By Dirk Smith, M.Sc, SDL (He/Him)

 

David Smith 

I’m here with Diane from the International Women’s Flag Football Association, thank you for joining me, Diane. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your work with the association?

 

Dianne 

I’m the president and founder of the International Women’s Flag Football Association, we are a woman’s organization that uses the sport of flag football to empower girls and women all over the world. You read a lot of the benefits of sports and organizations; we really live up to it. The rules that we use are very much like the NFL, but there’s no helmets, no tackles. Our game includes a lot of skills to include a lot of different types of bodies; tall, short, small, etc. If you can catch the ball or not, if you’re fast or slow, it doesn’t matter. You can do blocking or kicking and the whole strategy for women. The IWFFA has a very interesting upbringing. I was born in 1959, which is my generation and I’m the founder. A lot of what I do with the IWFFA comes from my experiences. I started to play flag football in the 70s where I met a man named Porter Wilson, who invented the flags in flag football. He was a fuzzy head teacher, it was in 1950s where, in one of his gym classes, the boys were playing football and one of the boy’s shirts got ripped. So instead of tackle, he told the boys put a flag in your pocket and grab it. So, meeting the man later gave me some insight to flag football. There was no central organization in the United States. You don’t have sports as organized as other countries, like if you go to other countries around the world and start a sport, you must fall under their umbrella. It’s much more organized than what we do. We go to a bar and ask the bar owner if they would sponsor us, we’ll come back here and drink after the games. That’s it and you got a league. When we played, all the coaches and officials were men. I didn’t know much about the game, my coaches told me to watch NFL, and that was my mentor, and I was taught how to play flag football where take a hard hit or take her out. It took me some years to realize that’s not the game for women, we’re very different. That’s not in our nature. You have some women who are that aggressive and they love to tackle, so power to them. But the sport really is beautiful for girls and women because of the strategy and that you’re just simply grabbing a flag, which changes the nature of the game compared to tackle. That’s the beginning we had and then I moved to Brooklyn and started the Brooklyn Women’s Flag Football League which expanded into the New York Women’s Flag Football League. After that I moved to Key West Florida and started the Key West Women’s Flag Football League, but we didn’t have enough teams to have a good competition. So, I started this tournament that turned out to be the Kelly McGillis Classic and it was the largest in the world. at the time. 2001 was our largest year, with 48 teams including nine that were international. We had teams from all over. 1995 was when we started the IWFFA and in those day there was there was no internet and no central office. At that time, someone in Key West asked me how I got that team from San Francisco, and I had no idea. It was just word of mouth. That’s when I realized it was time to start the National Women’s Flag Football Association. The Canadians joined us, and they were offended that we would call ourselves national, so I said, “okay, time for the International” and it took off. I started to travel to other countries, Denmark in 97, Norway in 98, the Nordic Region, that was Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark in the year 2000. I was just going on a roll; I was young, and the sport was exciting. Coming up this year, the Kelly McGillis Classic will have its 30th Championship. Four different divisions and international teams this year from Morocco, Jamaica, El Salvador, Honduras, Pakistan as well as the United States.

David Smith 

What has been your most exciting part of this journey?

 

Dianne 

The most exciting travels that I’ve done is, in 2018, I was invited by the Afghans, to introduce the sport to them so I tried to go to Afghanistan then but couldn’t quite make it as the war was going on. India was a place that we could meet. So, I traveled to India when it was summertime, it was 110 degrees and met with the Afghan women, taught them how to play, coach, and officiate. They brought it back to Afghanistan. Today, as you know, the US left Afghanistan. So now the Taliban are back, and women are being persecuted. So, we realized we needed to get our flag football women out because they’re in hiding right now. We’re in the process of bringing them to Key West, Florida to work and live. They’ll have jobs, they’ll have housing, they’ll have legal residency in United States. We’re just waiting for that airplane to get them out of Kabul, and then they’ll be here. So that’s exciting.

 

David Smith 

Wow! So, you’ve traveled all over the world and have had a huge influence in creating and inspiring the women’s flag football leagues in all sorts of different countries. I think it’s fantastic.

