Douglas, Andra. Black and Blue: Love, Sports, and the Art of Empowerment. New York: BookBaby, 2019. Pp. 310. $18 USD paperback.
Reviewed by Russ Crawford
Andra Douglas owned the New York Sharks, a women’s semi-professional football team, from 1999 to 2018. The Sharks began as a flag football team and won a national championship in that code before transitioning to full contact football. Douglas, a member of the Women’s Football Hall of Fame, was a quarterback and kicker for the team until she retired from playing. The Sharks won two national championships during their twenty years. They won the Independent Women’s Football League championship in 2002, and closed out their history by winning the Women’s Football Alliance Division 2 championship in 2018. According to the Sharks’ website, they are the only women’s team to have a jersey displayed at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, and were the first women’s team to play a halftime scrimmage at an NFL game.
Douglas took much of this story and folded it into Black and Blue: Love, Sports, and the Art of Empowerment. The book is a fictionalized version of her life in football – the names have been changed to protect the innocent, or in some cases, the guilty. Christine Davis, the name Douglas gave her fictional self, grew up in football crazy Florida, and shared an obsession for the game with her male peers. She had no problem playing, and starring in, the backyard games that defined her youth, but as she grew older, the opportunities for her to play were taken away. When her friends petitioned the high school coach to let her play on the team, he refused (30). The first part of the book followed Christine as she negotiated a world that held that girls should not hunt, fish, or especially, play football. She chafed at the constrictions that society placed on her, but she was not able to force her way onto the field.
That changed when Christine went away to New York City for university. A chance encounter introduced her to the world of women’s flag football. Despite being the lone southerner among the brash New Yorkers, she became part of the New York Sharks, or “Those Goddam Sharks,” as their opponents dubbed the unruly team. The Sharks won the Women’s Flag Football League National Tournament in Key West, Florida (58), and that accomplishment brought them to the attention of promoters who were attempting to start a women’s tackle football league. They recruited the Sharks to play against a team from (in the book) Louisiana that featured the best players from the Louisiana Vixens and the Lake Ponchartrain Minx (in reality the Minnesota Vixen and the Lake Michigan Minx). They won that 1999 game 12-6 and were offered a chance to field a team in the planned Women’s Professional Football Association (WPFL in reality), if they could find someone to put up the $50,000 franchise fee. When no one else stepped forward, Christine talked the promoter’s down to $20,000, took money from her 401k, and became the owner of the Sharks. She did this despite her misgivings about the character of the men (Douglas labeled them the “suspect trio”) running the league. Even though she was by then in her forties, the chance to live out her childhood dream of playing professional football was too great for her to pass up the opportunity.
In an interesting bit of historical symmetry, in their final game the Sharks once again defeated the Vixen 27-21, by the same six-point margin, in the 2018 WFA D2 championship game.
The first third of Black and Blue was interesting – Douglas writes well, and Christine’s (or her) frustrations as a young girl denied her place on the field came through loud and clear. Her chapters are short and present snapshots of various events in Christine’s life, rather than telling a continuous narrative, which makes the book a quick read. However, when Douglas began writing about the Shark’s first three years in the WPFA, the book kicked into high gear.
Douglas introduced the core characters – with the emphasis on “character” – that made up the Sharks. The Sharks that swam through these pages were brash, they were profane, and they were hyper aggressive, not only against their opponents but also against each other. In some cases, fights broke out on the field – not between the Sharks and their foes, but amongst the Sharks, which was how they became known as the Goddam Sharks. In her description of the players, Douglas transformed Black and Blue into a book that should stand as a must read for any who enjoy books about sports. Think Semi Tough (1977) meets Slap Shot (1977) meets Caddyshack (1980) meets the Bronx Zoo (1979).
Her character descriptions crackle with life as they live out loud. They were the components that formed a sometimes-volatile mixture that threatened to explode at any moment. They bickered with each other, insulted their teammates, and every once in a while, they noticed their opponents long enough to insult them too. But they were also talented athletes and skilled football players who typically put aside their mutual animosity long enough to win most of their games. According to Neal Rozendaal’s The Women’s Football Encyclopedia (2016), the real Sharks were 21-4 from 1999 to 2002.
One might think that Douglas engaged in some hyperbole when writing her characters, but I have interviewed some of the Sharks, and her descriptions ring true. Those impressions were reinforced after watching First Down (2002), a documentary by Eli Kabillio and Lorna Thomas. The film followed the Sharks in their first WPFL season, and the players that the filmmakers interviewed were not shy in sharing their opinions.
The reader would be mistaken, however, if they reduced this book to merely the story of a group of larger than life characters who managed to pull together at the end and (spoiler alert) win the 2002 IWFL championship.
This may be a fictionalized memoir that is entertaining, but it is also a work that illuminates the struggles that many women have faced in order to overcome societal restrictions and play a game that they loved. Christine and her Sharks dreamed of playing football, and despite sometimes facing a lack of support from family, friends, and the wider culture, they made those dreams come true. Douglas summed that up when writing about Christine getting the call from the WPFA: Thousands of females who heard about the Women’s Professional Football Association wanted a hit of the football drug, and we made it clear that we would do anything, pay any price, cross any line, do whatever it took to suit up and get onto the field. We were desperate for a fix. (81)
This is what transformed Black and Blue beyond just another football story.
In addition to capturing the trials and tribulations of shaping a squabbling group of Type A personalities into a cohesive team, Douglas also traced Christine’s story through personal relationships. She also recounted how the 9/11 terrorist attacks impacted the team and their city. The team likewise experienced personal tragedy, when Sharks’ player Sarah Parham (her name in the book) died in a vehicle accident. The tragedy brought the team together and gave them focus for the 2002 season. That season’s success was aided by an anonymous $25,000 donation (that turned out to be from Christine’s family) that allowed the Sharks to take the field and win every regular season game. A grant from former National Football League players that was matched by the NFL then provided the money to take the Sharks to the IWFL championship game on the West Coast. The book ends with the Sharks winning that title game, 24-4 (294).
In an October 2020 interview with Douglas, she told me that there might be a sequel in the works. She also has hopes to turn her book into a film, along the lines of A League of Their Own (1992). I hope this compelling story makes it to the silver screen, but if it does not, I would still recommend reading Black and Blue: Love, Sports, and the Art of Empowerment. There are very few books that tell the story of those women who put, sometimes a great deal, on the line to play tackle football, but this one sets the bar very high.
Russ Crawford is Professor of History at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio. He is currently putting the finishing touches on a history of women playing tackle football in the U.S. and around the world. Along with several chapters on sport history, he has published two books. Le Football: The History of American Football in France was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2016. His first book, The Use of Sport to Promote the American Way of Life During the Cold War: Cultural Propaganda, 1946-1963 was published by the Edwin Mellen Press in 2008.