Photo by Chris Phutully.

The X League is an arena women’s tackle football league where women pay to play full contact, scantily clad, televised, football. Arena football has slightly different rules than traditional football with no field goals or extra-point kicks. Several arena football leagues exist, but the X League has one unique quality. In the X League, players wear bikini-like “performance apparel” and modified equipment, such as hockey helmets, less leg padding, and modified shoulder pads that do not cover their chests

The X League started as a pay-per-view alternative to the Super Bowl Halftime show in 2004. It became the Lingerie Football League in 2009, then rebranded again to the Legends Football League (LFL) in 2013 with hopes of gaining credibility as a sport rather than being seen as a “gimmick.” In December 2019, the league went through another rebranding to become the “Extreme Football League” (or X League) and claims that this change will “enter a new era of women’s empowerment” by allowing players and coaches the possibility of receiving team ownership shares.

Overall, the league aims to capitalize on the idea that “sex sells.” The core audience of this league has predominantly been young men, but recently audiences of women and children are growing. As a result of this model, the league has experienced some success. Approximately 4,000 fans attend each league game. The X League’s Facebook page has over 1 million likes, whereas the more traditional Women’s Football Alliance has just over 20 thousand likes. The media is also essential to the X League’s success, as weekly games air on FUSE, making the X League the only women’s football league with a mainstream television deal.

Tackle football is traditionally seen as a masculine sport, but women’s involvement is growing with teams forming across the world. However, youth teams for girls’ are forming at a slower pace. Therefore, many players only begin tackle football in adulthood after playing other sports in their youth. The X League is a good case study to analyze high-level women’s sport structures broadly because women have the choice to play more traditional versions of tackle football or sports they have specialized in; yet, some choose to play X League football.

But what is it like to be a player in the X League? To answer this question, I gathered stories from 10 former players using blogs, podcast interviews, and news articles. The sentiments shared by former players can be interpreted as what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu referred to as symbolic violence. Symbolic violence is about structural levels of control that people face, but often accept, because the structures seem natural and unchangeable. It is harmful because people learn to accept and reproduce systems of oppression. Symbolic violence is expressed in three categories: denial of resources, inferior treatment, and a limitation of aspirations.

Photo by Nathan Rupert.

In the players’ statements, I found evidence for all three categories, starting with resource denial through a lack of pay. A common concern for high-level women’s sport, players are commonly paid very little (if anything) for their labor. In the LFL’s first season, players were paid a small amount linked to ticket sales and wins. Now, they pay $45 in league fees and $150 in equipment fees each season. In an attempt to advocate for better wages, in 2014 one of two lawsuits claimed that the demands put on players by the league resemble an employee-employer relationship. The 2014 case resulted in a default judgment because the X League was uncooperative. Additionally, another former player recalls having a paid contract position as the team’s media manager, yet received no financial compensation. Therefore, players are actively denied income, which impacts both their livelihood and ability to train and compete.

The second indicator is inferior treatment, perhaps exemplified by one player’s statement: “Would you rather go pay more money to play in a league that respects you as an athlete? That treats you as an athlete. That looks at you not as a sex symbol…” This quote focuses on the issue of sexualization, which Sang and Powell argue is symbolic violence, because it undermines players as athletes. Football is a largely male-dominated place, where toxic masculinity is normalized, and where women’s involvement is positioned as abnormal. Therefore, sexualizing women playing high-level football serves to reproduce exclusion by positioning women as sexualized subjects rather than athletes.

Finally, the third indicator of symbolic violence is a limitation of aspirations. In the X League, this is a process where high aspirations are sold but then limited as players see a trend of false promises. One former player offers a difficult reflection about the league: “you’re kind of like in an abusive relationship where your boyfriend constantly tells you that he’ll put a ring on your finger… But, he’ll constantly find excuses for you to not be loyal enough.” Comparing the league to emotional abuse from a partner highlights a similar structure of gendered violence. Moreover, regarding the promises made during the recent rebranding, a former player said, “We are a part of that. Of empty promises… So now that you’re not even changing the image, why would anything else change?” In other words, this player sees the promise of empowerment as unrealistic. The players’ aspirations are actively limited because of the league’s broken promises.  

So, why do players still pay to play in this league? Some insight is provided by Bourdieu’s concept of misrecognition, which argues that symbolic violence is accepted because it is framed as natural and unchangeable, so it often goes unchallenged. Former players’ statements of “sport at any cost” represent symbolic violence as a necessary sacrifice to play women’s high-level football. Several former players explain, “It’s the only professional women’s league that gets attention…sometimes when you’re a female athlete you have to suck it up. You have to do whatever it takes to get people to your games,” and “it’s hard cause there are a lot of girls that know that they wanna leave, but they don’t know where else they could go.” These statements illustrate a feeling of despair where players recognize facing symbolic violence but see it as necessary in order to play football.

In conclusion, the X League’s structure perpetuates symbolic violence that is all too familiar in high-level women’s sport. The X League’s existence is largely contingent on players feeling trapped in women’s sport systems that are plagued with low media coverage, little to no pay, small fan bases, and inferior conditions. These factors force players to accept systems of symbolic violence similar to what can be seen in the X League.

Kasie Murphy (@KasieMurphy61) is an MA student in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada. Her research interests include gender, embodiment, collision sport, and women’s sporting experiences. As a former player herself, much of her current work looks at women and girls’ experiences playing tackle football.