Lawyers make case for making girls' football a UHSAA-sanctioned sport on first day of Title IX trial

(Alex Vejar | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mountain Ridge junior Sam Gordon makes her way through the defense during a practice of the Utah Girls’ Tackle Football League on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020, at the Zions Bank Training Center in Herriman.

A lawsuit brought against three school districts and the Utah High School Activities Association that started Tuesday aims to answer one central question: Are they required by law to offer tackle football for girls?

Loren Washburn, who is representing well-known female football player Sam Gordon and others, argued that there is enough interest, ability and reasonable expectation of competition to offer girls' football. He also raised that until recently, many schools advertised football as “boys' football,” which he suggested inherently excludes girls.

The case involves whether the districts and association are complying with Title IX, the federal civil rights law that protects people from discrimination on the basis of sex. The law states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance,” per the U.S. Department of Education.

Washburn argued the school districts and the UHSAA are violating Title IX and used survey results and how they were followed up on to make part of his argument, making interest the central them Tuesday.

Washburn questioned Brad Sorensen, the administrator of schools at Jordan District, about those survey results, which detailed what percentage of girls would be interested in various sports, and whether the district followed up on those results.

Washburn displayed a note apparently filled out and signed by a girl expressing interest in playing girls' high school football, saying there are many of those the district received. He also brought up Powder Puff Football, an all-girls youth flag football league that he said saw 551 players in its most recent season.

Based on the number of girls who participated in flag football and the number of letters from girls saying they wanted to play tackle football in high school, Washburn made the argument that sufficient interest in girls' high school football exists.

In an apparent attempt to establish that Jordan District is violating Title IX, he asked Sorensen if he or anyone at the district made attempts to reach out to the girls who sent the letters. Sorensen said no. When asked if he or anyone at the district cross referenced the girls who participated in Powder Puff with the girls who wrote to the district, Sorensen also said no.

Sorensen also said there has not yet been an attempt to follow up on the survey results that say 15% of girls in Jordan District are interested in playing tackle football. The main reason for that, he said, is the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the district’s focus over the last six months.

Sorensen said Jordan District oversaw the dissemination of the survey, which was conducted along with other school districts. But the intent behind it, he said, wasn’t to take action based on the results.

“At that point it was just an inquiring of interest level,” Sorensen said. “Nothing more than that.”

Sorensen added that a survey gauging interest in various sports is just one data point the district uses in determining whether it should provide a particular sport or activity. He said the UHSAA sanctioning something is also a metric, but doesn’t necessarily mean it will get provided. Debate is an example of an activity sanction by the UHSAA, but not provided at schools due to lack of interest, he said.

Attorneys defending the districts and UHSAA asserted in opening statements that none of the organizations are violating Title IX. Rachel Terry, Utah Assistant Attorney General, said school districts give girls plenty of opportunity to play football through club teams, and that the girls get recognition for playing by getting featured in the yearbook and having a section in trophy cases.

Terry said the survey results, while they show interest, do not sufficiently show sustainability or competition.

The trial continues Wednesday and is scheduled to last a total of 13 days.