Sacramento Sirens über alles

Stronger than hype or bobbleheads, Sacramento’s reigning championship franchise proves the power of Title IX

Sirens co-owner Gayle Totton with her dream team: (from left) “Diamond” Lill Jarrell, Julie “Wicked” Wicher and Michelle “Mighty Mouse” Kahler.

Sirens co-owner Gayle Totton with her dream team: (from left) “Diamond” Lill Jarrell, Julie “Wicked” Wicher and Michelle “Mighty Mouse” Kahler.

Photo By Jill Wagner

The road’s been bumpy: three leagues in three years, a new home field this season, perpetual battles with stereotypes, meager public recognition and now new challenges to federal Title IX legislation concerning women’s sports. But don’t expect any mournful self-pity from the Sacramento Sirens, who, as Sacramento’s only reigning championship professional sports franchise, might be the best team you haven’t seen play.

That the women earn their glory in the macho world of smash-mouth football is only the icing on the cake for a team and a concept most people thought would never last. The Sirens have prospered on the field—they made the playoffs in their inaugural season and followed with an undefeated championship season last fall in which they won virtually every game by at least 40 points—while earning enough money to pay themselves and to claw their way into a nationwide league of teams with as much oomph as the Sirens’ linebacker corps. The 27-team Independent Women’s Football League (IWFL), which carefully pre-screens all new teams to ensure their fiscal stability, is a definite step up from the now-defunct Women’s Affiliated Football Conference, both financially and competitively. Team co-owner Gayle Totton said there are plenty of people to credit for the team’s rapid progress.

“We got here through a lot of grassroots work from the players, owners and staff,” said Totton, one of the team’s six owners. With the help of about a dozen volunteers, the owners have kept the team going in spite of league and venue changes (the Sirens played last season at Cosumnes River College, but games are now held at the Capital Christian Center in Rancho Cordova). “We post fliers, we introduce ourselves after games, and we get involved in the community. We even had two players from last year who won an award from the Sacramento Mental Health Association for taking at-risk kids out and teaching them how to play football,” she said.

Still, a winning franchise requires more than just “nice” players. So far this season, the Sirens have won their first five games by an average of nearly 50 points. Led by such star players as halfback Julie “Wicked” Wicher and linebacker “Diamond” Lill Jarrell (who is also one of the owners), the Sirens consistently have shown up on game day ready to decimate whatever collection of poor souls stands between the Sirens and another bruising victory.

Approximately 1,000 fans venture out to each of the Sirens’ home games, the next of which is this Saturday against the San Francisco Stingrayz. Like most of Sacramento’s die-hard sports fans, Sirens supporters want to have a team that knows how to win it all. The Kings may get there still, but the Sirens already have arrived.

Lea Adams of West Sacramento said she’s made it to almost every Sirens home game in the last two years. Aside from a lifelong affinity for the Oakland Raiders, she said she doesn’t follow professional sports too closely and originally only came to see them because her brother’s girlfriend was on the team. But that first game intrigued her, and she has kept coming back.

“I really didn’t know what to expect at first,” said Adams, “but I’ve been very impressed with how well they play the game and how hard. These women really tear it up on the field, and they’re a lot of fun to watch.”

Not everyone is so enthralled. Jerry Phillips of Sacramento has not made it to any games, nor does he intend to. Phillips played varsity basketball at the University of Southern California in the late 1970s and has stayed close to sports as a radio commentator and a fan for years. He said that although football is his favorite sport, the Sirens should not count on seeing him at a game anytime soon.

“I have no interest in seeing women’s sports at all,” he said. “Why spend my hard-earned discretionary dollars on what is basically a minor league when I can go home and watch the NFL? If I want to see great athleticism and great competition, I can do it from the comfort of my own living room.”

Overcoming skepticism and the accompanying stereotypes of female athletes is certainly nothing new to the Sirens. The violent nature of football, which, under most conditions, really screams testosterone, only makes the situation worse. Much like the better-known and better-financed WNBA Monarchs, the Sirens have heard the constant snickering about everything from the place women have in professional sports to open commentary about the players’ sexuality.

For the players, dispelling doubts about their toughness isn’t difficult. “I would tell anyone who questions how well or how hard we play to just put on the pads and come join us,” said Sirens tight end Sarah Trobee, echoing the sentiments of the majority of her teammates.

“This is, without question, hard-hitting, helmet-crashing, real football,” added Totton. That point is hard to deny. The benefit of smaller crowds is being close enough to hear the action on the field, which sounds at times like a major car wreck. The only gender issue Totton said she has seen to date is the women’s dislike for wearing previously worn shoulder pads and helmets. (Each player now buys her own.) Otherwise, the game is played with all the intensity and physicality of the Sirens’ male counterparts, which has led some critics to talk more about perceived sexual preferences than touchdowns.

Totton is aware of the issue but has chosen a distinct strategy of non-confrontation to deal with it. She remembers clearly the public-relations fiasco brought on by the Monarchs when the team tried to discourage lesbian groups from coming en masse to Arco Arena, an experience that has encouraged her to run a different route. It might be the only thing the organization chooses to go around instead of straight through.

“We could always fight that perception statistically, but it’s not something relevant to what we’re doing here,” she said, adding that, though there are players on the team who are lesbians, the majority of Sirens do not fit that image. “There is actually much less of that perception in the stands because we have so many of our players who bring their husbands and kids to the games. We know the perception is out there, but it hasn’t become an issue for us here on the team. We just play football.”

One issue Sirens players and owners have become outspoken about is Title IX, the threatened 30-year-old federal legislation that opened the doors for women to play sports at both the high-school and college levels.

“It’s a scary thing,” said Totton. “So many of our players have come from playing sports in college, even if it is not football. Without Title IX, which basically only says that if you have a men’s team, then you have to have a women’s team, then there would not be a women’s football league.”

Although possible revisions to Title IX will not hurt the current Sirens squad, Totton knows that anything that changes the sporting landscape for women eventually could cause a massive ripple effect that greatly damages teams like hers.

The Bush administration became interested in Title IX after an increasing number of coaches and administrators around the country began claiming the statute was unfair to male athletes and financially burdensome to cash-strapped institutions. To date, an advisory panel appointed by the president has not made any changes, but deliberations continue. Since the law went into effect in 1972, the number of women participating in collegiate sports has increased by more than 400 percent. The number of girls in high-school sports has increased by close to 850 percent. But, in that same time, hundreds of men’s teams have been eliminated, leading to constant speculation that the law will be altered in a way that greatly reduces the number of athletic opportunities for females, which, in turn, could lead to fewer female athletes.

The Sirens have joined with the Monarchs to lobby George W. Bush and Secretary of Education Roderick Paige to preserve Title IX. The Sirens have installed a link on their Web site to an online petition carried by the Monarchs that will be forwarded to Bush and Paige. The significance of the issue is not lost on the players.

“The skills we learn in the sports that we play help us in life in general,” said Trobee, who played basketball in college at Humboldt State University. “Being part of a team, learning how to be a leader and how to compete in life comes from playing sports.”

“Title IX is only about equal opportunity,” said Sirens halfback and 2002 Rookie of the Year Michelle “Mighty Mouse” Kahler, who played collegiate basketball at the University of California, Irvine. “We need to get the word out to women and men, boys and girls, through our example as athletes, that it is good to play sports; that it will help you to grow as a person athletically, mentally and emotionally; and that Title IX is a part of that.”

So far, the Sirens seem to have events on the field under control. Time will tell if Washington is reading from the same playbook.