Whether it be on the field or off of it, the women of Europe are working hard to fulfill their goals and aspirations in the American football community. Women are not only present in the American football environment – they are creating their own. With women becoming an increasing presence in management among men’s teams and over 200 women’s teams across Europe, these innovators are playing understated but essential roles in this industry.
Although the men’s teams in Europe face multiple challenges given that the level of funding and support is not yet what it is in North America, women face their own unique uphill battle. Women in the football industry – especially in the U.S. – have often been stereotyped as a marketing asset rather than as a real asset to the sport. However, many in Europe are working to shift this mentality.
The female players and professionals involved in American football in Europe do not dress in a particular way to attract attention to the sport. They do not take “no” or “you can’t” as an answer. Instead of flaunting their assets for publicity, they are using these assets to their advantage in a way that benefits the sport as a whole. They are making names for themselves over time through hard work and dedication. Additionally, they are not limiting themselves by playing soley within their own teams, showing that they’re also deserving of a spot on the men’s teams.
Women tend to get involved in American football much in the same way as men – through the love of watching NFL games and via other players encouraging them to participate in the sport. However, men often have the luxury of more-established outlets and support to get involved with the sport compared to women who do not have as many doors held open for them to play.
Most players have similar initial motivations driving them to get involved in American football. However, the stories that are particularly admirable are those that involve the first women in their respective regions to get involved with the sport. These players had no one to follow as an example on how to get involved as a woman in a historically male-dominated sport. They had no one telling them that woman can play. They simply forged their own paths, and inevitably created one for all others to follow.
Céline Martin, currently a running back and safety for the Falcons of Bron, was the first woman to play American football in the Rhône-Alpes region in France in 2013. Since then, she has had the privilege of playing for several teams over the years in various countries. As the first individual to break the gender barrier in her region, Céline has developed a wide basis of knowledge to provide to others. “Playing for so many different teams, both male and female, under the direction of many different coaches, has given me very good perspective. Every team, coach, and country has a different approach to American football. The idea is that the more you play and the more information you can obtain from a wide variety of sources, the more you can truly take in what the sport of American football is about and promote what you have learned to recruit other women to play.”
Céline also notes the importance of coaches and the large role they can play in encouraging the participation of women in American football. “Coaches have the ability to influence the male players and their perceptions of women involved in the sport and the positive contributions they can provide. They also have the ability to motivate more females to join the sport, especially to join men’s teams. They may challenge us physically and mentally, but personally I find it fun to prove myself.”
In the past, the most significant hurdle for women entering the sport of American football appears to have been a lack of awareness that women’s teams were in existence or that women were welcome on men’s teams. According to many female athletes who have been involved in American football for several years now, there is currently an evolution taking place in the sport. The women who are involved in the sport are acting as public role models by proving themselves as competitors to men within the American football world in Europe. Furthermore, they are exemplifying the strong image they desire to portray to the football community by sharing the pride they’ve developed through playing the sport.
Dyane Stargaryen, a defensive back for the Paris Dragons in France, told us about her first-hand experience with this evolution. “In the beginning, most people didn’t even know that the sport of American football was played at all by women in Europe, or they assumed it was played by women in lingerie. However, it seems that those who play the sport are doing a good job of communicating the ideals of what women in American football stand for. This is now leading to a consistent growth of more and more new girls entering the sport.” As an organization, The Growth of a Game has seen this first-hand with an increasing number of young women joining our skills camps every year.
Phoebe Schecter, an American expat living in the U.K. and currently playing for the Birmingham Lions, Great Britain Lions, and Staffordshire Surge, provides her own unique perspective on the growth of women’s football. “In the States women may have more of an uphill battle, as there is already such an ingrained perception of what American football is and the narrow view of how women can fit into that world. In Europe, we are lucky to have an opportunity to build our own image from the field up and show that we will not be confined by any boundaries or stereotypes.”
There is a common thread to mention that is apparent among many of the women playing American football in Europe—the fact that those individuals that have been to America, or have played American football in the United States, state that they hadn’t learned anything substantial about American football until they got involved in Europe. This is an interesting conclusion as this perhaps means that the American football community in Europe is doing a better job of showcasing the sport as being inclusive of women. This is also likely because the women already involved in the sport of American football in Europe are seeking out a high standard for respectful publicity for themselves and are actively recruiting other women with the message that they embody a different image for women of American football – one to be proud of and to want to be part of.
