DULUTH, Ga. — One hour until show time, and the backstage area is frenzied mess. Inside a fluorescent-lit dressing room, nearly two dozen women are running around in skimpy clothing and working through a steady mist of hairspray as they fight over bottles of lotion, nail polish, rounded hairbrushes, eye shadow pallets and a seemingly endless supply of glitter.
“S---!” a woman shouts, darting from the bathroom. “I just f----- up my makeup.”
“Can someone see if my eyes are even on both sides?” asks another, talking to nobody in particular.
“My hair is just not agreeing with me today!”
In a far corner, two women pirouette like ballerinas while a thick layer of tanning spray is applied to their exposed legs. Once dolled up, the women search for a moment of calm. One has wrapped herself in a fleece blanket and fallen asleep despite Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass” pulsating through the kind of speakers you might find at an outdoor concert.
The music stops abruptly when a man in a tight-fitting red polo bursts in, his drill-sergeant voice picking up where the speakers cut out.
“Ladies, line up for walkthroughs.”
The women barely flinch.
“Now!” he barks.
Purses are stowed, bottles are capped and the women congregate by the door. But first, someone reaches for a pink bottle of perfume. “This is the secret,” she says, spritzing her neck and wrists. “Gotta feel pretty before we get ugly.”
Welcome to the Legends Football League, or the LFL, which is still widely known as the Lingerie Football League. The women in this locker room make up the Atlanta Steam, the defending Eastern Conference champs and one of the league’s six teams. On this Saturday in May, they’re preparing to face the Omaha Heart, a team they decimated a week earlier, 79-0. As the Steam players gather in the tunnel, adjusting their unforgiving spandex bikini bottoms and their sports bra uniform tops, head coach Dane Robinson once again commands their attention.
“Ladies,” he says, his eyes glowering. “You’re walking out there to your place of business. This is your office. What type of team do you want to be tonight? Step out onto this field with the right mentality. Be precise, be exact, be fierce, be malicious.
“And,” he says, letting out a little grin, “be classy.”
Be classy is at once an inside joke and their rallying cry. These women, who just a few moments earlier could have been mistaken for beauty pageant contestants, begin stomping, hooting, hollering and rumbling. Their energy crescendos as introductions begin. Quarterback Dakota Hughes is the first to be announced. Dressed like an NFL cheerleader, she bursts out of the tunnel and shamelessly blows kisses into a TV camera before sprinting around the Gwinnett County Civic Center, pumping her arms skyward to demand crowd noise.
If only people saw her for who she really is: a football player taking the field.
* * *
As young as 20 and as old as 37, the women on Atlanta’s roster work in professions as varied as engineering, sales and the military. It’s an incongruous crew of 20 that would likely never mingle if not for football, which some say feels like a full-time job but is treated as a glorified hobby. LFL players aren’t paid (in fact, they pay an annual $45 registration fee to play), nor are they provided any medical coverage by the league—two issues that have led to ongoing lawsuits.
The season runs from April to August, during which time players on the Atlanta Steam put in about 20 hours of practice and film study a week. Games are sometimes played on consecutive weekends, other times with two months in between. Teams can only take 10 players to away games, but more players often travel with the Steam, meaning the extras pay their own way. Three Steam players who live in Florida often drive seven hours to play home games in Atlanta.
“These girls work so hard,” says Robinson, who is paid by the LFL based on wins and losses (he declined to say how much for each.) A former defensive end at University of Buffalo and onetime Arena League coach, Robinson puts that money and then some back into his team, renting out a practice space in suburban Atlanta and holding a year-end banquet, because, he says, his players “deserve the full experience.”
“This is the secret,” one woman says, spritzing her neck and wrists with perfume. “Gotta feel pretty before we get ugly.”
Two days before their rematch with the Omaha Heart, Steam players have convened at a nondescript industrial complex in suburban Atlanta to review last week’s game. Though they don’t wear thigh pads, hip pads, tailbone pads or much clothing, these women play full-contact, seven-on-seven football on a 50-by-30-yard field inside hockey-style walls. They wear only shoulder pads and a helmet, with a clear mask that doesn’t obscure their faces. The Steam’s playbook is an 18-page binder featuring 108 plays; the players read defenses and call audibles; they utilize several formations on both sides of the ball; they run passing routes on par with top-tier high school programs. Their coach, a personal trainer who treats none of it like a hobby, isn’t letting any mistakes go unnoticed despite the previous week’s blowout.
“Pause there,” Robinson says. “Dakota, look at those linemen. What are they doing?”
“They’re all pulling,” the quarterback says.
“And what are you doing?”
“Not adjusting, coach.”
