Former player in girls’ tackle football league tells of her love for the game on Day 2 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 former player in the Utah Girls Tackle Football League provided an example of the significant amount of interest girls have in playing a sport traditionally played by boys during the second day of trial in the lawsuit aimed to determine whether three Utah school districts and the Utah High School Activities Association are in violation of Title IX.

BayLee Simmons, who graduated from Riverton High in 2018, testified Wednesday that as a student-athlete at both Riverton and Lone Peak High prior, she wanted to play tackle football. Due to her size, she said playing against boys wasn’t really an option. But because Utah high schools don’t officially have football only for girls, that wasn’t an option either.

That’s why Simmons joined the girls' tackle football league, which started in 2015.

“I love sports. I’ve always loved sports,” Simmons said. “None of them gave me the satisfaction that football did.”

Simmons was a multi-sport athlete before she got to high school. She competed in basketball, track and field, cross country, tennis and soccer, she said. But for her 10th, 11th and 12th grade years, she didn’t participate in any sports because she had to obtain four jobs to help her family with finances.

But, Simmons said, if any of her high schools had girls' tackle football teams associated with them, she would have reduced her work hours to make time for it. That’s how passionate she is about football, which she has played in some capacity since she was young, she said. Even as a student at Southern Utah University, she played flag football, she said.

For Simmons, the girls' tackle football league was a place where she could play the sport she loves in a way that was fair and not as dangerous as playing against boys, she said. However, she made clear that her preference would have been to play on a team affiliated with her high school because there’s a different feeling of pride and camaraderie associated with it.

Craig Parry, who is representing the UHSAA in the case, in cross examination brought up a question in a survey — supervised by the Jordan District — that asks what sports a student would be interested, and asked Simmons to choose as if she were answering the question as a ninth-grader. She picked several, including ping pong, badminton, rugby, coed football and girls' tackle football.

But Simmons said girls' tackle football was at the top of that list.

Simmons also testified that she started a girls' football club at Riverton during her senior year. The club initially had seven members, she said, but she did not know how much it grew by the time she graduated. The club, she said, still exists.

Simmons said she experienced some pushback for saying she played football in the girls' league. She testified that she once brought up playing in the league in response to a question a coach at Riverton asked a group of students regarding who played football. When she responded that she played, the coach gave her a hard time because of the lawsuit, she said.

Simmons also said she has been told in the past by boys that if she wanted to play football, it should be lingerie football because she is a girl.

UHSAA Executive Director Rob Cuff testified Wednesday in regard to the process by which the association sanctions sports or designates them as “emerging,” as well as the designation of sports by gender. He said Title IX compliance is one of the factors that goes into the decision to sanction a sport, even though the UHSAA itself is not required to adhere to the law because it doesn’t receive federal funding.

Washburn attempted to establish that the UHSAA clearly defines sports as being designated for either boys or girls. He showed an email in which Cuff responded to a question regarding high school rodeo with, in part, “We have 10 girls sports and 10 boys sports.”

Washburn asked Cuff why he used that specific phrasing, to which Cuff replied that phrase is merely the one that is generally used at the association. When asked if he has ever described football as “co-ed,” Cuff said: “I’m not aware of using the word ‘coed football.’”

Cuff said he thinks of football as a “boys' sport” because it is predominately played by boys. He also said, however, that just because a sport is labeled as “boys” doesn’t inherently mean girls can’t participate in it.

In response to that idea, Washburn brought up a USHAA policy dealing with equal opportunities for students. The policy states: “Where there is an equivalent sport for both genders, girls may not participate on the boys' team nor can boys participate on the girls' team. If the sport is not offered to both genders at the member school, the opposite gender may not play that sport at that school. They may opt to co-op to another member school.”

Washburn showed UHSAA meeting minutes from 2007 and 2008 that said when golf was separated by gender, some female players wanted the option to stay on a boys' team rather than join an all-girls team. But, Cuff said, the association’s board of trustees “wasn’t willing to wave that rule” at the time.

Brad Sorensen, the administrator of schools at the Jordan District, finished his testimony that started Tuesday. He remarked emphatically that the district feels it provides “a lot of opportunities for girls,” and because of that, “we believe we are compliant with Title IX.”

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