What Does a Football Player Look Like?

Toledo Local Features  |  10/10/2014

Recently the writers of Perfect Season were asked their thoughts about a billboard that was used to promote the Toledo Troopers back in 1976.

The billboard (pictured here) that overlooked the Toledo Sports Arena in 1976 featured a succinct and catchy slogan in promoting the face of the Toledo Troopers, the 70’s women’s football dynasty.

A closer look reveals the dichotomy of the perception of women and women athletes that exists then and now.

For what you see is one football player and two print ad models.

In the 70’s women’s sports was a niche/specialized market characterized by individual sports like tennis, gymnastics, track and golf. Professional female team sports seemed simply nonexistent.

And then came the Troopers. Toledo’s professional football team was a hard-hitting juggernaut built to win football games and championship trophies. Indeed they were more than just ‘“pretty” tough. By 1975 they were the nation’s only professional football club (male or female) with a spotless record of 28-0 through their first 5 seasons.

But was the world ready for women football players?

True, the Troopers enjoyed a healthy presence in the local media. The Blade’s Tom Loomis and legendary Toledo sportscaster Oris Tabner were major supporters of the Troopers. In fact, Mr. Tabner was on the Toledo Troopers Board of Directors.

By 1975 several national outlets had taken notice. Trooper halfback Linda Jefferson was named womenSports Magazine’s female athlete of the year, the first such recognition anywhere. She appeared on the iconic game show To Tell The Truth, the Today Show, and the Dinah Shore show.

That year Jefferson participated in ABC’s legendary The Superstars along with names like Billy Jean King and Martina Navratilova, standout athletes in the acceptable-- i.e. non-team-- sports.

In 1976 the head coach of the Toledo Troopers Bill Stout was named President of the National Women’s Football League, the first women’s professional sports league since 1943. A League of Their Own tells the story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

Stout would pull double duty as the head coach of the Troopers and the President of the NWFL during the 1976 and 1977 NWFL seasons. He would retire as the head coach of the Toledo Troopers to become the Commissioner of the National Women’s football League in 1978.

Stout always believed that football would be a popular sport--for both men’s and women’s teams. It was his teams that gained a following in Toledo from spectators who, as he once put it, “came out to laugh, but left as fans.” His methods were grueling--the punishing practices and the backbreaking conditioning were anything but pretty.

His philosophy to coach the players not as men or women but as football players led him to a gaudy record of 47-1, the greatest winning percentage of any team in pro football history.

Yet his toughest opponent was the perception of women and the woman athlete.

According to advertisements of the day like those for Eastern Airlines, women had their place.

Eastern Airlines was rather clear about what the commercial woman (servant) should be: “We want her to be pretty … That’s why we look at her face, her make-up, her complexion, her figure, her weight, her legs, her grooming, her nails, and her hair.”

But not all advertisements succumbed to the stereotypes. Fittingly, the women’s movement of the early 70’s that challenged these perceptions was led by a Toledoan, Gloria Steinem. Steinem rallied for the Equal Rights Amendment, the legislation of the movement’s call for change, which at its core sought to give women the the same opportunities to do the things that men do.

Like play football.

But it would be a generation before the WNBA was born, and a shirtless Brandi Chastain of the women’s national soccer team (The 99ers) made the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Although Steinem’s message had its momentum, the world clung to its idea of a woman’s place, athlete or not. And so, in an effort to satisfy the image of women in advertisements, Stout and Trooper management hired models to stand next to the face of the franchise.

Among the Troopers the reaction to the false advertising was mixed. Some expressed their objection: was attractiveness necessary to be a football player?

Eunice White, a Trooper from 1973-1979 claimed the ad was a slight to the team. “It didn’t sit well with us. We were a very diverse group of women. They didn’t need to go outside of the team to achieve the image they were looking for.”

Ruth Zuccarell, who donned the green and gold from 1974-1979 said, “I guess we weren’t pretty enough. They used my image for the Semi-Sweet ad. I was semi-sweet but not pretty tough? We just didn’t understand why they used models.”

But based on the way they coached, The Troopers’ priority was winning football games, no matter what a player looked like. To them, winning was the best marketing. However according to Madison Avenue, only the pretty make the billboard.

Yet while the decision to use models played into stereotypes of women, it also shattered them. The three women together, in football uniforms, stands as perhaps the first advertisement in history showcasing women as members of a professional sports team.

Not three wise men, not three musketeers, not three stooges. Three women dressed in their team colors representing women united as champions of a sport reserved for men.

Today many of the Troopers express perspective toward the machinations of Madison Avenue and our society in general during the 1970’s. They've accepted that the world wasn’t ready for women on the gridiron. In fact it was their love for the game that eclipsed their objections to the stereotypes.

Most do not relish in the pioneering symbolism of their incredible achievement. They simply played for the love the game.

Another Gloria, Gloria Jimenez, a defensive standout for the Troopers (1973-1979) said recently, “We loved the game. We loved everything about it. It was the greatest thing I’ve ever done.”

The dozens of Troopers who remain in Toledo have been brought back together by the film project Perfect Season. They gather often to reminisce and share the memories of their playing days.

As for that Equal Rights Amendment, well, that still hasn’t passed.