“Exactly! We can’t have tunnel vision. Maybe there’s a deep ball there, maybe not. But you can’t tell if you’re not aware of what is going on.”
As Robinson rolls the footage on a large projector, the door swings open and a cop with a buzz cut saunters into the room. She’s short and stocky and oozing attitude. Everyone remains quiet as she unhooks her holster, drops it on the cold rubber floor and then sits on it. “My job is stressful, it’s hard, it eats at you,” says Nas Johnson, Atlanta’s running back and a patrol officer in the city’s police department. “There are so many guys on the force who can’t cope with that. They resort to alcoholism or depression or something destructive. For me, when I get to go out here and hit somebody, that’s my outlet and the way I can keep sane.”
At one point during the film session, a teenage boy pokes his head into the room. “Hey,” he says, “we’ve got some guys out here who want to scrimmage. What do you say?”
“Oh, please,” scoffs one player.
“Trust me,” Hughes says. “You don’t want to.”
The challenge is loaded with disrespect, as if the team is a novelty act played by women who wear barely more than strippers. In reality, the boys would hardly stand a chance against the likes of LeAnn Hardin, a 27-year-old who spent eight and a half years doing logistics for a special ops unit in the Air Force. After her latest tour in the Middle East, she returned to find her husband plopped on the couch watching an LFL game on TV. “If those girls can do that,” she told herself, “I sure as hell can.” A self-described tomboy with an intimidating physique, Hardin felt self-conscious as more than 400 hopefuls pranced around in bikinis during tryouts. Yet making the team in 2012 was a transformative moment. “For the first time in my life,” she says. “I felt confident in my own skin.”
Ah, yes, the skin. It’s what all LFL players must grapple with: Either you show it, or you won’t be seen at all.
* * *
Last spring, a friend asked receiver Jody Nettles if she would visit her daughter’s Brownies troop in Atlanta so the 7-year-olds could earn a “Fair Play” badge by speaking to a professional athlete.
“Is it OK if they know what we wear to the games?” Nettles asked.
“Sure,” the friend said. “What the heck.”
So Nettles and a teammate showed up in regular gym clothes, screened an LFL promotional video and then spoke about the challenges and excitement of being a female football player. Immediately, the 17 Brownies began grilling them with questions.
“Why are you wearing something different than what the men wear?” one girl asked.
“Well,” Nettles said. “Sometimes you need to be a little different than the men. The most important thing is if you’re passionate.”
The truth: The LFL’s barely-there uniforms are an unmistakable marketing draw. “We understood going in that we had to have a gimmick, for lack of better term,” says Mitch Mortaza, the league’s commissioner. “And that’s sex appeal.”
Founded in 2009, the Lingerie Football League was a spinoff of the Lingerie Bowl, the one-game pay-per-view counter-programming event that was broadcast during halftime of Super Bowl 38. When its initial sponsorship partner, Dodge, backed out due to pressure from women’s groups, PartyPoker.com stepped in. At the time, Mortaza was the president of Horizon, a small production company based in L.A. that backed several reality television shows, most centered on dating. When the Lingerie Bowl took off, Mortaza pivoted his business to create an actual league.
“We wouldn’t be where we are today if we didn’t start with the lingerie moniker—that’s what drew fans in,” says Mortaza, now 41. Two years ago the Lingerie Football League became the Legends Football League, because, Mortaza says, “if we wanted longevity and to draw top players in, we needed a change.”
The rebranding began in 2013, but the promise that lingerie would be ditched in favor of “performance apparel” was a bit exaggerated—the uniforms were mostly unchanged except for the removal of lace garters. Franchises have been added and subtracted, and there are now six: Atlanta, Chicago, Omaha, Los Angeles, Seattle and Las Vegas.
“We understood going in that we had to have a gimmick, for lack of better term,” says Mitch Mortaza, the league’s commissioner. “And that’s sex appeal.”
Beyond the LFL, there’s been more progress for women in football. This summer Sarah Thomas became an NFL official and Jen Welter, the first woman to play in a men’s pro football league, was a coaching intern with the Arizona Cardinals. Women have a strong appetite for football, and not just as viewers (though 2014 data has women accounting for 45% of the NFL’s 150 million fans). Seven states now offer girls’ flag football as a varsity sport, and there are three adult women’s tackle football leagues in the U.S., with nearly 4,000 participants combined. These adult leagues are conventional 11-on-11 football, with players fully padded.
A handful of women on the Atlanta Steam, including Nettles, have played in those traditional leagues. But the tradeoff for more clothes is fewer spectators. “You get to the game, and you’re so proud and you’re ready to compete, and the crowd [size] is just sad,” she says. “You have a friend show up, and maybe your mom, and that’s it. It’s nothing like this.” Atlanta Steam players sold the LFL to Dakota Hughes by saying, “It’s the only professional women’s league that gets attention. You can play real football in front of real fans.”
