When Odessa Jenkins typed “women’s tackle football” into her Google search bar, she didn’t expect to be set on a path that had the power to impact the lives of countless women and girls. She didn’t know that a single, fateful search would be her first step toward being the first Black female owner of a nationally recognized sports league, the Women’s National Football Conference (WNFC), a professional women’s tackle football league with over 20 teams and 1,000 women and coaches in 17 states. But it was.
Fresh out of college, freshly moved to Texas, and missing the game she’d played in her youth before being steered away and toward basketball by well-meaning (if not misguided) advisors, Odessa “just thought it would be cool” to get back to the game she had loved to play in elementary and junior high school.
Since that search, Jenkins has been named a Hall of Fame Running Back, a two time National Champion, a USA Football Team captain, and a two-time Gold Medalist. Despite all those accomplishments, many in the sports world still don’t know who she was, in large part because many didn’t know that women’s tackle football existed.
She started the WNFC to change that. “I started WNFC to get a platform and stable business to truly legitimize” women’s tackle football, Odessa said in an interview with Scary Mommy.
Women’s tackle football is not new. Odessa recounts how it’s been played for over one hundred years by women, but there’s never been a corporation to help bring it to the world stage.
“There were charities and other kinds of businesses, but never a corporation.” To Odessa, that speaks to the lack of parity in women’s sports, the lack of investment in women, and how hard it is to be taken seriously as a woman in sports.
One of the biggest challenges Odessa faces as a woman in sports is the assumption that she isn’t as well informed as the men at the table, or that she doesn’t take the game as seriously as the men do. She notes how women in sports have to not just do the same as the men beside them, but do it well and do it well for a longer period of time. “As women in sport we’re used to building tables, not coming to them.”
“Hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into male football leagues” that would complement or compete with the NFL and a lot of them have failed, according to Odessa. No one has de-legitimized the men in those leagues. But when women ask for a similar investment, the idea is laughable to some people.
“[It] should be just as reasonable to take a chance with your resources and money on women in sports as men in sports.” Odessa says that anyone who presumes to have data saying it’s unreasonable to invest in women’s sports is coming from a flawed place. No one has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in women’s football. As such, there is no data to say it wouldn’t do well.
Odessa is no stranger to taking up space in an arena that a large swath of the population believes belongs to men. Growing up, Odessa played tackle football in elementary and junior high school. Even at that young age, she was met with folks who didn’t want her in the game. She says that the boys saw her as “taking their spot.” Even parents stepped in to complain that she was taking playing time from the boys.
By the time she reached high school, Odessa had to stop playing because there was no option for girls to play football at all. “At that point, I didn’t even question that girls weren’t allowed to play.”
Odessa’s experience attempting to carve out her place in a sport she loved is why shortly after the WNFC, she founded a non-profit, called “I Got Her Back.” It’s a program to support women and girls in sports, to encourage and help girls see that there is a future for them in sports—football and otherwise. Since its founding the organization has been bombarded with messages from parents asking the foundation to reach out to their girls to show them that women belong in sports.
COVID-19 forced the WNFC to cancel their 2020 season, but things are hopeful for 2021. A significant amount of planning and discussion with medical professionals and local and state governments is making it possible for games to begin starting in May. The WNFC recently signed a global distribution deal with VYRE network, which is free to download and is available on all major streaming outlets worldwide, including Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire, Android, iOS, and will be streamed on social media.
In a press release announcing the partnership, Odessa Jenkins said, “Through our partnership with Vyre Network, the WNFC is solving a major hurdle for women’s tackle football sports fans. They will now have somewhere to go to watch our content 24 hours per day, 7 days a week.” She went on to say, “Teaming up with Lamar (Seay) and David (Hill) is also important. We are going to set the example for how Black business owners can change the world when we come together and share our gifts, creativity and resources.”
Odessa’s accomplishments on and off the field are a level above inspiring. Even more so is her dedication to use her voice and platform to lift up all women. “I think if nothing we are a company and a league that exists to impact and empower and inspire women and girls through sport. I think that’s who we are, what we represent, who we’re building for.”