Sam Gordon has spent most of her life proving what girls can do.
On the football field, she didn’t just hold her own against boys, she dominated, becoming a viral sensation at age 9 by showcasing her speed and agility. She parlayed that into becoming the face of a tackle football league for girls in Utah, and a lawsuit that tried to put girls in helmets at every high school in the state.
Now she and a few other women hope their efforts have made it easier for the next generation of female athletes to prove what they can do.
The Title IX lawsuit that alleged discrimination and tried to force Granite, Jordan and Canyons school districts and the Utah High School Activities Association to sanction girls’ tackle football as an official sport reached a settlement last month. While they won’t yet see girls’ tackle football teams at Utah high schools, Gordon and five other women — all of whom were teens when the suit was filed six years ago — brought changes designed to increase girls’ access to and participation in sports.
“Even if it’s not the tackle football that I wanted and I think would be very powerful, we’re taking steps in the right direction,” Gordon said. “I think that’s important.”
Mixed reactions to the settlement
In March 2021, a federal judge ruled against the girls and said the districts and UHSAA weren’t in violation of Title IX or the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution by not providing girls’ football at Utah high schools. Lawyers appealed, and from there it took more than two additional years to resolve the case.
The settlement created several provisions designed to increase access to sports for girls in elementary, junior and high school. Among them are the creation of a Title IX athletic coordinator at the three districts, and a liaison that will handle emerging sports at the junior and high school levels.
But the women who gave depositions, testified at a bench trial and came of age during a years-long legal battle have mixed feelings about the result.
Three of the women involved in the lawsuit spoke to The Salt Lake Tribune about the settlement. While they all had hoped to see girls tackle football in Utah high schools, Laura Goetz — who was once the only girl on the West Jordan High football team — expressed the most frustration.
When Goetz was a sophomore, she said she felt isolated on her own high school team, saying she thought boys on other squads treated her better than her own teammates. For her, the girls’ league was a safe haven. She said she felt “kind of irritated” the districts found a way not to add girls’ football.
While the settlement doesn’t impact the entire state, the former plaintiffs still feel it’s a step in the right direction.
“I’m super happy that they’re now acknowledging that females do need more sports and more recognition in their high schools,” Goetz said. “That’s honestly the first step, and I’m super excited that we were able to kind of be a part of the process to make that happen.”
Gordon thinks the provision that will make the biggest impact is the new Title IX athletic coordinators. Lauren Dixon, now a student at Southern Utah University studying sports medicine, said she’s most excited about the liaisons.
While the lawsuit didn’t result in high school tackle football for girls, the largest club football organization in Utah is expanding opportunities in its own way.
Progress on other fields
Brent Gordon, Sam’s father and one of the lawyers representing the girls, created the Utah Girls’ Tackle Football League in 2015 as an alternative for girls who couldn’t find a home on high school teams. He thought of it more as a proof of concept that enough girls were interested in the sport, which would open the door for the UHSAA to sanction it statewide.
Over the years, the league grew from a few dozen girls participating to a few hundred. Even though the lawsuit he filed is over and girls’ tackle football still isn’t in every Utah high school, he’s engaged in another venture he feels could accelerate the growth of girls football.
The Ute Conference — a youth football league that operates in Salt Lake, Utah, Davis, Weber, Tooele and Summit counties — earlier this year created a girls division that fielded four teams and played a six-game season with two-game playoffs, Executive Director Jeff Gorringe said.
Not every girl playing in Ute Conference jumped at the opportunity to join an all-girls team, he said. There were about 100 girls who still played on boys’ teams. The girls that did play on the new teams were in the 12- and 14-year-old age groups and totaled about 75 players.
Gorringe said the plan for the 2024 girls’ season is to have 10-and-under, 12-and-under and 14-and-under subdivisions, each with between four and and six teams. If there are enough girls interested in playing, he may also add a 16-and-under.
Brent Gordon said he is going to help Gorringe transition the girls from his Utah Girls’ Tackle Football League into the Ute Conference. The goal, Brent Gordon said, is to eventually dissolve the league he created in 2015 in favor of Ute Conference, which has much wider reach in the state.
“Our league has some constraints in the sense that we don’t have the same sort of exposure to educate the football community about the opportunity,” Brent Gordon said. “You’d be surprised how many people don’t even know that there’s a girls’ football league that exists.”
Gorringe thinks Ute Conference’s reach and its commitment to girls’ football moving forward will translate into girls playing at the high school level someday. And Brent Gordon doesn’t feel sad about his league not existing one day.
“I would be delighted to see our organization ... not exist and instead, the school districts offer high school girls football teams,” Brent Gordon said.
Tackle football is still embedded in the lives of Gordon, Goetz and Dixon.
Gordon is on the advisory board of the X League, a professional 7-on-7 football league for women.
Goetz played for the semi-professional Utah Falconz last season and said, “I will be playing football for as long as I possibly can.”
Dixon occasionally wears her sweatshirts from the Girls Tackle Football League and said she finds herself telling confused men, “Deal with it, girls can play football, too.”
Football was important for Dixon, she said, because it was the only sport that accepted her for who she is. She played in Ute Conference and was a team manager in high school. She thinks the lawsuit settlement will encourage girls like her to find football or other sports for which they feel better suited.
“I’m a 5-7, 180-pound linewoman,” Dixon said. “I had to run for 0.3 seconds — that was perfect for me. There are tons of girls who feel the same. … I think it’ll start more of a movement towards women in sports in general and them having sports that are more fit to their abilities.”
Goetz said she didn’t feel empowered from the lawsuit. Instead, she lamented that it seemed like no one cared about the negative experiences shared by her and other girls during the trial. Simply deeming football co-ed, she said, doesn’t send a strong enough message to boys who may treat their female teammates with disrespect.
When the lawsuit started, a freshman Gordon was “so sure” that by the time she was a senior, she’d be playing “real high school football.”
Gordon is now 20. She is a junior at Columbia University studying film and playing soccer, and doesn’t play tackle football anymore.
And although she won’t reap the benefits of the settlement, she understands sticking to the arduous process for six years was bigger than her.
“If you don’t ever challenge something, then you’re never going to be able to make change,” Gordon said. “And although it may be frustrating and taking a lot of time, and it might not be a result that you’re going to see, it’s going to better future generations.”
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