Unlike other women’s football leagues, the LFL also has a television deal. The games appear on Fuse in an edited-down format a week after they’re played. But TV requires more than just bikinis to hold viewers’ attention, especially during lopsided games. Players say that Mortaza has a presence in the locker room, where he instructs them to give camera-friendly inspirational speeches, and also on the field, where multiple women say the commissioner has told them to trash-talk opponents and devise elaborate touchdown celebrations.
In 2011, the coach of the now defunct Minnesota franchise wrote an email to Mortaza listing the complaints his players had about the commissioner’s micromanaging and aggressive game-day presence. Mortaza responded via email: “the only way these girls respond is with forcefulness and stern directions.”
In a phone interview with The MMQB, Mortaza countered by saying, “Nobody has pushed the players to do those things.” He was forthright about his goals for the LFL. “We shouldn’t fault women who are athletic and also attractive,” he said. “That’s the taboo we’re trying to address. Just look at Hope Solo. She’s had her issues off the field, but she’s one of the more marketable women on [the U.S. women’s soccer] team because she’s also attractive.”
Mortaza, however, declined to discuss the ongoing legal action being taken against the LFL. He is being sued by former Las Vegas Sin player Robin Johnson, who in August 2014 filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court claiming the league wrongfully classified her and “hundreds of similarly situated employees” as independent contractors who are exempt from minimum wage and overtime compensation. Melissa Margulies, another former player, has filed a similar suit in California. She fractured bones in her cheek and near her eye socket while playing for the Los Angeles Temptation in 2013; she says the league refused to pick up any medical costs and did not offer workers compensation because it claimed she wasn’t an employee.
Dakota feared what her family would think about her playing in the LFL. Then her grandmother told her all she needed to hear: “Don’t get to my age and have regrets.”
“Look at their agreement: They have to show up for practice, they have to show up for promotional appearances, and if they don’t, they’re out,” says Michael Morrison, a Los Angeles-based attorney who is representing the plaintiffs in both cases. “All of these items show the level of control the league exercises over these players and right away, I knew this was unlawful.” (Mortaza declined to comment on the ongoing legal proceedings.)
The LFL apparently used to pay players, but stopped doing so sometime after Mortaza circulated a league memo on March 18, 2011. Obtained by The MMQB, the note read: “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 with a sense of appreciation for the experience, that we realized we needed a drastic change in policy to rid our games of these players.”
On the phone, Mortaza said it would be “misleading” to say the LFL had previously paid players. He says some were given small sums for promotional events, but that opened “issues of workers’ comp and all of those other things that have bankrupted leagues before, including the Arena Football League.” He added, “Our intention is to one day go fully professional. Right now we are not financially sound enough to do that.”
Morrison says he attempted to serve Mortaza legal papers in Las Vegas, but learned the LFL offices had moved. Morrison attempted to serve Mortaza at another address in Las Vegas, and at addresses associated with Mortaza in California, with no success. He says he finally sent someone to serve Mortaza in person at an LFL tryout in Los Angeles.
According to Morrison, the commissioner was approached but denied being Mitch Mortaza despite several women identifying him as such. Morrison also says that Mortaza hasn’t showed up to any status meetings regarding the lawsuits and that a default judgment has been entered against the league that could be headed toward collection.
* * *
Perhaps the highest respect the women of the Atlanta Steam have ever received came from Jessica Pickens, the girlfriend of coach Dane Robinson.
“When Dane said he wanted to coach in this league, I was adamantly against it,” she says. “Then I came to a practice and saw that these weren’t ladies who wanted to run around in their bikinis, but actual athletes. Not only that, they are women doing what they need to do to make it in a male-dominated world. You can’t fault them for that.”
Away from the field, Dakota Hughes looks nothing the hard-charging quarterback who spikes balls after touchdowns and gets in defenders’ faces for bouts of exaggerated taunting. On the manicured campus of Kennesaw State University, about a 40-minute drive north of Atlanta, she blends into the crowd of students lugging textbooks across the quad—just another 19-year-old college student. Hughes still lives at home; she doesn’t drink; she doesn’t smoke. When she went to Cancun for spring break, her 75-year-old grandmother went with her.
Like many of her teammates, Hughes has always been a gifted athlete. After her parents divorced when she was 3, she spent weekends playing catch with her dad, breaking indoor lamps before practices were moved outside. By the second grade she was the starting shortstop on a boys’ baseball team. Then Mark Hughes handed his daughter a football, and she was hooked. In high school she began drawing up plays every December for the annual powder-puff game . . . in May.
