Women footballers enjoy true free agency. Nobody gets paid, anyway. So when a gaggle of gals from the Baltimore Burn got fed up with that team’s management and coaches, they didn’t bother holding out or just taking another season of guff.

They sided with the enemy.

“We’re all Divas now,” says Raynette Savoy.

That would be the D.C. Divas, defending champs of the Mid-Atlantic Division of the National Women’s Football Association (NWFA). As the NWFA’s 2004 season kicks off this weekend, the Divas find themselves loaded down with ex-Baltimore players who jumped from the Burn. The shopping spree the Divas took in Baltimore over the past few months makes the Redskins’ 2003 pickup of New York Jets personnel look like a quick trip to 7-Eleven.

Baltimore’s erstwhile starting quarterback, league all-star Tara Watanathai, is now a Diva. So is former Burn fullback and punter Julie Ciccarelli. And so are linebacker Subrena Rivers, linewoman Kelly Keller, and Savoy, a wideout turned safety.

No draft picks changed hands. Just jerseys and allegiances.

“It’s strange for me at practice to hear all the Divas talking smack about Baltimore,” says Watanathai. “For me, it’s like, Oh, wait: I’m with them now! This was our big rivalry—Baltimore really doesn’t like the Divas—and I’m sure now it’s going to get even bigger.”

The Burn won the Mid-Atlantic Division crown over the Divas in 2002. Last year, the Divas reversed that order. But in the last game of the 2003 season, the Burn came back to beat the Divas, 22-14, with a defensive stand in the game’s final minute, blemishing what had been an undefeated season for D.C. Players from both sides say that contest, like the previous five in the Divas-Burn rivalry, was down ’n’ dirty from kickoff to final gun.

“The games were pretty bad between us, to the point where I really wondered how I’d be accepted by the Divas when I came here,” says Savoy with a laugh. “To be honest, I hoped they wouldn’t recognize me.”

The Burn lost more than an athlete when Savoy defected. Savoy, an all-Met softball player for Gwynn Park High in 1994 who later starred for the Bowie State softball team, had also become the face and body of the Burn: Her photo, with strategically placed shoulder pads and a helmet covering all naughty bits, made the cover of the team calendar, a staple of Baltimore’s fundraising merchandise.

The NWFA, which goes into this season with 37 teams in 23 states, is a professional league only in the sense that its bylaws permit players to take money for their services. But at this point in the evolution of women’s football, there’s not enough revenue for anybody in uniform to actually get a salary. And Watanathai, like the other defectors, just wasn’t having enough fun playing under Burn coach Adrian Mobley to justify the time and pain of another season in Baltimore.

“I’d been in the military already,” says Watanathai, “and I don’t need to be screamed and shouted at any more. I hate that stuff. I was thinking of just not playing at all this year.”

But when Dameka Reese, a Burn teammate and former high-school classmate of Savoy’s, proposed a wholesale mutiny, a lot of Baltimore’s finest quickly signed up.

“Dameka was like, ‘Hey, you guys, we’re unrestricted free agents! We don’t have to take this! We can go to D.C.!’” Savoy recalls. “She got us all riled up. A whole lot of us said we’d go.”

And then Reese, the chief mutineer, bailed on her own mission. “After last season, I decided not to play football,” Reese explains. “I found I enjoyed my free time more.”

Some Burn players who’d gotten fired up by Reese returned to Baltimore rather than join the nemesis to the south. But those who went through with the defection say it’s been everything they’d wanted. There seems to be particular affection for Divas head coach Ezra Cooper among the free-agent crop.

The new boss, as they’d hoped, ain’t the same as the old boss.

“Coach Cooper has a great way about him,” says Savoy. “He never raises his voice. Never. That totally shocks me to have a coach like that. He just kind of tells us what he wants to get done, and everybody does it. That’s a special quality. Players just want to play for him.”

Burn owner Rich Coley says his squad can stomach the player loss, and he praises his coach’s work. “We went 0-7 the year before [Mobley] took over,” Coley says, “and we went 7-1 his first year.”

Even without the off-season derring-do, Divas coaches would still have had a tough time getting players focused on this year’s opening-day opponent: the expansion Roanoke Revenge, at home at Eastern High School. Since the end of last year, they’ve been looking to exact some revenge from their foe in the second game: the Baltimore Burn, on the road.

“A lot of the players are saying, ‘I can’t wait to get on the field against Baltimore,’” says new Divas defensive-line coach Jerome Davis, who served in the same position for the Burn last year. “I’m telling them not to look past Roanoke, but for some of our players this seems personal. And for Baltimore, well, these were key players that left and are now with the Divas, and some of these players still have issues with the [Burn] coaches and the management. This is the best rivalry in the league.”

Savoy is among the transplants geeked up for the matchup with her former mates. The hardest part, she says, will be learning to love her new colors.

“In Baltimore, we used to always make fun of the Divas,” says Savoy. “I didn’t like the name ‘Divas,’ and I hated those uniforms! How can you coordinate with burgundy-and-gold uniforms? Nothing goes with burgundy and gold! Do I wear black cleats or white? This is a big deal! I mean, beneath these pads, we’re still women.”

After much internal debate, Savoy will wear black cleats this season. —Dave McKenna