Telling the Story of the National Women’s Football League in “Hail Mary” – Chicago Review of Books


For as long as sports shape so much of our culture—globally, nationally, and locally—the stories we tell about them will shape us, too. In the United States, football remains the most popular sport, generating billions of dollars in revenue every year. Women and other people of marginalized genders have been systematically shut out of the game, but in Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League, Lyndsey D’Arcangelo and Frankie de la Cretaz capture the lives and passions of athletes who fought for their place on the field. By preserving these stories, the authors capture the historical realities of race, gender, class, and athleticism. They also help us imagine a future; what will the Women’s Football Alliance need to thrive? What can we achieve by building narratives that uplift and remember? And finally, what stands to be gained by honoring these stories as literary achievements with vital, transformative narratives?

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jen St. Jude

First, can you tell me a little about how this book came to be, and how you connected with your co-author Lyndsey D’Arcangelo?

Frankie de la Cretaz

Lyndsey and I met in a Facebook group for sports writers of marginalized genders. I was working on a column at the time for Bitch magazine about the current state of women’s football and was looking for a book that would give me some historical context for the game. The only books I could find were super sexist and implied that women would only want to learn about football so they could watch with their man. I complained to Lyndsey that there weren’t any books and she told me I should write one. I joked that she’d have to write it with me. And here we are.

This was actually the second book we tried to sell.  Our first idea was a much more generalized book about the history of women’s football, both on the field and off, including the fans on the sidelines and coaches and officials. That book didn’t sell and the main feedback we got about why was because it didn’t have enough of a narrative arc. But in the process of researching that book, we discovered the Toledo Troopers, who are the winningest team in pro football history, men’s or women’s. In researching them more, we had a lot of questions about who they played and who else had been in this league and could find very few answers. It became clear very quickly that this was the book we needed to write.

Jen St. Jude

You have spoken about how many literary spaces don’t seem to value books about sports in the way that you (and I!) do. Why do you think that is?

Frankie de la Cretaz

I think that in literary spaces, sports are seen as trivial or even mindless. It’s fascinating to me how little respect narrative nonfiction sportswriting seems to get (we are so often not even reviewed in mainstream publications!) considering how large of a part of American culture sports are. Sports stories are human stories and sports stories do not exist in a vacuum. Sports tell us so much about the world we live in and yet so often literary spaces want to ignore the really incredible nonfiction writing that often comes out of this genre. I think that when literary folks hear the word “sports,” they think of a ghostwritten biography of someone like Tom Brady (which is still a valid form of craft!), rather than the kind of work that so many other writers are doing to provide really meaty, really beautiful analysis and storytelling that just so happens to exist in the sphere of athletics.

Jen St. Jude

How did you balance telling a more macro story (the entire forest of the NWFL and similar leagues) and the micro stories (the trees of these individual peoples’ lives?). You and Lyndsey did it so artfully, but I can’t imagine the amount of editing and curating that went into it.

Frankie de la Cretaz

Trying to balance this obviously huge story about a league that had up to 12 teams in its heyday, and at least 19 teams total, we knew that there was no way we could tell the entire story of the league in one book. It was an impossible undertaking to do that kind of research. We would never be able to track down everyone who had ever played for the league. So from the beginning, we kind of accepted that this was just part of the story of the NWFL. Knowing the book’s limitations from the beginning allowed us to let go of the feeling that we had to know absolutely everything and that we couldn’t write the book without finding every piece of information that existed.

The book weaves back and forth between the stories of these teams, and the women who are on those teams, and the larger world that they were living in at the time and the context in which women’s sports leagues exist. We were looking at a group of women who were playing against the backdrop of the women’s liberation movement, Title IX, queer liberation post-Stonewall, the economic decline of the Rust Belt. How did the world and the place and the time in which they lived impact their lives? We really wanted to answer those questions. But we also felt it was really important that the reader know these women as people and know who they were and how they lived and how they ended up on the football field and what it meant to them.

One decision that we made was about where the book would start. We very intentionally drop the reader into the middle of the story, into the middle of the league, and you meet the players on the field. The book opens in gameplay. That was really intentional. Particularly when we are talking about a sport like football, which so many people already think women can’t play, it was really important to us that our readers saw these women first and foremost as athletes, first and foremost as football players. So we introduce you to them on the field, as players first, so that there is never a doubt in the reader’s mind that these women can play football, that they do play football, and that they are skilled athletes. From there we’re able to zoom out and talk more about who they were as people. 

Another piece to the storytelling that allowed this story to flow a lot more naturally than I think we thought it would, and something that is unique to sports writing in some ways, is that when you have teams playing each other, you have a natural source of tension and conflict—which every good story needs—but it also allows you to switch point of view. You can enter a game following one team and exit the game following another and so it’s a seamless way to change point of view or pivot your focus without losing the reader. And so these rivalries and matchups became really important storytelling devices for us.

