Closing arguments are expected this week in a lawsuit filed by a 17-year-old girl against three school districts, including her own, over the fact that they don't offer girls' football.
As reported by The Associated Press, Sam Gordon gained national fame — even a Super Bowl commercial — as the only girl in a youth tackle football league in Utah, where despite her considerable skills even at age nine, she faced heckling from opposing parents. “I had a target on my back, and it was in the shape of a ponytail,” Gordon told the AP. “It was awesome to prove to them that I’m more than just a girl in pads. I’m actually a football player.”
Football is one of few sports that doesn't have gender parity at any level. The Utah High School Activities Association allows girls to play on boys' teams, the AP reported. However, fewer than 20 girls took advantage of that allowance during the 2018-19 school year, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, while 8,500 boys played high school football in the state.
Gordon is suing the three districts for refusing to create a girls’ football program under Title IX, saying many girls like her don’t feel comfortable playing with boys and some are even harassed. One player, 16-year-old Laura Goetz, testified as part of Gordon's case in September that she was forced while playing for her high school's boys' team to change in the boys' locker room at away games and often faced discriminatory treatment by her male coach and teammates.
Goetz said one coach insisted on calling her “princess,” and that when she was a captain her sophomore year some of her teammates ripped up her headshot and left the pieces under the team’s display case.
“They don’t like me,” Goetz said, describing her thinking at the time. “They make sure I understand that, and that I don’t belong there.”
But Gordon contends that girls do belong in the sport, pointing to an all-female league she started with her father six years ago that has drawn hundreds of girls from the Salt Lake City area. She says the league has made minor adjustments to prioritize safety, such as removing punt returns, kickoffs and kick returns from the game to limit plays that can often result in injuries.
Meanwhile, the targeted school districts and state high school athletic officials argue a girls' football program at that level would be unsustainable and require new infrastructure they shouldn’t be responsible for.
Time is running out on a potential high school career for Gordon, a senior. But she remains undeterred in the hopes she's helping to "destigmatize girls playing contact sports and being tough and rowdy,” she said. “It’s more than just football, and I would be proud to be a part of that.”