By Lucy Roberts
Professional flag football player, Adrienne Smith, has recently joined the American Flag Football League (AFFL) to head up the new Women’s Division, where she will oversee football operations and increase the visibility of the sport.
The AFFL has announced that the winners of the Women’s Division will get the same amount of money that the winners of the Men’s Division will get, which is something the New York City resident is extremely proud of - especially as she has championed equality and the need for representation for all throughout her career.
Not only is Smith well renowned in the world of flag football, a variant of American football without the use of tackling where players must remove a flag or flag belt from the ball carrier without any contact, but the wide receiver has also created a card game around football which simultaneously helps kids with their maths skills, Blitz Champz.
Smith spoke about her time in Japan and why she felt like it was her home from home, her entrepreneurial side and how the AFFL is setting a great example for equality.
Q) Why did you decide to play flag football professionally?
A) My journey began when I was three years old, and I saw my first NFL game on television, and I was hooked from that point. From there when I was growing up girls weren’t really allowed to play tackle football per se. There was flag football for me in high school and then in college, but it wasn’t until I became an adult that I really became aware of the world of football for women. So, I started playing tackle football in New York City and in Boston and within that time frame I also started playing flag football and I was recruited to the US National Women’s Flag Football team in 2008 and had been playing at that time through to 2016. At this point, knowing that the American Flag Football League exists and being a part of developing the women’s division is truly a dream come true because now I’m in a position to create a platform that will allow all the other little girls out there like I used to be, the opportunity to dream for something bigger. It definitely is something that’s very close to my heart and I’m excited to be a part of it.
Q) How does it feel to represent your country at international flag football events?
A) It’s absolutely amazing, the feeling is indescribable, but I will do my best to describe it. It’s something I’ve wanted to do ever since I was a little girl, and I was watching the Olympics. I just knew at some point I wanted to have that USA on my shirt, I wanted to be a representative of the United States of America. Of course, it’s a lot of pressure, I think one thing that is interesting that people should be aware of is that there’s not only pressure to perform in the sport, whatever your chosen sport may be, but for me at least there was also the pressure of being an ambassador, of being a representative of what Americans stand for. And especially as a Black American, knowing that for some people I’m the first black person that they’ve ever met in real life or that they may ever see. That definitely was the case when I used to live in Japan.
Q) You used to live in Japan and co-hosted a TV show there, but how different is the culture and lifestyle and did you enjoy that experience?
A) My parents joke that my dad took a string and stretched it across the globe, and he said: “Adrienne, the only place you could have gone farther than where we are now is if you’d have gone to Australia.” So, literally Japan is on the other side of the world for me and there is nothing about the Japanese culture that on the outset should connect to me. Being a black woman living in America, it completely was night and day – no pun intended – in terms of the cultural experiences but oh my god when I got there, it felt as if I was at home, I cannot explain it. I love the language, the culture, I just clicked with everything. I love the level of politeness that people exhibit, I love the reverence for education, for teachers, for older people. It really was a homecoming for me.
Q) Was it difficult to pick up and learn the Japanese language?
A) I love languages, so I’ll say it was pleasurable for me to do so. But yes, it is difficult. The grammatical structure is the opposite to what we experience in English. So, for instance in English, we would say: “I shut the door” or “I open the door.” And then in Japanese it’s: “door opened.” Then in context you assume that you’re talking about yourself. It’s not an easy language to learn, it’s easy to speak. The syllables and the sounds are similar to Spanish but yes, it took a while.
Q) You created the card game Blitz Champz, why did you decide to create it and how proud are you of its success?
A) I’m super proud, I love to talk about Blitz Champz. I made it as a way to bring the fun and excitement of football – indoors, as something you can experience at home with your family or friends or something that you can use in the classroom to entertain kids. And Blitz Champz is amazing because it also has the added bonus of teaching math skills to kids from grades three through to eight. So, for me I invented Blitz Champz at the end of 2015 and I took all of 2016 doing research and developing the game and just making it the best it could be. It was very important for me to have everybody represented in Blitz Champz. If a girl picks up the game, she sees herself in it, if a boy picks up the game, he sees himself in it. And I’ve got flag football players and tackle football players represented in Blitz Champz. I really wanted it to be inclusive and to reflect the experience I have had playing football around the world. I joke and I say football is another universal language, we have mathematics, we have music, but sports can do that as well, and football has done that for me.
Q) Harlem Hip Hop Tours is something you co-founded, what is it and how did it come about?
A) I founded Harlem Hip Hop Tours back in 2006 with a friend of mine from Columbia Business School. Everything I do is centred around edutainment - education and entertainment. I wanted to create a company that was geared towards educating youth, so we focussed on kids grades three through to 12 but I needed to do it in a fun way because unfortunately sometimes education in school can be boring, it can feel like it’s a burden when it doesn’t have to be that way. Both of my parents were teachers and they made learning fun, so that’s what I wanted to do with Harlem Hip Hop Tours. And the company was structured in a way that we provided edutainment field trips, so for instance on any given day we would take a school group from Washington D.C. or Boston or New York City and take them on a tour of Columbia University, a tour of a hip hop music studio where they actually learn how to make their own music and even a tour of the world-famous Apollo Theatre. Unfortunately, we’re on a bit of a hiatus at the moment because of Covid so I’m hoping as things kind of get back to normal here in the States that we’ll be able to turn that light back on for Harlem Hip Hop Tours.
Q) What motivated you to take on the role in the American Flag Football League (AFFL) to head up the Women’s Division?
A) It’s something that had been in the works for a few years, so I’d met with Jeff Lewis, the founder and CEO of the AFFL, in 2019 and we had discussions about creating a women’s division for 2020 but we all know about Covid, so it was postponed until now. I like creating things, I like creating platforms and opportunities that allow other people to achieve greatness. And for me it was a natural extension to use my skills sets both as a businesswoman and as an elite athlete to develop a proper division for women in the sport of flag football.
Q) Do you think the creation of the Women’s Division is a big step forward for women and girls?
A) I think this is huge and the largest piece to that is that the AFFL has firmly planted their flag in the sand and said from day one we believe in pay equity for male and female athletes. The thing that I’m most proud of and something that I was adamant about in coming on board is that the female athletes would receive the same treatment both on and off the field that the male athletes do. This August, the women’s champion will be receiving a $200,000 grand prize which will be the same amount that the men’s championship team receives. And I’m very proud of that because now, you put your money where your mouth is, if you really believe in equality, if you really believe in transparency – then what should be the difference if you have elite female athletes who are doing wonderful and amazing things on the field, providing great entertainment for fans in the same manner that male athletes are.
Q) Do you think that the AFFL is setting a good example to other sports and other industries, for example the entertainment industry, for how equality should look?
A) I think absolutely the AFFL is setting a great example and I’m glad you brought up the entertainment industry because it’s very interesting if you look at the data, women driven films, more often than not, bring in more dollars than those films that are led by men. I think there’s a study that came out that said the Hollywood industry is losing $10 billion a year because of racial inequities and they are not allowing certain stories that feature black leads or black stories, or Hispanic leads or Hispanic stories, come to the forefront. And everyone is actually suffering because of that.
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