SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Girls should have the chance to play football on female-only high school teams, a lawyer for a viral video star argued in court Tuesday.
Sam Gordon’s football skills made her famous when she was 9 years old, and she even appeared in a Super Bowl ad last year. The 17-year-old says she wants to represent her school on the field, but contends joining the boys’ team isn’t a safe option.
Girls who are interested in playing football do not feel welcome on predominantly male teams, said Gordon’s lawyer Loren Washburn. He said girls often aren’t given a separate locker room prior to games, forcing some to get dressed with their male teammates or on their own in places like utility closets.
That creates “an environment where girls are seen as outsiders and they experience football as an outsider,” Washburn said Tuesday.
Washburn also pointed to the results of a recent survey that found more than 600 of the 6,500 girls in three districts were interested in playing football. He said the school districts have failed to meet Title XI requirements by not offering the sport to girls separately.
There may be interest in the sport but that doesn’t necessarily mean it would be sustainable, said Rachel Terry, an assistant attorney general. She said girls football is still a fairly new sport with little infrastructure, putting financial pressure on the school districts to develop and maintain it.
Craig Parry, a lawyer representing state athletics officials, said eligibility requirements for girls and boys to play high school football are identical, and there is no evidence that any girls have been prohibited from playing because of their gender.
He said there are many factors that go into sanctioning a new sport like potential opportunities to play after high school and the potential financial burden on districts.
“It’s not the Wizard of Oz,” Parry said. “We can’t click our heels and be back in Kansas. We can’t click our heels and create an entirely new sport and competition.”
Gordon became an online star when a video of her dominant football skills against boys gained widespread attention in 2012. Hundreds of girls have joined a non-scholastic league that Gordon and her father helped create to give girls the chance to play tackle football.
Gordon, her father and other girls who wanted to play football filed a lawsuit in 2017 alleging that three school districts and the Utah High School Activities Association have not done enough to provide girls with equal opportunities.
The Utah High School Activities Association allows girls to play on high school boys football teams. But while 8,500 boys played high school football in the state during the 2018-2019 school year, less than 20 girls played, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Sophia Eppolito is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.