It is kind of funny how the universe ties everything together in life. Monday evening, I was relaxing after working out and watching my new favorite show Manhattan on Hulu, when I got a notification from Facebook that someone had posted a story of Jen Welter becoming the first female coaching intern to be invited by an NFL team. This was very exciting. Jen has played football a long time including with the WFA, the league I currently play in. She was a tough linebacker and it was great just to share the field a couple of times with her. She also played in Team USA and won gold.
Jen was later invited to be the first female to play professionally for an indoor men’s team in Texas. I happened to be in town for that for an international camp and me and about 50 other players from across the world were in attendance to watch it live. Although she played mostly linebacker in her career, for this team she was a running back. She was a lot smaller than the men she was playing with, but she had no fear at all and did what she had to do. It was an interesting moment to be in the stands where we were all there to support her in my group and to look around at the other people in the stands. Overall, it looked fairly positive reaction.
She was later converted to coaching role with their linebackers. One of the questions that a lot people outside this women’s football world have is, would men listen to a woman about football? The answer is yes. If you watch the interaction between her and the players on film and in pictures, her players loved her. As a recruiter by trade, I also pay attention to the presence of people and she has a great presence when she walks in the room. She is one of those people that automatically commands both attention and respect but is charming and fun underneath.
I believe that she will kill this opportunity. And one of the things that I found amazing about her is that she knows where she came from and will do her best to both break barriers and bring attention to our sport as well. I forwarded the story to my parents and my mother called me very excited.
Then on Tuesday morning, I was getting ready for work and there was an article on the LFL posted in one of the many women’s football groups I belong to on Facebook. The article can be read here. In it, the author goes into the detail about the life a few players playing in the LFL. In the article he describes the LFL as the “only option” for these women if they want to play football. Of course, in our world, that upset a lot of people. Don Harrold, who has been an outstanding advocate for our sport, was quick to email the author in an effort to both educate and encourage him to attend the WFA Championship weekend in Los Angeles August 8. Don encouraged us to also write the author. I sat down and wrote a letter as soon as I could. Since I have played for so long now, I feel a responsibility to help the sport as much as I can and had no problem standing up to the plate.
Here is the letter I sent:
Dear Mr. Conn,
Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Holly Custis and I play in the WFA (Women’s Football Alliance). I have just completed my 9th season of playing football which also included 3 years playing in the IWFL (Independent Women’s Football League). I have read your article on the LFL and there are few things I would like to address. Firstly, I completely respect the athletes in the LFL because they work hard like any other athlete. My grievances are mainly concerned with; the concept that you must take your clothes off to be validated as a female athlete, the way the owners of the LFL have treated these women, and those in the media who glorify it.
Granted, I completely understand that as a reporter, your job is bring stories to the readers. And in this day, sensationalism is the name of the game. In a 24 hour news cycle, media is constantly selling their souls for the next angle to feed to the hungry masses before they get bored and swipe left on their phone. I understand that there are a lot of male sports fans that fall into the demographic of what the LFL tries to pull. But what you fail to mention is that over half of American football fans are female. And of the male fans, a chunk of them have daughters that play sports and want to see women do well. That is a huge demographic that is being ignored when your article only focuses the LFL and you are intellectually aware of the other leagues.
By being in the know that there other leagues, and choosing to not only ignore them in the article but say they don’t exist, you are perpetuating stereotypes that I don’t believe you actually believe in. I believe that you actually do value female sports due to the fact you have taken the time to respond to my friend Don Harrold. I understand he has offered to have you come down to Los Angeles and watch the WFA Championship weekend. I also know that it’s against your employer’s policy to accept gifts. However, this is not a gift. It is a story.
Consider the fact that Jen Welter has become the first woman to be invited to intern as a coach in the NFL. Where did she come from? The LFL? No. The WFA. Where some might not understand it, she has paid her dues alongside the rest of us. She played linebacker at a high level. Won gold in international competition. Left sweat, blood, tears, and sacrificed tons of her own money just to play like the rest of us. I have played on the same field as her. I also was lucky enough to watch her play her first indoor game in Texas. Me, and dozens of other players from over 11 countries who were in town for an international camp. That’s another avenue that is left unheralded. The international game has exploded in the women’s game. There are women that play competitively by NFL rules in Israel, Japan, Sweden, Australia, and dozens more.
I would like to challenge you. You have an opportunity as a part of the media to bring more light to these women. Men wake up and get attention whether they want it or not. We have to work 20 times harder to get anything. We play the same game. We endure the same injuries. And we have day jobs. We don’t get paid and in fact pay for the right to play. We pile on buses and drive hours upon hours to get to away games. We shell out our own money to take flights across country. Some of our teams are actually run by the players themselves which I have been involved in. This means between working a normal job, playing, and running the business of the team, you are looking at around 60-65 hours a week during the season of work. We also train in between everything.
We keep our clothes on because the concept is being true to ourselves as women who have skills other than being pretty, and true to the original intent of the game of football. Because really, that’s what we as Americans love. We love football. The product on the field. It’s a multi-billion dollar enterprise. We watch a sport that’s played once a week pretty much every day of the week in the fall. We watch hours of combine footage and Hard Knocks shows. We read scouting reports. We can’t get enough of it.
Why should that be any different for the women? Let me tell you I have played against women who are literally 3 times my size. There are some very talented players. The product on the field is good and it’s getting better every year. We have women who will hit you so hard you won’t know your name. We have women who rush for 2 thousand yards in a season. We have women who can throw 50 yards.
As a member of the media you are always looking for the next story. This IS the next story. Especially with the relevance of Jen Welter. It would be great timing if you were to go to the Championship weekend and work a story on where Jen came from. If you need additional voice for it, I will be there playing in the All-American game and will be happy to help. Take Don up on his offer before someone else does.
Thank you for time in reading this.
To be honest, I banged this out pretty quickly because I couldn’t wait to get all of that off my chest. As Don had posted his emails to the group, I figured I should too so I posted my email. The response has been pretty amazing. I feel honored that people received it so well and agree with it. It can be tricky at times to talk to media, as many athletes can attest to, because you want to be as professional as possible, respectful, but also say what you need to say.
A point to be made as well, as that if we were male athletes, the attention would just find us. As female athletes, you have to go and find it yourself. This is honestly counter to my natural personality. My personality is to work hard and let the work speak for itself. However, a few years ago, I came to the realization that as a female athlete you kind of have to be aggressive to get noticed. No one is going to promote you for you as a female athlete. No one is going to bang down your door to ask you about your team. You have to network, make connections, and get the word out yourself and later hopefully it snowballs.
Jen is an excellent example of this. She went out and got in front of right people and worked very hard to take advantage of any opportunity she got. This in turn opened doors for her to further advance.
I believe that as we advance our sport, it’s important to realize that we are going to have to do a lot of leg work ourselves. We are each a representative of our sport. We are each our own brand. We have a responsibility as current holders of the sport to take the torch and run it as far as we can for the generations of female athletes behind us.
As you can see in video below, Jen is doing her part: