In a sport dominated by men, and a state consumed by football, there resides a semi-professional women’s football team— the Nebraska Valkyries— part of the longest running professional women’s football league, the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA), which just wrapped up its inaugural season.
Made up entirely of women and non-binary players, and coming from a diversity of backgrounds and varying levels of football experience, the Valkyries were formed in August of 2021. The goal of the organization is to empower women and girls and to promote a safe environment for them to play great football.
Women’s football, as it stands today, is an ever growing foundational shift in a sport many believe to be exclusively played by men. While the popularity and focus is primarily targeted toward the men’s side of the game, there have been women athletes choosing football as their athletic medium as far back as 1965.
It all began when a man named Sid Friedman, a talent agent, thought there was possible allure to the idea of women’s professional football. What started as small, Ohio exhibition games between one team from Cleveland and one team from Akron, sparked an era of women football players for decades to come.
After receiving positive reception to these exhibition games, Friedman created the Women’s Professional Football League (WPFL) in 1965. Within a few years, the league had grown to eight teams split into an east and west division.
While Friedman is credited with the start of women’s professional football, he was also responsible for the league’s eventual demise. Friedman’s vision wasn’t to prop up women athletes who wanted to try their hand at football, instead, his vision was rooted in monetary value and publicity. Friedman had ideas of sexualizing the players, wanting to add mini skirts and tear-away jerseys, but these sexist ideals didn’t come without opposition.
In 1974, team owners from across the country came together to form their own league separate from Friedman’s WPFL, the National Women’s Football Association (NWFA). The intentions of this league were more authentic, but the newly formed league faced financial hardships throughout the duration of its existence until finally dissolving in 1989.
Despite the curtains closing for the NWFA, the stage for women’s football had been set.
In the past decade, there has been exponential growth in women playing football. According to Statista, girls playing 11-player high school football in the U.S. nearly doubled from 2010-2019. It went from 1,249 girls registered in 2010, to 2,404 in 2019. The uptick in popularity among women in football can also be seen in studies done by the National Football League (NFL), who said in 2020 that women had then made up 47% of their more than 187 million fans.
The significance of these statistics cannot be overstated when you consider that only 50 years ago, before the passing of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a woman’s right to play football in high school could be simply stripped away for the sole reason of being a woman. There is no doubt it continued afterward, and even to this day, but the more women get engaged in the sport, the more inclusive and equal it will become.
Inclusivity is exactly what the Valkyries and WFA are all about.
The Nebraska Valkyries are one of 65 teams spread out all across the country that are a part of the WFA, which was established in 2009. The WFA consists of four divisions; pro, division 2 (the Valkyries division), division 3 and developmental. Division 2 is made up of 12 teams, with each team playing a six game regular season. At the end of the regular season the top eight teams from each division make the playoffs, with hopes of continuing on to the championship.
Organized by owner/player JJ Jones, the Valkyries were formed last year during the offseason when Jones and other teammates came together with a desire to play football and to bring the women’s side of the sport back to Nebraska. As a non-profit, run completely off of donations, to play on the team has nothing to do with money and everything to do with passion for the game. Currently, their home stadium is located at Ralston High School.
In an interview with NOISE during their last home game on May 21, a game they won 21-6 against the Iowa Phoenix, Jones said, “players pay to play,” devoting their own time and money to the team. Jones said, “I’m very proud of these girls. They come out and give everything, every game, every practice, and it’s a real honor to watch.”
It’s been a long journey to get where Jones is now. Jones has been playing football for over 20 years, dating back to 2000 when she lived in Connecticut. She’s been a part of numerous teams from New England to Colorado, and now Nebraska. She’s battled injuries and doubts of being able to play. “If you’d asked me five years ago if this is where I’d been, I would’ve said no,” Jones said. “Let alone playing, but owning a team is a whole other ballgame and something I would’ve never expected. I’m very grateful.”
NOISE also caught up with another Nebraska Valkyries player, Ashley Box, who was named a 1st team All American by the WFA. While still in high school, Box enlisted in basic training with the Army after her junior year, and came back her senior year in the best shape of her life. Box had been a volleyball player up to that point, but according to her, she wasn’t a “short shorts kind of girl,” so when the football coach approached her and asked if she’d rather play for the football team, it was a no brainer. In 2007, Box ended up being the only high school girl playing football in the state of Nebraska.
After finishing their first season 3-3, the Valkyries stamped their ticket to the playoffs where they eventually lost to the Houston Energy 30-7 on June 11. Although it wasn’t the ending they had in sight, the Valkyries proved they are here to stay.