"Strong Women Love Football." Those were the words on the front of the burnt orange t-shirt that I wore this past Saturday as Charlie Strong first took the sidelines as head football coach at the University of Texas. I got the shirt when I attended the first Charlie Strong Women's Football Clinic at UT back in June.
I've known about women-only sports clinics/camps/events hosted by men's teams for a while now. But my interest was piqued last September when the Houston Astros set off a social media firestorm with a tweet about their "Ladies Night" event where they promised that "Ladies can learn about baseball, enjoy music, food, drinks & more!" This was nothing new. The Senior Bowl has been hosting an event geared towards women for the last few years titled "'Girls of Fall: Football, Fashion and Fun" that includes an actual fashion show. Mack Brown's Women's Football Clinic last year (in its sixteenth year total) was described by the UT alumni magazine as being "an evening dedicated to educating women about football and the upcoming season."
There's a popular cultural narrative that women, as a group, don't really like sports or are ignorant of how sports are played (How many quarters are there in a baseball game again?). This could be a self-fulfilling prophecy: girls aren't taught about sports or encouraged to enjoy them because people assume that the girls don't want to know. But we live in a post-Title IX world.
In April, Lindsey Adler wrote a list that outlines what you need to know about female sports fans, starting with "We're not rare." The NFL has been wooing female fans for the last few years as the league has come to recognize just how many women actually watch football (though, of course, they do this wooing through clothing, or yoga mats, or the color pink). The NBA, meanwhile, will have a woman coaching on the sidelines of one of its powerhouse teams this upcoming season. Women, at least a fair amount of us, play, watch, know about, and love sports.
Lana Berry, a sports lover herself, decided to attend the Astros' Ladies Night last September. Hair was styled, mascots danced, and everyone went home with a pink bag. Berry concluded that she was troubled not with these kinds of events themselves, but rather "the mindset behind them, and the idea that women somehow can't enjoy and/or learn about sports in the same way men can, which feeds into the idea that women would need to be offered free beauty treatments to somehow lure them to a baseball game." Berry followed up that experience by attending #GronkFest2013, a women's football clinic at Harvard hosted by New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. Her report included sentences like, "With the girls/ladies now properly liquored up, we make our way out onto the Harvard football field."
But there appears to be a new wave of coaches hosting clinics, coaches who get that women know, like, and want to play some football—and know that we don't need to get liquored up first. Charlie Strong is part of this new wave (for other examples, see Texas Tech, UConn, USF, NC State, and Mississippi State). Beginning in 2010, his first summer as head coach at Louisville, Strong hosted a women's football clinic that included not just presentations about the sport or the team, but also "a series of on-the-field drills with instruction provided by the Louisville football coaching staff." While Louisville and Bobby Petrino continued Strong's clinic this summer, Strong also brought this format with him to Austin.
I, however, was mainly acquainted with the "Ladies' Night" version of these events. Going into the Strong women's football clinic, I was nervous there would be a lot of men explaining football and women getting beauty treatments while sipping margaritas. Here's the short of it, though: Charlie Strong's women's football clinic was nothing like what I expected, mostly because I expected condescension and that was not part of the program that day.
Photo by Jessica Luther
Hundreds of women attended the event, which began in the early afternoon and stretched into the evening. Some came from as far as Michigan and Oregon. There was a woman there born in 1918, while others looked like they were undergraduates at UT.
Camp opened with a short UT football highlight video, causing the women to get loud. We clapped and cheered, some stood up, and others flashed the hook 'em sign. Strong got a standing ovation when he took the stage. When he told us that "we will be the most physical players next year," the crowd erupted.
Shawn Watson, the quarterbacks coach, taught us how snap counts work in stadiums that are so loud the players can't hear each other. Defensive coordinator Vance Bedford played us a video that cut between shots of the defense making plays and lions attacking prey in the wild. Pat Moorer, the head coach for strength & conditioning, was intimidating. He also won my heart when he was the only person to curse the whole day (though we were told repeatedly that if the women weren't there, curse words would fly fast and loose). At the end of Moorer's presentation, he said his goal was to end each game with the opposing team saying, "those are some tough fuckers over there."