“Do I want my college-aged daughter to feel uncomfortable about the fact she has an A cup?” Hughes’ mother says. “As much as I don’t want my daughter being displayed like this, I see how much good it does for her.”
When she enrolled at Kennesaw, Hughes scouted out all the intramural football teams and was struck by one roster: The team photo featured a girl in full pads and a helmet. That player was a senior who also played wide receiver for the Atlanta Steam. She pleaded for Hughes to join the Steam, but Dakota feared what her family would think. Then her grandmother, Kim, told her all she needed to hear: “Don’t get to my age and have regrets.”
Hughes almost didn’t make it past the first month. Before the first game, players are required to send the league photos of themselves in a bikini. Hughes says the commissioner wasn’t satisfied. As the quarterback, Hughes would be the face of the franchise, and she says Mortaza deemed her too skinny. Put on weight or you can’t play, Hughes remembers being told. The 18-year-old was mortified and quit. An hour later, her phone buzzed. And it didn’t stop all night. Teammates inundated her with messages. Hughes was the youngest on the team by five years, and she had only known these women for a few weeks, but they had her back.
Don’t worry, you’re not the only person who has to go through this.
We support you no matter what.
A man can’t determine how strong you are; only you can.
Some of the texts were paragraphs long.
“Nobody has ever stood up for me like that,” Hughes says. “I broke down and cried.”
Mortaza declined to comment on specific conversations with players, but said, “Yes, the women’s looks are what’s marketable. None of our sponsors have pushed us to impose any actions on how a player acts or looks, nor have we imposed any of those things.” Hughes said the league never followed up, and that she hasn’t heard anything from Mortaza regarding her appearance since her rookie season.
As raunchy as the LFL is advertised or perceived, the Gwinnett Center offers a family-friendly atmosphere. Beers are $4 a pour, but this isn’t just a bachelor-party destination. During the rematch against the Omaha Heat, the loudspeakers blare Maroon 5 and Taylor Swift between plays; there are hundreds of women and children in the stands, with average attendance around 4,000. Among them are Hughes’ mother and grandmother, as well as nearly three dozen family members, friends and (predominantly female) coworkers of Dakota’s grandmother.
Hughes’ mother, Traci, sits about 100 yards above the home bench. She has Dakota’s almond-shaped eyes and broad smile, but their personalities couldn’t be more different. While her daughter is shy, Traci loves to chat. Dakota insisted on wearing Converse sneakers to her eighth-grade formal, but mom is a jewelry designer who went to the Art Institute of Atlanta. She feels the need to protect her daughter in a way that has nothing to do with pass rushers trying to crush her.
“Do I want my college-aged daughter to feel uncomfortable about the fact she has an A cup?” Traci says. “Of course not. As much as I don’t want my daughter being displayed like this, I see how much good it does for her. How she feels a part of a sorority, a group of strong, independent women who have helped her mature into a strong independent woman herself.”
Traci suddenly straightens up in her seat. “Oh, and you have to come to the meet-and-greet after,” she says. “There’s nothing like seeing your 19-year-old daughter sign a baby.”
Though Robinson feared his players would look past Omaha to next week’s showdown against the first-place Chicago Bliss, the Steam hold a four-touchdown lead by halftime and win, 62-0.
* * *
Atlanta would go on to finish the regular season 3-2, placing second in the three-team division. Hughes completed 59.2% of her throws for 585 yards and 17 touchdowns in the regular season. (Opposing quarterbacks, by comparison, completed only 37.5% for 102 yards and three TDs against the Steam.) “She’s one of the best natural athletes I’ve ever been around,” says Nettles, a former pole-vaulter at Georgia.
In mid-August the Steam traveled to Chicago to face the Bliss in the Eastern Conference finals. For the first time all season, Hughes was kept out of the end zone. The result: a devastating 41-6 loss. As the game slogged on, shock turned into somberness on the bench. Robinson even put Hughes in at wideout in the fourth quarter to remind his players that they should be having fun. Afterward, Hughes gathered her teammates in a huddle. “I love all of you,” she said.
Was it a final goodbye? Hughes had been keeping a secret all season. Part of her just wanted to live a normal college life and step away from the LFL, and this might have been her last game. But a week later, back at Kennesaw State for her junior year, something just didn’t feel right. After class, she called up her quarterback coach. “Hey,” she said. “Has the league sent you the game tape yet?”
“Just got it.”
Hughes drove straight to his house, where they dissected film of the season-ending loss for two hours. She still couldn’t get over one throw she made in the first quarter. The Steam trailed only 7-0, and her receiver executed a perfect post route in the end zone. But Hughes missed the throw long.
“I had her,” she says. “Next year, I won’t make the same mistakes.”