“Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and make a trail.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson) That quote appears at the beginning of the documentary “The Herricanes,” which played at the Nashville Film Festival on Monday, October 1, 2023.
Olivia Kuan’s Mom played football. Olivia thought it was something any girl could do. Upon learning how unique her mother’s experience was, the young filmmaker decided to document her mother, Basia Haszlakiewicz’s, participation in the female football leagues of the seventies. Basia played for the Houston Herricanes in the NWFL (National Women’s Football League.)
Ms. Kuan’s excellent documentary traces the origins of female contact football. She interviewed many members of several teams; she has done a great job of labeling each interview subject onscreen. Olivia Kuan’s research and editing team did an even better job gathering and assembling the interviews into a coherent whole.The archival production team consisted of Kelsey Carr and researcher Chris Morcam. Still photographs and film footage from the actual games take us back in time.
The documentary embraces the concept”it’s okay for women to be whole people.” Another truth the film underscores is: “It’s important to create a world that welcomes everyone.” Interesting timing. Olivia Hill, the first trans-gender woman to hold office in Nashville, was sworn in this very day as one of 5 council-members at large for the Metro area. (Meanwhile, the state of Tennessee has banned drag shows.)
The entire idea of letting women play contact football grew out of the cultural shift of Title IX in 1972. Title IX said that no school could discriminate on the basis of sex in extra-curricular offerings in public schools. Today’s youth don’t remember what a sea change this was.
Olivia’s mother, Basia Haszlakiewicz, played for the Houston Herricanes in the seventies. To the argument women “don’t want to play contact sports” the rebuttal was,”They’ve never been given the opportunity to see if they want to play football.” Today, one of the early supporters of female football runs Gridiron Girls camps.
Be the Revolution
As the film emphasizes, it is not easy to be first.
Four National Women’s Football League teams were founded in 1974. Among the teams participating over the years were the Toledo Troopers, the Dallas Bluebonnets, the Los Angeles Dandelions, the Dallas/Ft. Worth Shamrocks, the Oklahoma City Dolls, the San Antonio Flames, and the Houston Herricanes.
There were initially 14 teams with 3 divisions. The power team was Oklahoma City. In fact, the Oklahoma City Dolls didn’t lose a game until their sixth season. The Dolls put a real beat-down on the Herricanes in their first meetings. Oklahoma averaged 35 points a game and routinely beat the early versions of the Herricanes by scores as lopsided as 40 to 0 and/or 56 to 0.
But the Herricanes steadily improved and were competitive near the end of the league’s existence. The players had to buy their own equipment ($88,15 in Olivia’s Mom’s case) and it took $50,000 to keep a team afloat. There were more people on the field than in the stands. This did not help the financial situation of the league. The comment is made that parity for women in any sport is yet to be achieved.
The documentary also made it clear that support for women’s contact football in Europe is much stronger, citing the 2019 World Championship in Leeds, England. Teams thrive in countries like Sweden, Finland, New Zealand, Germany and England.
As for the original NWFL teams, they began to fold in ’78 (Los Angeles Dandelions) and ’79 (Toledo Troopers, Oklahoma City Dolls, Houston Herricanes,) Some (the Dallas/Ft. Worth Shamrocks) had folded earlier. The 1979 Championship game was canceled.
“The Herricanes” was a highly entertaining and engaging trip back in time. It has a great message for the future about inclusivity. One of the best documentaries here at the 52nd Nashville Film Festival.