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Why women in football won’t have a future until they have a past

There have been no women inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. To most fans, that’s not surprising: There’s never been a woman who’s played in the NFL, after all. Coaching platitudes still suggest the sport is a way to “separate the men from the boys” — a cliche that has its roots on the battlefield, which has, ironically, accepted women more readily than the gridiron.

This week the Canton mecca is recognizing women players and coaches for what appears to be the first time since 1983, though not with gold jackets. Four cases in the museum’s Pro Football Today Gallery are now devoted to the achievements of women in football, specifically spotlighting those who’ve spurred “firsts” within the past five years: Jen Welter, the NFL’s first woman coach; Sarah Thomas, the NFL’s first full-time woman referee; Katie Sowers, the NFL’s first out LGBTQ coach, and Beth Mowins, the first woman to call a nationally televised NFL game. They join Lesley Visser, Andrea Kremer, and Charean Williams, who have all previously received awards from the hall for their contributions to football journalism.

According to Rachel Knapp, a curatorial and exhibits specialist at the hall of fame, the museum started to receive artifacts from women in the game around the time she was hired in 2015 — the same year Welter and Thomas made headlines for their trailblazing roles in the NFL.

“It was like a perfect storm of items we were getting in that made us look around and realize that we weren’t necessarily portraying women as strong figures in football,” Knapp says. “They were in more of a supporting role as mothers or, you know, cheerleaders. But women have really made strides in the past couple years, and we’re reaching out to different people to collect items — I think before maybe it wasn’t seen as a priority.”

The rationale for the exhibit, currently a temporary display that the hall plans to turn into something larger and permanent, goes beyond simply having the material, though. “There’s definitely a need to tell that story, just because we have so many young girls coming through and they don’t see themselves represented,” Knapp adds, pointing to the athletes who visit the hall of fame complex for various tournaments. “It’s not something that we had actively collected before, but we’re seeing a rise in our visitorship in terms of girls that play football.”

Her observation is borne out by the numbers: While boys’ participation in tackle football declines, girls’ has grown. But players at every level remain the subject of curious human interest stories, though just about every possible milestone has been passed: Antoinette Harris only may have been the first woman to receive a scholarship to play college football earlier this year.

The search for more specific barriers to break further points to why women’s entry into the football canon is not just timely, but actually long overdue. Women have played football — tackle, flag, and touch — more or less since each sport’s genesis in the late 19th Century. Their stories have just been poorly documented, framed as one-offs and novelties for over a century. “Football Game By Girls” begins an oft-cited 1896 story from the Sun, which describes a game between two teams of women in New York that had to be called by police when men, apparently titillated by the tackling, rushed the field. That piece mentions no “firsts,” suggesting while it might have been unusual, it wasn’t unique.

The Sun, 1896

The Women’s Football Hall of Fame was founded last year (after a false start in 2014) to try to correct that persistent misrepresentation, inducting Welter and Sowers alongside 36 others whose careers span professional leagues like the Women’s Football Alliance, the Independent Women’s Football League, and the U.S. Women’s Football League, as well as the undefeated Team USA.

“I have mixed feelings about the need for a Women’s Football Hall of Fame,” Welter said at the time. “Obviously, it’s a way of ensuring those who never played with the spotlights or dollars attached get recognized, and that is long overdue, and these women deserve it. However, as someone who has been in both the women’s and men’s game, I must say, separate is far from equal, and any hall of fame should recognize both women and men.”

Women play football, and coach football, and even more self-evidently work in all corners of front offices, league administration, and media. None of it is new, but until the story of their love of the game is told in a way that emphasizes their longevity and resilience instead of their difference, it will continue to seem that way.

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