Raising the Bar: The Columbus Pacesetters
Posted May 2, 2022
Topics: Sports

By Quincy Balius, Education and Manuscripts Intern

Women have played football in Ohio for decades. In 1965, women’s football teams from Akron and Cleveland began playing games across the Midwest.(1) Nine years later, the National Women’s Football League (NWFL) formed in 1974. The NWFL was the “first official professional women’s football league in U.S. history.”(2) The Columbus Pacesetters, one of the seven founding teams of the NWFL,(3) were Columbus’s first professional women’s tackle football team.(4) The Pacesetters were also the longest-running team in the NWFL. The women played from the inception of the NWFL in 1974 until its collapse in 1988.(5)  

According to player Dana Fry, while first-time players struggled with learning the game, women often excelled by their second year on the team.(6) The Pacesetters won about half their games, a relatively good record for NFWL teams. With their strong track record, the Pacesetters won the National Women’s Football League Championship in 1979, 1980, and 1981.(7) The team’s biggest rivals were the Toledo Troopers, the winningest team in the NWFL.(8) The Troopers gained renown for “amass[ing] seven consecutive perfect seasons and becom[ing] what many consider the winningest team in professional football history.”(9) While the Troopers have become legendary, most Ohioans have forgotten the Pacesetters, despite their influence on the state’s history. 

The Pacesetters also played some of their games for charity. For instance, they played one of their 1976 games against the Toledo Troopers “for the benefit of Muscular Dystrophy.”(10) 

Game program for a match between the Toledo Troopers and Columbus Pacesetters from September 13, 1975.

Game program for a match between the Toledo Troopers and Columbus Pacesetters from September 13, 1975.

Tina Adams, offensive guard for the Columbus Pacesetters, a National Women's Football League team.

Tina Adams, offensive guard for the Columbus Pacesetters, a National Women's Football League team.

The Pacesetters were an important part of LGBTQ history in Ohio. Like the Troopers players, many of the women who played for the Pacesetters were gay. For example, when Pacesetters player Patricia Lee Hambrick died in 1997, her obituary listed her partner Cynthia Moffet as her “special friend.”(11) Often, players joined the team after hearing about it through word-of-mouth at Columbus lesbian bars like Summit Station.(12) The 1989 ”Lavender Listing,” a directory of LGBTQ-owned and LGBTQ-friendly businesses, recorded the Pacesetters as the only LGBTQ sports team in Columbus.(13) Additionally, according to Sports Illustrated, the Columbus Pacesetters were the only team in the NWFL who had cheerleaders. The Pacesetters cheerleaders were primarily gay men.(14) 

However, the Pacesetters promoted their games as “family-friendly entertainment” to draw broader audiences. The players knew that they had to compete with other sports teams and community organizations for visitors. Since the team marketed itself as being “family-friendly,” the players felt that they had to hide their sexualities in the 1970s and early 1980s. However, they received support from LGBTQ+ businesses in Columbus. Once some of the players decided to come out in the 1980s, Summit Station, a Columbus lesbian bar, took out a full-page ad supporting the team.(15) 

The Pacesetters players also identified as openly feminist and supported the women’s liberation movement. The team’s logo was “the ‘female’ symbol with a football player running through it.”(16) Though the Ohio media often criticized the players as ”unladylike,”(17) criticisms didn’t deter the team from campaigning for women’s rights. 

 

Though the Pacesetters considered themselves feminist, the team was still owned and operated by men. Gradually, the Pacesetters grew more frustrated with their management. Points of contention included player salaries, a controlling set of player rules, and ambivalent and cold communication from management.(18) Eventually, the players had enough. In 1977, Columbus Pacesetters players and their coaching staff, including head coach Norm Richardson,(19) formed the Ohio Professional Athletes Inc. to buy the team. To raise money, the players sold common stock, ads in their game programs, and tickets and concessions to Columbus residents. The LGBTQ+ community also chipped in funds to help the players buy the team.(20) The players and coaches successfully purchased the team from Toledo corporation SKW Enterprises, Inc. in May 1977.(21)  

Also in 1977, player Paralee Adams transitioned into a coaching role. According to Sports Illustrated, she was likely the first woman to ever coach professional football.(22) By the late 1980s, all three Pacesetter coaches were former or current players. Though the Pacesetters team disbanded sometime after the NWFL collapsed in 1988, many women’s teams switched over to flag football rather than tackle. In 1995, Columbus had one of the largest women’s flag football leagues in the nation, with 14 teams.(23)  

From owning their own team to female coaches, the Columbus Pacesetters achieved several “firsts” in women’s football. In the end, they truly did “set the pace” for women’s football in the future. 

The 1979 schedule for the Toledo Troopers, a National Women's Football League team.

The 1979 schedule for the Toledo Troopers, a National Women's Football League team. They played the Columbus Pacesetters on September 15 and October 6.

Footnotes

[1] Rabinowitz, Bill. "Women’s Football League Nothing New in Central Ohio.” Columbus Dispatch, The (OH), June 25, 2002: 02F. NewsBank: Access World News – Historical and Current. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=news/10DC855420A90DB0.

[2] Britni de la Cretaz and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo, “How One Women's Football Team Took Control Away from the Men,” Sports Illustrated, October 29, 2021, https://www.si.com/more-sports/2021/10/29/hail-mary-excerpt-womens-football-daily-cover (accessed February 7, 2022).

