Herriman • The last time most people saw Sam Gordon, she probably was racing past boys in a football highlight video, sitting next to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell or on the front of her own Wheaties box.
On a recent afternoon, some five years after becoming a YouTube sensation for her touchdown runs, the teenager was weaving in and out of the crowds at Herriman High School, a bag of candy under one arm and a sign-up sheet in her hand. Her goal, however, remained the same: to score another win for girls and football.
“There are a lot of girls that have been really excited to play,” Gordon, now a freshman, said. “You can tell a couple people are nervous. But I’ve seen some reactions where they’re like, ‘Yes! This is awesome!’”
Gordon and her father, Brent Gordon, are at the forefront of a Title IX lawsuit against three Utah school districts and the Utah High School Activities Association aimed at forcing the creation of girls tackle football teams at the prep level. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in June, alleges officials with the UHSAA and the Granite, Jordan and Canyons school districts have not done enough to provide girls with equal opportunities to play the sport.
UTAH HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL PLAYERS
Year • Schools • Boys • Girls
2016 • 107 • 9,153 • 17
2015 • 104 • 8,794 • 10
2014 • 103 • 8,587 • 0
Source: National Federation of State High School Associations
Granite Schools spokesman Ben Horsley said he is “comfortable” the district is in compliance with Title IX.
“The process for determining sports offerings,” he said, “is based on interest and based on what has been sanctioned by the [UHSAA].”
But even while the Gordons and the other plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit await their day in court (an early pretrial hearing is scheduled for next month), they hope to prove girls have a place on the gridiron. In two days of promoting their girls-only football league at Herriman High earlier this month, the Gordons got 87 girls at the school to sign a sheet that said, “Yes, I would love to play tackle football.”
“A lot of people are super excited about it,” 14-year-old Sam said. “I know a couple of people have said girls shouldn’t be playing football, but most of it’s been very positive. Girls want to play.”
Brent Gordon has run a girls tackle football league for three years now and said the turnout has doubled each year — from 50, to 100, to 200. He suspects even more would be interested in playing if the sport were offered by high schools.
“There’s an importance attached to playing for your school,” he said. “Being able to have that opportunity to play and represent your school and to try to win a state championship or region championship, it has meaning. It has real value, and these girls don’t have the same opportunities as boys.”
Brent Gordon points to the growth of girls golf in Utah as an example. In 2006, the UHSAA still offered golf as a co-ed sport in Utah high schools because the group had not seen enough interest to form a separate sport for girls. But hundreds of girls came out for teams as soon as the association made its change, and now more than 1,000 girls participate on the prep level statewide.
“As soon as they provide these opportunities,” Brent Gordon said, “girls show up.”
The Gordons’ lawsuit comes at a time when youth football numbers nationally are in decline amid growing concerns about concussions. For the parents of girls who want to play, however, there are additional safety concerns.
After letting his daughter, Lauren, suit up against boys in the Ute Conference youth football league, Jason Dixon refused to let her try out for a spot at Copper Hills High. She instead took a role as a manager for the team.
“She struggled with it when I first made that decision: ‘You’re done playing with the boys,’” said Dixon, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “She wanted to, but now that she’s up there at the high school, she’s starting to see it’s a whole different situation.”
The UHSAA permits girls to play high school football. But while more than 9,000 boys played high school football in Utah last year, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, only 17 girls played.
Sam Gordon understands why girls are reluctant. She was a star running back playing in Herriman’s youth leagues. Now she is still a standout athlete; she has a spot on the varsity soccer team. But at 4-foot-11 and about 100 pounds, she would be concerned for her safety on a high school football team.
“I just wouldn’t be able to compete,” she said.
On a recent evening, Mandy Carrington unwrapped the tape from her daughter’s ankle following another victory for the Bingham High School sophomore football team. It is her fourth year playing football, and it will be the last season on a boys team.
“The size difference is too big,” Carrington said. “I would definitely prefer her to be on a girls team.”
For the Miners, Carrington’s daughter is a defensive back and gets on the field for “one or two series a game.” In the girls league, Carrington’s daughter is a quarterback and team captain. Carrington is not part of the lawsuit but is following the case, hoping her daughter might benefit.
“It’s kind of a natural fit. I don’t know why they would oppose it,” she said. “Everybody loves football, and if you don’t, there’s something wrong with you.”