Onetime phenom Sam Gordon is determined to make lasting change as Title IX lawsuit for girls’ tackle football moves forward

(Photo courtesy of National Football League) Sam Gordon, a Herriman High Student and girls' football advocate, taunts San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman in the National Football League's NFL 100 ad, which aired during Super Bowl LIII on Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019.

There she stood in a hotel ballroom in Los Angeles, telling some of the established and emerging greats of the sport she loves about the cause. And there, for those few hours, they listened. Because when Sam Gordon talks football, people want to know what the teenager has to say. So as the 16-year-old from Herriman — who seven years ago went viral as a 9-year-old ponytailed wrecking ball in peewee football — explained to Super Bowl champion Richard Sherman and newly-minted NFL Rookie of the Year Saquon Barkley what she’s fighting for in her home state, the two household names tuned in.

She was in that ballroom to be featured in a two-minute-long commercial to launch the NFL 100, a celebration of the league’s centennial formation, that was broadcast during the Super Bowl in February. It was a who’s who of football legends, both past and present, of MVP’s and owners of several Super Bowl rings, of “GOATs” and showmen. The NFL, though, asked Sam to be involved. Because she wants to represent growth in football, and for nearly the past decade, she has.

“I think girls have always loved football, just as much as any other sport,” said Sam. “They’ve just never been given a chance to prove that and show that they can play.”

At the local level, the Gordon family hasn’t wavered on its desire to fight for equality in football. In June 2017, Brent Gordon, Sam’s father who is also a personal-injury attorney, became a plaintiff in a Title IX lawsuit filed against three Utah school districts and the Utah High School Activities Association (UHSAA) in hopes of having an all-girls tackle football season eventually included at the high school level.

The lawsuit has been ongoing the last two years, but a week ago the plaintiffs filed a motion for summary judgement on the federal case based on depositions taken during the case from various school and UHSAA officials regarding the growth of girls’ tackle football in Utah. The grassroots club league that the Gordons helped start in 2015 has now blossomed to 460 players, ages fifth through 12th grade. The first year, there were only 50. More are coming, they say.

Last month, a federal judge ordered the two sides of the lawsuit to ensure a proper survey to gauge the level of girls’ tackle football in Utah. The plaintiffs have argued that the school districts named in the suit, Canyons, Jordan and Granite, haven’t met necessary requirements to measure exactly what sports high school female athletes are interested in. It is also argued that the UHSAA, which oversees all official high school sanctioned sports in the state, may prevent various school districts from offering sports that would comply with federal Title IX rules.

“It’s a broken system,” said Brent Gordon. “That’s what it is.”

(Photo courtesy of Brent Gordon) Sam Gordon, 16, and her father, Brent, are trying to bring all-girls tackle' football to the high school level as an official state sanctioned sport.

Mark Van Wagoner, legal counsel for the UHSAA, said an all-girls tackle football sport must be able to prove more palpable interest all around Utah moving forward, rather than just regionally as it currently has.

“It would make no sense to have a state tournament if you had only a very few teams across the state playing,” Van Wagoner said. “That’s not to say in some classifications, the sport is played statewide. That’s one of the issues.

“The association has no opposition to the game of girls’ football. What the hangup is among school districts in the lawsuit is the absence of evidence that there is sufficient interest to make it a school-sponsored interscholastic program, much less, to have a program that would be a state tournament program. For us, you have to have all the rules.”

The UHSAA did, however, recently pass an emerging sports initiative, which will include a number of new sports that has the opportunity to prove over time that it could eventually become a UHSAA-sanctioned sport with enough participation numbers. Girls’ tackle football will be part of that initiative moving forward.

A Jordan School District spokesperson declined to comment on the case, citing the ongoing litigation. A Granite School District spokesperson also declined to comment, but said in a statement, “Regardless of the outcome of this lawsuit, Granite School District will continue to work to provide equitable academic and extracurricular opportunities in all of our schools and for all of our students.”

A Canyons School District spokesperson said: “While we can’t comment on the specifics of the pending litigation, we believe our schools support our student athletes, both girls and boys, as they compete in Utah High School Activity Association-sanctioned events. There are substantial opportunities for all our student athletes to excel on the playing field while they also are becoming college- and career-ready in the classroom.”


Age » 16

Hometown » Herriman

Hoping for change » After the YouTube video of Gordon dominating a youth football game at the age of 9 went viral, she became a nationwide sensation. In 2017, Gordon was awarded the NFL’s “Game Changer” award, given to people who are trying to move the game forward. Her rise in popularity helped create the Utah Girls Tackle Football League in 2015.

For Brent Gordon, the sticking point in this case is inequality among boys and girls student athletes at the high school level. He cites that male student athletes in Jordan School District nearly double the amount of female student-athletes. The plaintiffs suit also claims the school districts haven’t done enough to adequately determine whether or not girls would be interested in an all-girls tackle football varsity sport.

“A school district such as the Jordan School District has 200 girls that play community tackle football league, which was the case this spring. There’s sufficient numbers there to play, but it’s only isolated regionally,” Brent Gordon said. “How does UHSAA structure and facilitate the Jordan School District’s obligations under Title IX to comply by offering new sports?”

Sam Gordon looked up to her older brother who wanted to play football and followed in his footsteps. It changed her life, Brent Gordon said, and changed so many other lives as well, by simply showing that a girl can also strap on shoulder pads and a helmet and deserve the right to play just like the boys.

“I feel like that there’s an obligation of sorts when you see that there’s something that’s wrong,” Brent Gordon added. “When you have institutionalized discrimination and you’re looking at the world and you wonder, ‘Why is it that girls aren’t playing the nation’s most popular sport by a long way?’ Along which more boys playing high school more than double and the only answer is because of sex discrimination. Every district in Utah doesn’t comply with Title IX and they just hide behind the UHSAA.”

Next year, Sam will attend the new Mountain Ridge High School in Herriman, which is also part of the Jordan School District. Sam and her friends are still trying to spread the word about their league as much as possible. A Super Bowl commercial is great, she acknowledged, but work on the ground level is necessary to get the league out of a club sport realm and into an official UHSAA sport. They’re planning on attending middle school assemblies around the state to explain to other girls that, if they feel like, they too can play tackle football.

The league’s championship games were recently held at Herriman High School. Brent Gordon said in order for the girls to play on a high school fields at night under the lights they had to rent out the stadium.

“Right now, we really just want to grow this league as much as we can, and allow girls to come play this amazing sport that has so many benefits that comes with it,” Sam said. “We want to build this league up, get it across the country and eventually into high schools. We are just starting small.”

Photography by Leah Hogsten Sam Gordon #6 cheers with her Yellowjackets team members during half time of their game with the Rebels. Utah Girls Tackle Football League play two games at Mountain Shadows Elementary in West Jordan Saturday, May 30, 2015.