Becoming a Football Player: Identity Formation on a Women's Tackle Football Team

By Knapp, Bobbi A. | Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Becoming a Football Player: Identity Formation on a Women's Tackle Football Team


Knapp, Bobbi A., Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal


Abstract

People commonly think of only men playing football. Football, however, has also been played by women for many years. Using a feminist interactionist framework, this study examines why women begin to play the game. The research questions that guided this study were: (0 what factors influence women's decisions to play football? and (2) how do women begin to develop their identities as football players? Data were collected using participant observation over a two-year period and 10 semi-structured interviews. Some of the reasons participants stated for starting to play football were for their love of the sport, a desire to be a part of history, or the physicality of the sport. The women's abilities and personal characteristics, significant others, and veteran players were crucial in the development of their identities as players. The information obtained could be used to bring more women into the sport.

Football is currently a culturally significant sport in the United States. Football's popularity and the way it resonates with the American people have prompted some scholars to refer to it as the new national pastime (Freeman, 2003; Messner, 2001; Murphy, 2006). Former Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, remarked that the promotion of football to this national standing is due to its ability to bring people together across social and racial lines (Freeman). In 2005, the Super Bowl netted a 41.6 television rating, whereas the highest rated championship game for Major League Baseball received an 11.6 rating (Murphy). Furthermore, the 2010 Super Bowl went down in the record books as the most watched television program in history with 106.5 million people viewing (Bauder, 2010).

The popularity of football may also be due to its perceived ability to provide gender clarity in a world where gender roles have blurred. In fact, Messner (2002) and Nelson (1994) suggested that the rise in football's popularity is connected to people's fear of an increased feminization of U.S. society. Football is a way of "reclaiming the virility of the warrior" and putting distance between the sexes (Sands, 1999, p. 47). To many Americans, football continues to symbolize manliness (Nelson). The importance of football in the construction and maintenance of cultural ideologies, especially those revolving around issues of gender and sexuality, cannot be overstated. This was particularly true in a world that limited participation in football to just boys and men.

Today, football is no longer limited to male participants, as evidenced by the growing number of girls and women playing the game on organized teams. According to the National Federation of High School Associations, the number of girls playing football on predominately male high school teams increased from 658 to 1,473 between 2000 and 2005 (Alipour, 2005). While the opportunities for women at this level remain limited, in August of 2003, Katie Hnida became the first woman to score in an NCAA Division IA football game (Hnida, 2006). At the professional level, there are two dominant leagues with nearly one hundred teams available to women across the country (i.e., 40 teams in the Women's Football Alliance and three tiers with a total of 54 teams in the Independent Women's Football League). In 2010, teams competed for the first time at an international level for the Women's World Championships in American Football.

Even though there are a number of professional football teams, there continues to be a disconnect between the high school and professional levels, as many of the women on professional squads never played organized football for a school or club team. With little or no experience playing organized football and living in a society that has pushed their brothers to embrace the game while leaving them to cheer on the sidelines, one might ask what encourages women to play football? In fact, the question often posed to female football players is: What would make you ever want to play football? …

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