Back in January, about a minute after the last game of its only season ended, the Women's American Football League disbanded, crumbling underneath a mountain of financial woes, management infighting, and allegations of outright theft. At least three team owners have filed Federal Trade Commission complaints against league founder Carter Turner alleging that he misused the teams' licensing fees and failed to provide the support and national marketing that was promised them.
For the Tsunami, in particular, it was a long first season (see "Unsportsmanlike Conduct," Jan. 23). The team was owned by Olympic track star Wendy Brown, who played offense and defense and fought constantly with Head Coach Alonzo Carter until he quit shortly before the season ended. Last year's Tsunamis generally lacked the leadership or discipline to win games, but nonetheless played their hearts out all the way through a bench-clearing brawl that ended the season in Los Angeles.
This year, the Tsunamis seem to be ... well, they seem not to be.
The team's Web site boasts a schedule, but only a handful of women have been seen on the practice field, and calls to the Tsunami front office were not returned. The team, now owned by General Manager Tynya Beverly, joined some new teams -- including the Sacramento Gold Rush, owned by Brown -- in the new American Football Women's League, which has the unfortunate acronym "AFWL." The AFWL teams were scheduled to start their season last weekend, but players were reportedly scarce and the long-term (and even midterm) future of the league seemed in doubt.
Meanwhile, there's a new team in town, made up mostly of women from the old team. Following the WAFL's collapse, elements of its stronger teams re-formed themselves into something called the Women's Affiliated Football Conference. The idea is to have a structure in which adult women can play football, without adding yet another league to the already thinly spread sport of women's football.
Denise Whiting, former Tsunami team manager, created the San Francisco Stingrayz with many former Tsunamis as a core, including veteran quarterback Heather Bruno and receiver Renee Robinson, who previously played basketball for the WNBA champion Houston Comets. "We're working together as a conference, not just out for each other," Whiting says of the new configuration. "The team motivation is there. There will always be downs and changes in the beginning, and we all expect that, but the team motivation is there. My team is my first priority, and I make them feel that way."
Shea Cannon, formerly of the Tsunami defensive line, also created a new team, the Santa Rosa Scorchers; it plays in the same conference with the Stingrayz. The Scorchers have beaten the Stingrayz in all three of their exhibition games together.
"We have great players this year," says the Stingrayz's Bruno. "[But] a lot of people are injured. We need to execute. The things we've been doing wrong in the game are minor mental mistakes."
Despite the upbeat talk about the Women's Affiliated Football Conference, the ghost of last year's Tsunamis seemed to materialize almost as soon as the Stingrayz began their season. During an early September game, backup quarterback CoCo Thames apparently got into a verbal altercation with Coach Mark Dorton. Team owner Whiting says she subsequently cut Thames, a bold move considering that the Stingrayz do not have a full roster. Dorton is also gone from the team already, replaced by former Foothill College player Harry Gamble. And off the field, several Tsunamis-turned-Stingrayz are involved in a financial dispute with Brown relating to last season.
The Stingrayz's biggest rivals, in the athletic sense, are across the bay, where Oakland Banshees owner Kisha Frady has hired Alonzo Carter, who coached the Tsunamis for much of last season. Frady says she initially went to see Carter to apologize on behalf of the league for the problems he encountered with the San Francisco Tsunami.
"I came in ... to thank him for whatever he did for women's football," Frady explains. After a few meetings, Carter wound up coaching the Banshees, with whom he won his first women's football game earlier this month against Santa Rosa.
The real team to beat in Northern California, however, is the Sacramento Sirens. A playoff team last year, the WAFC Sirens have weathered the replacement of their entire coaching staff and injuries to at least two key players to achieve a level of success largely attributable to the very things Bay Area women's football teams lack: money, fans, sponsors, and staff. For that matter, the new Santa Rosa Scorchers also have more players, fans, and community support than any of the San Francisco or Oakland women's football teams have ever had.
There is a glimmer of hope for the general future of women's football, though. All of the WAFC team owners report that the second season of women's pro football tryouts attracted more athletes, particularly college athletes, and younger players than previous women's efforts had. And for the first time ever, a women's football player -- Val Halesworth of the New York Sharks -- is a nominee for the Women's Sports Foundation's Sportswoman of the Year honor, along with tennis ace Serena Williams and Olympic-gold-winning figure skater Sarah Hughes.