This team won back-to-back national championships in 2015 and 2016 and another in 2006. They’ve taken home 14 division titles and have made 15 playoff appearances in their almost 20-year history. The D.C. Divas are a full-tackle women’s football team with a roster of over 60 players, and they’re based right here in the District. But they play their games in front of half-empty stands.
On Monday, Jan. 14, female football players from across the country, including some members of the Divas, held a press conference on the steps of the NFL headquarters in New York City, where they asked for greater recognition of women’s football. The press conference was framed in terms of “football equality,” and participants called for the to NFL establish a Women’s National Football League by 2020. They demanded that 0.1 percent of all NFL players’ salaries, which amounts to over $10 million dollars annually, be diverted to funding the women’s league. In addition, they asked that each NFL team establish a semi-professional sister team.
“With the NFL’s massive popularity and fan support, we believe the WNFL would quickly become a profitable sports league and establish one of the strongest fan bases in women’s sports,” read a Facebook post on Victorious, a page dedicated to a documentary about the Divas.
The Divas, founded in 2000, are part of the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA), which includes over 50 teams in cities from Los Angeles to New York. But the players don’t make any money playing; in fact, they have to pay to play. Most of the players on the Divas have full-time jobs in addition to their football schedule, and many of them have spent thousands of dollars just to participate in the sport.
Amanda Congialdi, the Divas’ 26-year-old quarterback, has been playing football since she could walk. She began her semi-pro career with the Philadelphia Phantomz before joining the Divas in 2015.
“Football was the first sport that I ever remember playing,” she said. “It’s a sport that really drives me as a woman because I get to do something that’s deemed a man’s sport.”
Kristin Jones, one of the Divas’ offensive linewomen, has been with the team for three seasons. She is a financial business consultant by day and joined the team when one of her sorority sisters, who also plays for the Divas, encouraged her to come to tryouts.
“I never knew that I could play football until I was introduced to the Divas. I just assumed that it was a guys-only type of deal where I would only be able to play in a flag capacity,” Jones said. “I didn’t realize that the opportunity existed.”
Jones was formerly a tennis player and a cheerleader, but she said football is the most physical sport she has ever played. The sport’s competitiveness drew her in, she said. But, with no trace of irony, she also described herself as a girly girl from Queens, New York.
“My favorite part about playing for the Divas is being part of a really fought-for legacy,” Jones said. “I love being a Diva just in the name, but also coming out, being proud, representing this area, and just building on that legacy. I like being a part of that. It makes me feel proud.”
Congialdi echoed Jones’s sentiments about the team’s success and legacy. Both women expressed their pride in being able to play for a team that has been at the forefront of women’s football for almost two decades.
“It’s really an established culture here,” she said. “There are no exceptions, no excuses. Everybody is treated the same.”
The players and staff alike repeated two things in their interviews: the feeling of camaraderie within the team as well as the need for more community support. Many of them emphasized that being on the team has led to lifelong friendships. Rachel Worsham, a former player and current member of the team’s staff, is married to one of her former teammates. Worsham said that another player had to be positioned between them on the field at one point because when the two were next to each other, they couldn’t stop talking.
In 2016, after the Divas defeated the Dallas Elite to win the 2015 WFA national championship, the team was invited to the White House for a ceremony to recognize their achievements. It was the first ceremony of its kind—a president had never before honored a women’s football team in such a way. Their successes and achievements are undeniable, but still, even after an invitation to the White House, these women still lack widespread recognition.
“We need support because a lot of people don’t know about women’s football. The only thing they know is the Lingerie League, which is cool, or flag football. It’s a whole league, three or four leagues, that people don’t know about. We’re playing good football,” strong safety Quiana Ford said. The Lingerie Football League, which was rebranded as the Legends Football League in 2013, is a women’s full-tackle football organization where the uniforms are intentionally revealing.
