin get grazed when your body rubs against Astroturf and you're only wearing a bikini? "Yes, things get bloody," she says. "But when I played I was out for blood. I would bust my lips, jam fingers, and strain muscles in every game, but I loved it! You have to have a couple of screws loose to play football."

She's right. Watching these women—all taut thighs and abs—smash the hell out of each other is terrifying. They mic up two women per game to get a reality-TV feel as they yell out the filthiest gutter trash-talk you've heard in your life. On surface level it's thrilling to watch.

"We practiced three times a week for at least four hours—sometimes longer—to stay in shape," says Barrera. "Then we had to promote at all different kinds of marketing things, so I would say it's like a job, around 20 to 30 hours a week. But we gotta look good in our uniforms, too, so most of the girls did some additional form of training." She says she was at Crossfit "at least four times a week" and in the regular gym up to three times. "I was a machine," she says. "And don't forget, we aren't paid for any of this. Then you have to look tan on game days, have nice hair and makeup, because there are photo shoots and promos shot. None of which you are reimbursed for." Sounds like a riot.

A San Diego Seduction team huddle. Image  ​via Wikimedia Commons

The auditioning process to play is similarly brutal, too. "There were over 200 girls at my tryout. We ran the 40-yard dash, did footwork, speed, and agility drills and we were required to wear athletic gear that showed off our figures, which, yes, is taken into account. We had to be marketable," Barrera explains. "I never considered myself a model, but I guess my looks were decent enough to get me through."

So, with all the (potentially bankrupting) caveats, why do it? "I was only interested in the football, really," says Barrera. "I'm not really concerned if a person doesn't take me seriously as an athlete because of the risqué photo shoots. I know what I can do."

Despite the hell that LFL put Barrera through, she's does have good memories. "I remember playing for a sold-out crowd in Mexico City, and I was just giving it to the O-line... I mean, I could not be stopped!" she grins. "They went through, like, three quarterbacks, and the crowd didn't know my name so they were shouting 'veinte, veinte, veinte' which is my number (20) in Spanish. I am Mexican-American so it was a super-proud moment for me. I was like these are mi gente [my people] and they fucking love me. No one can ever take that from me."

But as for the busted hands, necks and dreams of the women who put their lives in the LFL management? That points at something much more sinister in how the sports world sees its female members.

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