Women's football players' passion is priceless

While the NFL and its players were meeting in fancy Park Avenue boardrooms deciding how to divvy up $9 billion, the players of the Women's Football Alliance were running routes on the gridiron for a more valuable reason -- love of the game.

And love, it turns out, isn't free. Participation in the WFA is contingent upon meeting a $1,000 player fee, which is required of all athletes who want to play.

"To have to go through so much effort to play is frustrating," said Lauren Pringle, wide receiver for the New York Sharks, the WFA's oldest team, having begun as a member of the Women's Professional Football League in 2000. "To see [NFL players] fighting over millions more dollars than they already have is upsetting. What they make in one game could fund our entire season. Heck, they could give us the change in their couch."

The WFA, which began play in 2009, is a nationwide league of 60 teams in the United States -- but this is not your mother's powder puff gang and it's light-years away from MTV's scantily clad "Lingerie Football League." The WFA gives everyday women with the financial means the opportunity to participate in full-contact tackle football.

Fees vary for each team and cover the cost of equipment, field rentals, travel and other team needs. Because athletes have to meet fee requirements, they maintain jobs off the field. With the 44 players on the Sharks, occupations range from student to project manager to information technology specialist.

Despite all obstacles, players of the WFA can't see their lives without the game.

"One of our teammates told a New York Giants player she played in the WFA and didn't get paid. He asked, 'Then why do you play?'" said Sharks quarterback Karen Mulligan. "He forgot about the love of the game."

Pringle added: "I played a lot of softball and track growing up but never loved a sport more than I love football."

Because there's no salary to be had, players get into the league for a variety of reasons.

"Three years ago the roller-skating-themed movie 'Whip It' was released, so I was searching the Internet for local roller derby teams," said Sarah Schkeeper, a Sharks guard. "The ad for the New York Sharks kept popping up on the website so I decided to check it out."

Sharks fullback Yatia Hopkins had a more conventional reason: "I played basketball throughout high school and played football with my brothers when I was younger. When I graduated college I was depressed and getting fat so one of my friends told me to try out for the WFA team."

These women were forced to make a huge financial decision by joining the Sharks, one of the most expensive teams to maintain because of the Big Apple's cost of living. It costs approximately $100,000 to maintain the team during the regular season, according to Sharks general manager Crystal Turpin. Poor ticket sales -- $2,000 per game for the Sharks -- and lack of sponsorships keep most WFA teams, including the Sharks, in the red.

Few teams are fortunate enough to garner enough money and wins to make it to the playoffs. This season, the San Diego Surge take on the Boston Militia in the WFA championship game on July 30. The New York Sharks were eliminated in the first round, which was ironically fortunate -- they no longer had to worry about funding trips deeper into the playoffs. Squads have forfeited playoff games due to insufficient travel budgets.

Bickering NFL owners and players could learn something from the women of the WFA, who have no price for their pigskin passion.

"Honestly, when I listen to NFL lockout discussions I'm jealous," said Pringle. "It pisses me off that they don't appreciate what they have. If I could play football full- time and just not have to pay, I would be a happy woman."