The team just started practicing and will play their games at the St. James in Springfield, Va., which is 450,000 square feet with space for every sports-related activity a person could imagine. Worsham said one of the reasons she is excited for the team to be based there is because there are always a million things going on around them, from high school lacrosse games to fencing tournaments to ice hockey matches. She hopes that when all of these people see a women’s football practice, their interest will be piqued.
“We’re super excited to be here because there’s all kinds of people around all the time,” Worsham said. “So even if they’re not buying a ticket to see the game, they’re gonna be like, ‘Oh, there’s a women’s football game going on, what is this?’”
Head coach Greg Gaskins, who has been coaching the Divas since 2013, noted that he has seen recognition of the Divas increase over the past six years. He started playing football in fifth grade and played at the University of Pittsburgh on a full scholarship. But coaching is only a part-time job for him. He also works as a business manager at Friendship Public Charter School by day.
“Like any football team or any team, we’re gonna have different players, different skill levels, different dynamics, different personalities,” Gaskins said. “But I feel like with the Divas, because this is something these women are doing technically on the side. They’re not getting paid to play. This is something they’re doing for the love of the game.”
Despite all of the team’s triumphs, including the three national championships they’ve won, they still face many obstacles. Though the team makes some money from ticket sales and sponsorships, according to Worsham, each team member had to spend roughly $800 to play last year. They also have to purchase their own gear, equipment, and uniforms, which can cost hundreds of dollars each. Worsham, who became the Divas’ only started her job as director of football operations at the end of 2018, adjudicates toll violations by day. She said that the team’s new owner, Rich Daniel, has made an effort to decrease costs associated with playing.
Daniel became the team’s owner in October 2018. Though he had already been working with the Divas as a general manager, his background is in local TV news, and he was once a videographer for the Washington Redskins. But despite all of the obstacles—from not being considered a professional team, to not being paid, to having to work full-time jobs instead of playing full-time football—and all of the lack of recognition, most of the Divas are optimistic for the future, one that includes a profession women’s football league.
“I do feel like it is realistic,” Congialdi said. “Just seeing the growth of women’s football from when I started to now—it’s grown tremendously.”
She pointed out the existence of women’s football camps, something that Gaskins also spoke about. Last year, the Redskins put on a clinic as part of their Women of Washington program, a club for female fans. At this particular camp, hundreds of women participated. Congialdi also noted that many of the coaches for women’s football teams are former NFL or college players and coaches.
“I’m very hopeful,” she said. “Not just because of [these opportunities], but because we have a drive and passion, and it’s very evident.”
Gaskins said that from the time he started coaching to now, many people have become aware of women’s football, and more women want to come out and play. Curtina Pope, who started playing for the Divas last season, said that she wants women’s football to have not just support, but respect, too.
“A lot of people don’t know who we are or what we do and that this is real,” Pope said. “I want us to be respected, I want us to be televised, I want us to be paid like everyone else.”
The team’s fans are split roughly 50-50 between men and women. “We offer a family-friendly environment, and you see that reflected in fans from all over the DMV,” Daniel said. “Fans at our games are able to come onto the field at the end of games to meet our players, get autographs, play catch, etc.”
Their season begins on April 13 with a home game against the Pittsburgh Passion at the St. James. Daniel said that the Divas will be the first women’s football team to play there. The team hopes that with the new facility and the push for greater visibility, they will finally get the recognition they deserve.
“I think the biggest [obstacle] is getting people to know about us and getting people to come out and support us,” Worsham said. “Because it’s one thing to say women’s sports are great, but it’s another thing to actually show up at the door.”
Right before she stepped on the field for practice, Congialdi mentioned that she does not understand why there isn’t professional women’s football.
“I think the quality of play is just as good as men,” Congialdi said. “Anyone I’ve ever brought to a game is always like, ‘This is football: not women’s football, not men’s football, but football.’”
She ran onto the field and stood front and center, ready for practice to start.
This post has been updated.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the events of a Divas practice. They had a normal practice, not one shortened due to a logistical error.