[3] Rabinowitz, Bill. "Women’s Football League Nothing New in Central Ohio.” Columbus Dispatch, The (OH), June 25, 2002: 02F. NewsBank: Access World News – Historical and Current. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=news/10DC855420A90DB0.

[4] "Obituaries." Columbus Dispatch, The (OH), September 22, 2018: 6B. NewsBank: Access World News – Historical and Current. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=news/16EA47A32F0A05D0.

[5] Britni de la Cretaz and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo, “How One Women's Football Team Took Control Away from the Men,” Sports Illustrated, October 29, 2021, https://www.si.com/more-sports/2021/10/29/hail-mary-excerpt-womens-football-daily-cover (accessed February 7, 2022).

[6] Porch, Tom. "Tacking the (Public) Opposition - Phooey to the Ladylike Ideals Put on the Pads and Helmets.” Columbus Dispatch, The (OH), July 10, 1988: 1E. NewsBank: Access World News – Historical and Current. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=news/11B95F1C96769C40.

[7] Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio), September 23, 1982: 36. NewsBank: Access World News – Historical and Current. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=image/v2%3A1467499E363272B3%40EANX-NB-1645277E8122B05D%402445236-1644F6C3B5419164%4035-1644F6C3B5419164%40.

[8] Britni de la Cretaz and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo, “How One Women's Football Team Took Control Away from the Men,” Sports Illustrated, October 29, 2021, https://www.si.com/more-sports/2021/10/29/hail-mary-excerpt-womens-football-daily-cover (accessed March 12, 2022).

[9]  “The Ohio Women Who Dominated Professional Football,” Ohio–Champion of Sports (Ohio History Connection, January 25, 2019), https://www.ohiohistory.org/learn/ohio-champion-of-sports/2019-01/toledo-troopers.

[10] Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio), October 19, 1976: 24. NewsBank: Access World News – Historical and Current. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=image/v2%3A1467499E363272B3%40EANX-NB-16B54491E6A55A44%402443071-16B5388507C62BB0%4023-16B5388507C62BB0%40.

[11] https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=news/10DF3B9EAE1C42A0&f=basic

[12] Britni de la Cretaz and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo, “How One Women's Football Team Took Control Away from the Men,” Sports Illustrated, October 29, 2021, https://www.si.com/more-sports/2021/10/29/hail-mary-excerpt-womens-football-daily-cover (accessed February 7, 2022).

[13] Lavender Listings 1989, directory, 1989, Stonewall Union of Columbus, HA 105 Phil Pishitelli Collection, Columbus Metropolitan Library, Columbus, Ohio, https://digital-collections.columbuslibrary.org/digital/collection/memory/id/111227/rec/28 (Accessed March 21, 2022).

[14] Britni de la Cretaz and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo, “How One Women's Football Team Took Control Away from the Men,” Sports Illustrated, October 29, 2021, https://www.si.com/more-sports/2021/10/29/hail-mary-excerpt-womens-football-daily-cover (accessed March 12, 2022).

[15] Britni de la Cretaz and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo, “How One Women's Football Team Took Control Away from the Men,” Sports Illustrated, October 29, 2021, https://www.si.com/more-sports/2021/10/29/hail-mary-excerpt-womens-football-daily-cover (accessed March 12, 2022).

[16]Britni de la Cretaz and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo, “How One Women's Football Team Took Control Away from the Men,” Sports Illustrated, October 29, 2021, https://www.si.com/more-sports/2021/10/29/hail-mary-excerpt-womens-football-daily-cover (accessed February 7, 2022).

[17] Porch, Tom. "Tacking the (Public) Opposition - Phooey to the Ladylike Ideals Put on the Pads and Helmets.” Columbus Dispatch, The (OH), July 10, 1988: 1E. NewsBank: Access World News – Historical and Current. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=news/11B95F1C96769C40.

[18] Britni de la Cretaz and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo, “How One Women's Football Team Took Control Away from the Men,” Sports Illustrated, October 29, 2021, https://www.si.com/more-sports/2021/10/29/hail-mary-excerpt-womens-football-daily-cover (accessed March 12, 2022).

[19] Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio), August 19, 1977: 51. NewsBank: Access World News – Historical and Current. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=image/v2%3A1467499E363272B3%40EANX-NB-162FBE69DBDF60EC%402443375-162C1491EC7E0F4B%4050-162C1491EC7E0F4B%40.

[20] Britni de la Cretaz and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo, “How One Women's Football Team Took Control Away from the Men,” Sports Illustrated, October 29, 2021, https://www.si.com/more-sports/2021/10/29/hail-mary-excerpt-womens-football-daily-cover (accessed March 12, 2022).

[21] Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio), May 8, 1977: 73. NewsBank: Access World News – Historical and Current. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=image/v2%3A1467499E363272B3%40EANX-NB-162BD8CBE7DC00EF%402443272-162BCEA969609A47%4072-162BCEA969609A47%40.

[22] Britni de la Cretaz and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo, “How One Women's Football Team Took Control Away from the Men,” Sports Illustrated, October 29, 2021, https://www.si.com/more-sports/2021/10/29/hail-mary-excerpt-womens-football-daily-cover (accessed March 12, 2022).

[23] Baptist, Bob. "League of Their Own - Women Hit the Gridiron to Play Flag Football in Columbus.” Columbus Dispatch, The (OH), May 25, 1996: 10B. NewsBank: Access World News – Historical and Current. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=news/10DF8A7590D3DC80.

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