Nikki Johnson was one of the faces of the Lingerie Football League. Yes, she was one of its hard bodies, too.
Then she had her bell rung a couple of times. She got carted off the field. She broke her wrist and had surgery.
It hurt like hell.
She started talking to some of the other players who had been dinged up (or worse); she tried organizing a meeting to discuss safety issues, and to discuss not getting paid.
And then she got kicked out of the Lingerie Football League.
I saw Nikki Johnson the other day, practicing football. At first I didn’t recognize her, because she had all her clothes on.
She wasn’t wearing much makeup. No glitter in the cleavage area, like some of the players I spoke with before the Lingerie Bowl.
Then she threw a tight spiral that traveled 30 yards. Then I knew it was her.
A couple of weeks ago some of the dinged-up lingerie football players went on TV, or at least Inside Edition, to air grievances about getting injured and not being paid. Videotaped highlights showed Nikki Johnson getting laid out with a clothesline tackle, getting elbowed to the face.
It wasn’t the first time disgruntled lingerie football players had aired grievances. In 2011, 16 of the 26 members of the team based in Toronto quit over safety concerns.
You might have heard that football is a rough sport. This is especially true when you are playing it indoors in your dainty things, with only cheesy shoulder pads and a cheesy hockey helmet for protection.
There’s a lot of stuff on these players that is exposed. Including their rib cages.
“We understand not getting paid, although we don’t really know the financials of the league,” said Johnson, who played multiple sports at Silverado High School. “We understand that. We were fine with that. It’s just the injuries.
“We had girls who were getting concussions; we had a girl last year who shattered her cheekbone. We had ACL injuries. I broke my wrist. I took a late hit in the LA game and wound up being put on a stretcher and taken to a hospital. Stuff like that is preventable. The grievance is really about safety equipment.”
A couple of years ago before one of the Lingerie Bowls, I interviewed a player who was wearing a neck brace. This was Marirose Roach of the Philadelphia team. She had broken her neck.
“I know,” Nikki Johnson said. “I was the one who took her to the hospital.”
When Marirose Roach told me her story, I remember thinking this must be legitimate football. That in a weird sort of way, injuries legitimized women playing tackle football in their dainty things.
I talked to the players, discovered that nearly all of them had run track in college, or had played volleyball or basketball or other sports. Under all that eye shadow, these were real athletes, not pseudo-strippers.
“That was a sacrifice,” Johnson said when asked if maybe she wasn’t contributing to the perception of the league as something less than legitimate football by agreeing to play sans most of her clothing. “I was OK with it. I love the game, wanted to play at the highest level. And this was the highest level.”
Johnson, 23, was speaking after a Las Vegas Showgirlz practice at Walnut Recreation Center in North Las Vegas. The Showgirlz play football outside, on a regulation field, in the Women’s Football Alliance. They wear regulation helmets and regulation shoulder pads and other equipment that is regulation, too.
The players on Johnson’s new team, who come in all shapes and sizes, do not get paid. Only there’s no empty promise that eventually they will.
“No, I’m not going to get paid in this, either,” she says, having recently graduated from business school and landed a job with Wyndham Timeshare. “But at least I’m protected.”
Officials from lingerie football would not go on camera for the Inside Edition report. I received the following statement upon requesting an interview:
“We at Legends Football League take the safety of our athletes very seriously as evident by the evolution of our equipment, medical personnel and treatment from our inception year of 2009 to today. We understand that in any contact sport injuries are sometime unavoidable; however, we as a league have continued to evaluate every piece of equipment and medical personnel to make certain we lessen the possibility of injury.”
In his state of the franchise video on the LFL website, founder Mitch Mortaza said Rawlings has developed new shoulder pads designed specifically for the LFL, and that any vestiges of lingerie have been removed from the uniforms. They are now made of compression material, he said.
He said by 2017, the LFL uniform and equipment and on-field product will look nothing like the uniform and equipment and on-field product that Nikki Johnson wore and helped build, before Mortaza sent her a terse Facebook message with swear words that said she had been fired.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.