Jen St. Jude

As you so artfully illustrate in Hail Mary, it’s impossible for a league to survive without “consistent sports media coverage, unconditional support of women athletes, and the capitalization of unique promotional opportunities.” What do you think it would take (or, perhaps, how long) for a professional women’s league to truly survive?

Frankie de la Cretaz

The two things that men’s sports leagues are given that women’s sports leagues are not are time and capital. What I mean by that is that men’s teams and men’s leagues can fail and lose money and the (usually male) owners will continue to pump money into them. Women’s leagues are often held to these unrealistic expectations in which if they are not turning a profit in their first couple of years, they are deemed a failure and held up as proof that there is no audience for women’s sports. But not only is that not how women’s leagues function, it’s not how any league functions. Most sports leagues will take at least ten years before they ever see a profit. Over 90% of the NFL teams that existed in the first decade of that league’s existence folded. When you look at attendance numbers for the NFL in the beginning and the NWFL in its first couple of years, they’re actually fairly comparable. What that tells us is that there was potential and interest in the women’s game and in women’s football and had the money and time been invested in this league it’s possible that it might have taken off and stuck around.

Jen St. Jude

Did you feel a huge weight on your shoulders while telling these players’ stories, as the only historians or journalists to put their lives and experiences to paper? 

Frankie de la Cretaz

I can only speak for myself here but I definitely felt a huge amount of responsibility to do justice to the women’s stories. I really did not want to put words in their mouths but I wanted to build on what they were telling me. At the same time, because we knew that this book would be a jumping off point and some of the first comprehensive work done on this league, there was a release of some pressure to feel like we had to cover it all. And so my hope here is that what this book does is it brings more former players out of the woodwork, it uncovers stories that we were not able to tell in the book, and that people will build on this work so that it does not have to completely stand on the shoulders of me and Lyndsey and that it can be an ongoing process and an ongoing historical project to document this league as fully as possible.

Jen St. Jude

So much of athletics and their gravity depend on good, conscientious storytelling. Why do you think this has been historically lacking for people of marginalized genders? What can we do to support these stories going forward?

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Frankie de la Cretaz

So much of history is told through the lens of the oppressors. People in power decide whose stories matter and whose stories do not. We can actually see that when we look at the media coverage of the NWFL. Part of the reason that it was so problematic is because it was colored by the lens of the people who were doing the writing. Those people were usually men. And so the way the women were written about, and the questions they were asked in interviews, revealed the biases of the people who were writing the stories. So even our archival documents that we have to go off of are skewed in some way and largely do not represent the views of the women who were playing at the time, even if those women are quoted in the stories. The best thing that we can do is to put these stories back into the historical record. They’re already there, but taking the time and investment to document those stories and to do it from a lens that centers the experience of the marginalized people at the heart of them, is key.

Jen St. Jude

Let’s talk about gender in “women’s” sports. Do you have any thoughts on how we can think about gendered leagues when we are so in need of expansive thinking, and (perhaps!) so far away from figuring out how to divide leagues in any other way than perceived gender?

Frankie de la Cretaz

I have a lot of thoughts on this that are probably too large to get into in this interview (and I actually wrote about this for Sports Illustrated!). But I will say that I think the way we think about organizing sports needs to be completely blown up and I don’t think that our society is anywhere near the point where we are ready to do that. I do think that it is women’s leagues that will be more challenged in this direction for a long time. For me, going back to the intention of women’s leagues is key to finding a way to be inclusive of all genders until we have a better way of organizing sports. 

Most men’s leagues, particularly men’s professional leagues, are not actually men’s leagues. Like, Major League Baseball or the National Basketball Association, you will notice neither of them have the word “men’s” in their names. That’s because anyone of any gender is eligible to be drafted into these pro leagues, and in the past some women have been. So if women can technically play in those pro leagues, the question becomes why women’s leagues exist at all. And that is because women have systematically been denied opportunities in professional sports based on their gender. Through that lens, it might make sense that anyone of any marginalized gender could be eligible to play in what we know as “women’s leagues,” and it would stay true to the intention of the leagues as they were formed, and allow for our new understandings of gender as they evolve. 

Jen St. Jude

What have I missed that you’d like to talk about or address with regards to sports in literature and the importance of these books and coverage? 

Frankie de la Cretaz

It remains laughable to me that anyone thinks there isn’t much craft to sports nonfiction! At least one literary publication actually turned down an interview with me about the craft of writing sports because they thought it wasn’t relevant to their audience. But of course there is craft in writing a narrative nonfiction sports book, just like there is craft in any narrative nonfiction book. A sports book without craft considerations, without a larger story arc, is just a 300-page box score.

NONFICTION
Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League
By Frankie de la Cretaz & Lindsey D’Arcangelo
Bold Type Books
Published November 2, 20201



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