 

Dianne 

It’s my journey, David, I’m following the universe and it has been amazing. When I go to these countries. I explain our philosophy, that we want women to rule their own sport. I remember once sitting in front of these guys, the directors from India and Afghanistan. I was explaining to them that the women must be in charge. Ironically, the Afghan fellow completely understood and said, “that’s exactly what we want for our women.” We wanted to change their culture and at that point, it was almost 20 years under Taliban influence. For the Indian guy, I must say, it didn’t exactly turn out the way we wanted. We want the women to be leaders of this sport in their countries. That is crucial. Sometimes when I go to a country, I’ve had some bad experiences. One year, I was contacted by a fellow in Ghana. I have no contacts in Africa, but we had been communicating for three months, I felt comfortable. So, I bought my ticket to Ghana and the last week before I left, he completely stopped communicating with me. So, I didn’t go. He wanted us to teach the men how to play tackle football and I told him no, we’re a women’s organization. He insisted that he wanted us to teach the boys how to play tackle and I said again, “no, we’re women’s organization.” I said, “well, what we can do is, I’ll travel to Ghana to teach the women, they can teach the men.” But as I said, the communication ended there. So, it is amazing.

 

David Smith 

It’s a process working with different cultures. Sometimes it’s hard to convince the men of that culture of what exactly the mission is and what you want to accomplish there.

 

Dianne 

That’s a good point you raised because in the very beginning, I did think about the culture of the countries. That’s why Scandinavia was picked, for several reasons. Primarily because the women are equal to the men, and we realize that right away, but then other countries i’ve been to, like Cuba, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Central America, and for those women in those countries, the men dominate. The women are fed up and when they understood that the women must be in charge, everybody signed up. We introduced the sport in Guatemala and El Salvador, it helps when we bring the sport to a country that doesn’t have flag football, we teach them how to play clean and the philosophy. So Central America is very tight with one another, and the women who are part of that Latin culture, they got fire in their bellies. They can be emotional and there are times where we must intervene, the IWFFA, to remind them about our camaraderie with the other teams and countries. That’s the most important thing I learned from Scandinavia was the camaraderie which was interesting.

David Smith 

Was there a time you realized that women’s sport needed to be approached differently than men?

 

Dianne 

When I was in Denmark in 97 and this Danish woman was asking me, after I just explained to her about X’s and O’s offense and defense, she points to the X for the quarterback. If you know anything, you have the line, you have five on the scrimmage, line and then you have three in the backfield. So, she says “what’s the name of this position?” And I said, quarterback, so she says, “but why do you call this person a quarterback? There’s only three players there.” That was in 1997 and I realized then how influenced I am by men’s sports. So, the reason why we go into these different countries is because they don’t see tackle football on TV, they haven’t been influenced by men playing the sport. The Afghan women’s team was our prototype. I coached the women and they brought it back to Afghanistan. So, when they come to Key West Florida that’ll be amazing to see how their style of playing has developed. That’s what we want to see, because we think different, our bodies are different, and we haven’t had the chance to develop for our own spirit. So, let me ask you, what country do you think has the most equality with men and women?

 

David Smith 

I want to say it’s one of the Nordic countries, probably Norway or Sweden.

 

Dianne 

That’s an educated guess and in those countries, there is strong equality. However, the country that, in my opinion where the women are completely equal with the men is Cuba. I went to Cuba three times, and I asked the women, what did Castro do? He opened sports for everybody, he said that black people are equal to white people and that women are equal to men. All three of those things are true in Cuba today. Those Cuban women are tough cookies, frustrating for me because they’re just 90 miles from Key West and they’re closer to us than Miami but I can’t get to them right now.

 

David Smith 

It shows that, if given that opportunity of full equality, women are just as strong, capable and can be just as successful as men. These gender barriers that we erect as a social construct really don’t matter.

 

Dianne 

I agree with you, but I think that women should not be compared with the men, it’s a different game for us. It really creates a different style as it evolves. Being first generation, all the women’s teams were so heavily influenced by the men’s teams, even still today. Now you have women’s tackle, which is great, but it’s a different sport. One of our challenges with the IWFFA and flag football today is to separate tackle from flag football. I say they are two different sports. In one, you take down your opponent and in the other, you grab a flag. But, when the game is over, you’re going to make friends and you’re going to appreciate the challenge. It’s what we do, not just the flag football, either. We have newsletters and a philosopher who brings up the topic with thoughtful ideas and considerations for our women. Next year, in El Salvador, we have a flag football festival. So, if you’ve ever heard of the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, in the 70s, there was a lot of women’s festivals. It was a safe place for lesbians. So, this Michigan Women’s Music Fest was how I was able to reach across the United States in the 90s. It’s an area for women only, clothing optional, workshops for empowerment, for music, for arts, whatever a woman would like to share with the other women. It really empowers you. When you leave the event, you really feel your female spirit is juiced up, so to speak. We’re doing the same in El Salvador and it’s a camping event. You bring your tent, it’s a week-long event, we feed you, and every day we will have clinics on every flag football position, but we also offer indigenous women poetry, drumming, women’s music, and after one week, women should feel empowered.

