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All-In column: Athlete, actress Adrienne Smith the face of women in football

Written by Joyce Bassett

The future of football has flags. 

The future of football includes women and girls.

The future of flag football for women and girls is in the sure hands of Adrienne Smith.

Smith, a star wide receiver for the Boston Renegades, is the founder of Gridiron Queendom, an enterprise dedicated to women and girls around the world who play tackle or flag football or are fans of American football. Smith won two gold medals and two national championships in women’s tackle football. She also represented Team USA Flag Football, winning three silver medals in international competition.

She’s also an actress, writer and producer. She appeared in the acclaimed Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” was host of a television show in Japan and developed several film and television projects.

She is now head of the American Flag Football League’s new Women’s Division, overseeing football operations and corporate partnerships.

“Flag football is one of the most exciting and accessible sports today,” she said in a telephone interview. “Its popularity is growing exponentially.”

The Sports and Fitness Industry Association reported in 2018 that flag football surpassed tackle as the most commonly played version of the game among kids ages 6 to 12 (3.3 percent played flag, 2.9 percent tackle). Over the past three years of the study, flag football participation in that age group is up 38.9 percent, more than any other team sport.

In her new role, Smith pushed for equal pay in the AFFL, and it has become a reality.

“The AFFL is planting a flag in the sand and saying to the sports world, hey we are treating our athletes equally, male and female,” she said. “If you are bringing talent to the field, if you are bringing an extraordinary skill set to the field, then you should be compensated accordingly.”

An eight-team tournament planned for August in Texas features a $200,000 purse for both the men’s and women’s champions.

The NFL is taking notice of the popularity of flag football and supporting programs for women and girls at the collegiate and club level. The league announced in March that they will financially support women’s flag football as an emerging sport in two-year colleges. The partnership includes a $150,000 grant from the NFL that will be distributed among 15 National Junior College Athletic Association member colleges planning to participate in the sport over the next two years.

NFL players such as Drew Brees, the New Orleans Saints quarterback, have championed flag football as a safer alternative to tackle football for young players. Brees in 2017 formed a co-ed flag football league and supports flag over tackle for players younger than high school. Brees played flag football and didn’t start playing tackle football until his freshman year of high school.

In April, the New York Giants announced a $64,000 donation to the Shore Conference (N.J.) in support of the inaugural Girls 7-7 Flag Football League, an 8-team club sport that made its debut in the spring.

Football programs for girls and women have come and gone in the Capital Region. A co-ed league for youth ages 5-17 is underway at Afrim’s Sports Park in Albany, organized as part of the All American Sports Recreation organization. 

“My biggest goal involves creating a high school league for girls only,” said Frank Rogers, president of All American Sports Recreation. “Unfortunately, many girls and parents don’t understand how the rules level the playing field, allowing girls to compete on the same level as boys.”

Education is key and Smith is all over that. She works with New York City schools, girls’ football camps and created a football card game — all part of her Gridiron Queendom enterprise.

“One of the fortunate things about living here in New York City is that flag football is a varsity high school sport for girls,” she said. “So in partnership with my company, Gridiron Queendom, I found ways to give back to the sport of football, which has given me so much over my career.”

“I wanted to create a safe space, a global community for women and show women how they can succeed in the sport of football,” she said.

Her card game — called Blitz Champz — is distributed in New York City elementary and middle schools. Featuring both boys and girls football players on a deck of cards, the game teaches basic math skills. 

“It’s perfect for ages 7 to 107, I like to say. It’s a super fun game for football fans,” she said of the product, which she created through a kickstarter campaign in 2017 and is now available on her website and through Walmart and Amazon.

Check out my All In blog for information on how you can win a Blitz Champz card game. • @joyceb10bassett •

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