Odessa Jenkins (far left) with last year's O-line. Photograph by Elizabeth Lavin Elizabeth Lavin

Sports

Women’s National Football Conference Hopes to Turn an Adidas Grant Into a TV Show

And the league's co-founder has advice for all the high school coaches out there: be explicit about equity.

Last week, the adidas + IFundWomen campaign selected 15 women-led sports organizations to help fund and promote as part of an International Women’s Day initiative. The Women’s National Football Conference, which was co-founded last year by Odessa Jenkins and is based in Dallas, was one of those selected.

The WNFC is a professional 11-on-11, full-padded American tackle football league that now has 20 teams made up of more than 1,000 athletes and coaches across 17 states. The team Jenkins coaches, the Texas Elite Spartans, is the league’s reigning champion.

The players are all badasses (check out these portraits taken last year by Elizabeth Lavin), perhaps Jenkins most of all. She won her first national championship with the Dallas Diamonds in 2008, followed by two gold medals at the IFAF Women’s World Championship. She spends her days working as a vice president of client services at YourCause, a corporate social responsibility software platform for employee giving. I caught her on the phone yesterday to chat for a few minutes about the new grant, and to get her thoughts on how to be a better, more equitable coach at any level. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The NFL is facing another reckoning with the Black Lives Matter movement based on a century of racial inequality. But you started your league from scratch. Do you feel that so far you’ve been able to create the equitable league that you envisioned or dreamed of? First of all, no business owner and no business is perfect as it relates to equity, whether it’s Black-owned or not. Any business leader that thinks they’ve got it figured out, they’re the ones you need to look at the most, regardless of the color that they are. Now, as a Black, queer, female business leader in the South, I am more cognizant and I am more present in inequity and what it does. So I do think that I’m ahead of the game. When people who are from underrepresented backgrounds — myself being a person who didn’t grow up with privilege, who grew up Black, grew up female, and was recognized as LGBTQ, whatever you want to call me — I am forced to be an activist and forced to understand activism, right?

I’m forced to make sure that the way I walk around is represented in everything I do. So, yeah, I feel like I’m ahead of where some of the other sports leagues are, and that being openly yourself in our league is natural. We started the business knowing that there were women that are going to be represented in multiple different ways.

Tell me about the adidas + IFundWomen Grant that the Women’s National Football Conference received last week. So, you know, we’ve been working with Adidas and Ridell and others to create content and promote our brand and show how our pro league is the one to invest in. And we’ve been working on that for a year, year and a half. We’ve been investing ourselves, and putting our own money in, and promoting our teams and doing those things. And we had this goal in year two of the league to create a television show, with all eight weeks of our games professionally produced. And so we started fundraising to be able to produce the show. We put a crowd funder out there last year on IFundWomen. And then Adidas came in. They look for businesses with IFundWomen that they believe would help the world reimagine sports.

There were several businesses that won the grant. There were businesses centered around getting women in boxing, like the only female boxing gym in New York City. There is a female founder led business that is involved in getting Black people to swim and talking about water safety amongst the African-American community. And then there was us! We were basically chosen as a female founder led business that is helping the world to reimagine sports. For us, it’s the ultimate sport, right? Football is America’s sport. So they gave us the funding as sort of a mission that they are hoping that will encourage other businesses to fund our show, so that in 2021 we can go put on eight weeks of a TV show and be able to sell our content to be able to fund the league.

What is happening with the league currently? Are you guys going to have a fall season? No. So we are normally a spring sport, and we are wanting to stay a spring sport. Based on our timeline, we would have been in playoffs right now and headed towards the championship game in a couple of weeks. We canceled our season early in February. We rely heavily on local school and university facilities. We don’t own stadiums and those kinds of things. So we had all that stuff shut down. And then the school districts  are considering making spring sports fall sports. We really don’t have the facility or the financial resources to be able to ensure that our players are kept safe. So we made the tough decision in February to cancel the 2020 season and look forward to 2021.

How are you keeping your team motivated in the meantime? It’s crazy. The motivation has actually increased. You know, they say you take something away that somebody loves and you realize how much you miss it and want it to come back. We’ve seen a 25 percent increase in our engagement on all of our socials. We’ve seen more players interested in playing football than ever before. Our players are really interested because they’re are trying to keep their spots.

One of the things that we’re doing as a league is we’re promoting and highlighting our players more. So all of our teams are doing virtual workouts. We did this really cool two weeks of virtual football camp that we held in the league. And we’re gonna come back with that and do that again. But frankly, it’s been really beautiful to see more and more people be interested in our sport, and more and more women interested in playing for our team.

I think a number of high schools are  starting up sports programs now and gearing up for the school year. Do you have any advice, or do you want to give any advice, to some of those coaches on how to make their teams more equitable and successful? Absolutely. So the first thing that I’ll say is: be explicit in what you’re for and be explicit in what you’re against. People think doing policies with words don’t matter. I think as coaches, that’s critical to us. In order to tame a mustang, to get through to the alpha personalities that are football players — in order to get them to do what you want them to do as a team, you have to have a culture in place. You have to have strategy in place. You have to have guidelines in place. You have to have a set plan for how we’re going to pull together as a team. I think in this world, now and going forward, it is super critical as football coaches that we put policies in place in writing and in practice that say we are for an equitable team and equitable world. Saying here’s how we’re going to move forward as a team as it relates to racism, injustices, and justice for all people — that’s who we’re going to be.

So the same way that we talk about fighting against laziness and complacency, in the same way that we talk about fighting as a team, we need to explicitly say that we’re going to fight for our Black players, coaches, and staff in our policies. Because everybody’s on a different playing field, and everybody has different challenges in front of them. But as football coaches, we can step up and say that right now.

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