 

David Smith 

Wow, it sounds like it’ll be a really great event.

 

Dianne 

Yeah, it’s a unity of women, and that is using sports. That’s profound. We really promote femininity and empowerment; we push the limits of it. We’ve expanded into Asia and Africa now. What’s interesting for us is we are entering countries that, compared to the Western world, are very different. In these countries, the men are in charge and there is a need for the IWFFA to empower those women.

 

David Smith 

Wonderful! If you don’t mind me switching gears a little bit, can you tell me more about what to look forward to in the Kelly McGillis Classic this year?

 

Dianne 

We have 31 teams for the official 30th Kelly McGillis Classic. Last year would have been the 30th but COVID restricted national and international teams from participating. So, we have we have teams from Morocco, India, Jamaica, El Salvador, Honduras, Sweden, Honduras, and El Salvador. Also, we have teams from across the United States including Colorado, Texas, St. Louis, New York, Washington DC, and California. So, it’s really a wonderful experience. What we do that I think every sports program it should do is we have a “loose women’s team,” loose players, that is women who don’t have a team, but they want to play. These individual women come to Key West, the night before or the week before, because we have events during that whole weeklong. They’re there to play. It is special for those individual athletes, “once a will lose woman always a loose woman”, we have structured social events in the evenings and there is only one party with all the teams that come together. They party and make friends. So, the next day, the games are much nicer. There is really the difference with the Kelly McGillis Classic these days versus years ago. I mentioned 2001 was our largest event. We had some mean teams that would hit hard, take dirty shots and all that stuff. Then came tackle and in 2001. we had a lot of men come to watch the games. They were scouting our flag football teams, and they picked them up to help seed women’s tackle today. They took those athletes who were extreme, who liked to hit hard, who liked to tackle, and they went off to form the women’s tackle leagues. We got what was left which was a smaller group who still wanted to play. So today, what’s built up our numbers is that every summer I travel around the world to recruit new teams. This year, I went to Mexico and Jamaica, next year I plan to go to Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Spain, Honduras. I go with other women who are my proteges so they can continue when I am gone. What’s been started with this organization and what it’s all about in terms of unity, empowerment, and to play football. That’s the challenge on the field. But it’s a unity off the field as well.

 

David Smith 

Awesome. That sounds like it’s going to be a fun, good camaraderie, and lots of social events. Just some good old fashioned, fun sports.

 

Dianne 

The week has lots of fun events, we have such crazy things like “save the drunken sailor”, where someone goes out to the water, pretends they’re drowning, and teams have got to race to save this drowning person, but there’s in a rubber raft, no oars. We also have the toilet paper relay race; they’re going to run around the streets of Key West for a roll of toilet paper. We also have a big arm-wrestling contest, with all these international teams, it gets big. We have the Women’s Speaker Series, and these women from these countries will share what it’s like to live as a woman in their country. We have the regular parties; they love to drink and party. That’s our week of activities, then we give out awards and it’s nice. We guarantee three games per team so it’s not a single elimination or a double elimination. We give the teams as many games as possible. A lot of times we’ll put all the teams in the playoffs. Since it’s in Key West Florida in the end of January, the weather is nice. This tournament that started at the International Women’s Flag Football Association. Kelly McGillis herself will be here.

 

David Smith 

I was wondering, who is Kelly McGillis?

 

Dianne 

She is an actress; she was in some movies. Top Gun was her biggest with Tom Cruise, she was also in a movie called Witness with Jodie Foster. She mostly does plays like Shakespeare. She also owns a restaurant in Key West called Kelly’s Caribbean Bar, Grill and Brewery. So, I just went to her one day and I thought wouldn’t it be nice for us to have a classic flag football tournament? And I just asked her if we could we use her name. She says, first you must have girls included and second, you must have a parade. How wonderful because we have what a hokey parade and it’s really a lot of fun.

 

David Smith 

That’s awesome! Do you have any final message you’d like to share?

 

Dianne 

With the girls’ teams, many of whom I coach, I ask them in the beginning of the year. “If you’re going to die tomorrow, and today’s your last flag football game, would you rather win 100 nothing or lose six to seven?” Almost all of them say they want to win. But then at the end of the year, I asked them again and they’ll say they want the challenge. They’d rather lose six to seven, they start to get it. That’s what we’re all about.

 

 

David Smith 

Wonderful! We are looking forward to seeing you on January 24th – 30th for the Kelly McGillis Classic in Key West, FL! Find more information at https://iwffa.com/

Photos Courtesy of Diane and IWFFA