When Dana Sparling sat down on her couch and flipped to an episode of 20/20, the then-37-year-old health club manager never expected it to change her life.
But there on her screen—and broadcast across the country on ABC—were women playing tackle football. Sparling had been a football fan for her entire life, but in the early 2000s, she had never seen women playing professional tackle football.
“I remember getting off of my couch, sitting on my coffee table in front, and just looking at the television,” Sparling said. “My eyes got as big as saucers. I thought, ‘My God, am I too old to do this?’ I had no idea that women were playing tackle football.”
Inspired by the women playing the sport she loved, Sparling tried out for the New York Sharks, which was starting its second season as a professional women’s tackle football team. She played four seasons as a receiver for the Sharks, from 2001 to ‘04, and women’s football has been her life ever since.
“The sport of football became something so much more to me once I started playing, because I realized what a heady game it is,” Sparling said. “You have to use your brain every second you’re out on that field, because you can have one person out of 11 run the wrong play or go offsides, and the whole play is blown.”
Twenty years after she first stepped on the field, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who matches Sparling’s enthusiasm when talking about women and girls playing football. As CEO of the Women’s Gridiron Foundation, she works every day to give girls the opportunity to learn and play football.
Sparling works to ensure this generation of girls doesn’t have to wait until they are 37 years old to see women playing tackle football. Still, she knows that even with the huge strides the game has taken since she was playing with the Sharks for $10 a game, girls are still discouraged from playing sports, especially contact sports like football.
“They never have to apologize for doing what they love, even if society tells them that girls shouldn't be doing that,” Sparling said. “I grew up in a single-parent household—my brother and I, and my mother. I was fortunate because my mother said, you know, you can do anything you want to do, you can be anything you want to be. But I have worked with so many more young women in my 20 years in this sport who did not have that message growing up.”
Sparling said her story is not unusual for girls. She grew up going to games at USC, a team her grandfather won national championships with in 1931 and 1932. Her family would tailgate before the game, playing football in the grass and watching the band march into the Coliseum.
She and other girls played football with the boys on the street in grade school. She played casual games of flag football and mud football in college. Still, she didn’t know there was a place for her in the sport because she didn’t see other women there.
“You have to pay attention to doors that are open that you didn’t plan to open,” Sparling said. “I don’t think [people] realize just how impactful and joyful it is for my coaches and I to be working with these girls and to be teaching a sport we love, but also understanding that we’re role models to them and everything we say and do matters. We always want them to leave us with their heads held a little higher, feeling like they can speak up a little louder .. and there’s no shame in that. Strong is the new beautiful.”
The Women’s Gridiron Foundation grew out of an initiative of the New York Sharks that then-owner Andra Douglas started in 2003 to offer football camps and clinics to girls in the New York area.
Sharon Pascale, a beloved player for the Sharks in their early years, died in a car crash on Christmas Eve in 2001. It was devastating to everyone in the organization, and they wanted to find a way to honor her life.
“Sharon loved kids,” Sparling said. “She was a teacher and had such energy and passion for her kids. Andra Douglas began the first camps and clinics where young girls had an opportunity to learn and play this wonderful sport. We wanted to carry on Sharon’s legacy and honor her life by running these camps.”
The first clinic was held in 2002, originally serving as a multi-sport camp. But it wasn’t long before the camps became exclusively for football and talk soon began of starting a non-profit organization—The Fins Up! Foundation for Female Athletics.
Sparling was playing for the Sharks at the time, and she stepped in as executive director of the fledgeling foundation. In 2015, Fins Up! merged with another group founded by current D.C. Divas owner Rich Daniel, and Sparling became the CEO of the new Women’s Gridiron Foundation.
“It's a joy for me to help them learn it, to be empowered through it, and to find their voice. And to learn the life skills that sports so often teach,” Sparling said. “We always incorporate the teaching of life skills. Whenever we go into all of our clinics for the girls, we talk about sportsmanship and teamwork, and we don't just talk at them, we ask them questions, we make them think, we have a conversation about it. You can just see their little heads turning, you know, and it's beautiful.”
The foundation has sought to expand its camps and clinics around the world. Sparling has helped advise and set up similar nonprofits in places including Maine, Texas, California, Colorado and Florida, and has attended events in Canada and Sweden.
Additionally, the foundation hosts the Transatlantic Trophy, an international tournament that serves as a global summit for women’s tackle football organizations to meet and exchange ideas. The second iteration of the tournament is planned for early 2022 after a COVID postponement, with teams from the U.S., Mexico, Sweden and Finland planning to compete.
Even through the COVID-19 pandemic, Sparling and the foundation have continued to offer opportunities for girls to get into football. When holding in-person camps and clinics wasn’t an option, Sparling helped coordinate Zoom workouts for local teams. These workouts ended with Q&As featuring women’s football stars who Sparling has met throughout her time in the game, including Jennifer King and Phoebe Schecter.
“If you see it you can be it,” Sparling said. “I wanted the girls to see a variety of women who have been successful in different pathways in the sport of football. As players, coaches, officials, owners, administrators and ambassadors.”
Sparling wants girls to have the opportunity to get into football because the sport has done so much for her. Along with the life lessons football teaches, there is also a camaraderie within the sport, and Sparling wants them to have the same opportunities to make life-long friendships that she has had throughout her career.
“Those are ties that bind, without question,” Sparling said. “I have my friends that I may not see for months or years, but when I see them again, it's like yesterday. And that's certainly the case, really for any of us in women's football, when we've collaborated together.”
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Michael Rosen is a contributor for GoodSport, a media company dedicated to raising the visibility of women and girls in sports.