The only questionable part of the entire experience was when Chip Robertson, the Assistant Athletics Director for Equipment Operations, brought Jordan Hicks and Malcolm Brown on stage in the tight undershirt and pants players wear before donning their pads and jerseys. The presentation quickly devolved into sexual innuendo. Hicks ended up turning around in place, women cheering, the coaching staff laughing, and Hicks playing along. I would have felt uncomfortable no matter which college-aged player was up there, but as a journalist who covers the intersection of college football and sexual assault, Hicks was most familiar to me because he missed the Alamo Bowl in December 2012 when he was under investigation for sexual assault (no charges were ever filed). It was a deeply strange scene in the middle of an otherwise thoughtful, well-planned out day.
Photo by Jessica Luther
After the presentations, we headed outside to the field. Walking on the green grass of Darrell K. Royal Memorial Stadium was a thrill. Until I realized that Charlie Strong was standing in the middle of it, his Bob-Barker-Price-Is-Right stick microphone in hand, yelling at us to hurry. Strong's voice echoed through the stadium's speakers, "There's no walking on the field! You run when you get on the grass!"
The hustle from that eclectic group of women was real, y'all. Ladies twice my age were jogging to their assigned group. There were spaces for people to rest along the sidelines and the staff was careful not to focus on any individual—you could go as slow as you wanted or needed to. But for those who wanted it, you could imagine you were at football practice with Coach Strong. It was the first moment where I really felt like all of these men respected us women as true football fans.
We then spent the next four hours getting our asses kicked. And it was amazing. We cycled through a series where we visited the locker room, were put through a grueling series of push-ups, lunges, and sit ups in the weight room, ran a relay on the field where we had to get in and out of pads, got to do a Q&A with a bunch of players that ranged from discussion on why they chose UT over OU to their feelings about paying college players, and then we did wind sprints in the indoor field that's adjacent to the stadium. After all that, we were regrouped on the field and went through a series that included defensive footwork drills, slamming into pads being held by other women, lineman drills that involved starting on all fours and then pushing pads with our shoulders as we moved forward, running back footwork drills, and practicing the accuracy of our passing. We then ran the stadium's stairs in the heat of a Texas summer night.
For all that, one could still argue that splitting women off into their own camps is sexist because it starts from an assumption that women can't just attend a football 101 clinic or a fantasy football camp (in fact, women cannot attend the 2-day Texas Longhorns Fantasy Camp). To those people, I say, you're right. But at the same time, after celebrating UT football with a bunch of other female fans and then doing hours of rigorous and flat-out physical exercises that were new or unfamiliar for many of us, it was nice to have a space to share football with other women and do so without having to deal with men who assume we don't know or like football. Or even worse, men who would use the camp as an opportunity to perform their masculinity for UT football coaches and players.
At the end of the night, our group was led out of the stadium and then back around so we were standing in the tunnel that the players run out of before each home game. The players on-site led us in chants and dances when, suddenly, steam began to pour out into the tunnel with the fight song blaring out of the speakers. We ran out like we were truly Longhorn football players storming the field. What more could a football fan want?
The six hours I spent at the clinic were a celebration of all things Longhorns football. Instead of being maligned or condescended to, hundreds of women were treated as serious football fans, they were trusted to understand and honor their own physical limits, and they were offered a small but substantial experience of what being part of the UT football team would feel like. This experience should not be the exception to how female fans are treated by the teams and sports they love but instead should be the norm. We left exhausted, but every woman I talked to was thrilled with what they had just experienced.
At the end of the night, I went up to Charlie Strong as he was signing autographs. I didn't have anything journalistic to say, but I did take the chance to shake his hand and say, "This was really great, coach. Thank you so much for taking us seriously." He asked, "You liked that?" I looked him in the eye, quirked the corner of my mouth up, and replied, "I fucking loved it." He smiled. As I walked away, I yelled to him, "I'll be back next year."