Participating as a player is not the only way women are making their mark on the American football community. On both male and female teams throughout Europe, women are contributing in a variety of support roles and are even finding themselves seated in the positions of president, coach, director, or manager.
The women involved in American football off the field expect to be treated as equals among their male colleagues. Although they are always outnumbered in this sport by men, they will demand nothing less than respect and equal treatment for the hard work they put in.
Chantal Crabeels, the General Secretary for the last 15 years for the Brussels Black Angels from Belgium, has 30 years of experience working in many positions within the American football community in Europe. She is understandably proud of the reputation she has built for herself. “In this very male-dominated world, you have to have a strong character or people will walk all over you. However, if you earn your place in this industry, you will find that being a woman here is very rewarding and that you will be praised for being in the minority. Furthermore, women have an opportunity to use their feminine qualities to their advantage by playing a nurturing role to provide for the often-disregarded mental needs of players.”
Chantal would like to seize this opportunity further in order to implement a program that would provide mental training to players. “Since American football is unlike any other sport in that it requires constant high focus, teamwork, and stamina, it is inevitable that the mental health and emotions of a player will be affected at one point in their career. A woman, especially one involved in American football off the field, may not know the intricacies of the game or the specific technique that defines a great player, but we are inherently built to address the mental and emotional capabilities that it takes to succeed or to reach a specific goal.”
The consensus agrees with Chantal that gender can be an advantage to draw from as a player as well. Women in American football realize that with so many parts having to work together to succeed, the game is really something of beauty, and this beauty leads to a level of commitment that they want to strive for. Furthermore, ability and effort are what give them a name and a place on any team. It is the only currency that matters to those in American football in Europe and it is blind to gender.
Regarding funding, the support seems to vary significantly by country. Some federations like BAFA (British American Football Association) have shown a major commitment to investing and supporting the growth of the game for women. Jo Kilby, quarterback for the Birmingham Lions, says “this has helped tremendously in overcoming some of the challenges that come with playing the game – i.e. staffing, equipment, and fields. However, this level of support is often countered by many federations who overlook women’s American football teams when funding is being allocated.
I asked several women what message they would give to other women who were considering getting involved with American football in Europe and the message was very consistent: “Absolutely do it! Don’t be afraid – this sport is unlike any other and it provides for a chance to find your own strength, for stress relief, and for camaraderie with an amazing network of people.” Jo, mentioned above, and an American football player of 5 years, values American football as a sport for everyone. “Fundamentally football is a sport for anyone and everyone – and while lots of sports like to claim this tag – few can back it up! If you are fast and evasive you are a born running back. If you love tackling then linebacker is for you. If you are big and mobile, play offensive line. If you are tenacious and athletic, play defensive back. Or maybe you have an ability to keep calm in all situations and a killer arm to make a quarterback. No matter who you are or how you are built, there is a position that is perfect for you, and that’s what I, and thousands of other women across the length of Europe, genuinely love about this sport.”
Therefore, it is clear that many of those who play the game want the message to be know that you are supported, you will have a place in the game that suits you, and that if you make your interest known you will be received with open arms into American football by both men and women alike. Furthermore, there are so many resources out there to help you along the way
Those interested in getting involved in the sport may find it useful to check out our article “The Complete List of Women’s American Football Teams in Europe” to find teams nearest to them.
Although women in American football may not be afforded the same publicity, funding, or established resources as their male counterparts, one thing is clear: they will not let that stop them. Women in Europe are uniting together to break gender boundaries and challenge the perception of what the world of American football should look like in the future – and it includes them. Regardless of the capacity that women in this world choose to partake in, they are making their mark known and proving their place. It’s easy to admire the strength and pride that these women embody and it can only be considered an honor to find yourself amongst them.
I want to thank the following individuals for their time, thoughts, and willingness to contribute to the material represented in this article:
Dyane Stargaryen–-Player of the Paris Dragons
Jo Kilby–-Player of the Birmingham Lions and the Great Britain Lions
Phoebe Schecter–-Player of the Birmingham Lions, the Great Britain Lions, and the Staffordshire Surge
Chantal Crabeels—General Secretary of the Brussels Black Angels
Céline Martin—Player of the Bron-Villeurbanne Falcons, Trento Thunders, Annecy Avalanches, and Grenoble Centaures