Sam Gordon – remember her? – files lawsuit to make girls high school football a reality

Eric Adelson
Columnist
Sam Gordon, No. 6, is leading a charge for high schools to begin girls’ football. (Courtesy of Gordon family)

In an era when parents are debating keeping kids out of football, 14-year-old Sam Gordon and her father are fighting for a way to keep her and girls like her on the field.

Gordon, as you may remember, is the barrier-busting Utah girl who played tackle football against the boys and went viral with her highlight reel of slash-and-dash touchdown runs. Then she helped start a girls’ football league in her community.

Now, she and some of her fellow players (with the help of their parents) are suing three local school districts to force high schools to offer girls’ football in the Salt Lake Valley. Gordon is among six plaintiffs who filed a Title IX lawsuit on Friday – the date of the 45th anniversary of Title IX.

“Plaintiffs seek preliminary and permanent injunctive relief and file this action to stop Defendants from discriminating against them and all others similarly situated by offering girls high school football teams and other girls high school sports necessary to provide equal participation opportunities to female students …” the 36-page filing reads in part.

“It’s not a publicity stunt,” says their lawyer, Loren Washburn. “We want a change in the sporting landscape.”

The idea and the engine for the suit came from Sam’s dad, Brent, who is a lawyer. He says it occurred to him after the recreational league started two years ago. He explains: “As soon as we started it up – we had 50 girls and we capped it because it’s expensive to buy the equipment – I started getting emails and texts saying, ‘My daughter’s never played sports before and this has changed her life.’ ” Brent Gordon reached out to the Utah High School Activities Association and was advised to keep building the league. That was an understandable reaction, but Sam and her friends didn’t want to wait.

“I don’t want to wait 10-15 years,” Brent says. “My daughter would be 30 years old by then. These girls want to play now.”

The lawsuit’s success will depend in large part on showing community interest in girls’ football, according to experts interviewed for this story. A similar push for girls’ golf in the mid-2000s ran up against skepticism about local interest. But when separate girls’ golf teams were allowed in Utah, “literally hundreds across the state” signed up.

Brent Gordon thinks the availability of girls’ football might spur a similar boom.

“If our rec league has had growth over three years, our expectation is that a heck of a lot more girls would want to play for a high school team,” he says, adding that his league has already grown from 50 to 200 girls.

Title IX has a “contact sports exemption” which means schools can exclude girls from joining boys’ teams or forming teams of their own based on the type of sport. Football is included in that. Yet that has not stopped high schools from having women’s teams in ice hockey, for example. Utah has decided to add boys’ and girls’ lacrosse for the 2019-20 season.

“We will continue to review this case as it’s debated on its merits,” says Jeff Haney, spokesman for the Canyons School District. “As demand warrants and we can satisfy the need, and to adhere to any Title IX requirements, we can add to our roster of sports.”

The Utah High School Activities Association office is closed this week; emails and calls were not immediately returned.

“Other contact sports are now commonplace,” says Adria Lynn Silva, a Florida-based Title IX attorney (who has not seen the Utah suit). “But you have to show if there’s enough interest. If they want to make a girls’ football league, and if there’s enough interest, and the district is big enough, then yeah, there could be grounds.”

A league that has sustained itself over three seasons is a good start, and football is such a big part of the American high school experience that lawyers can appeal to make the sport available to girls, too.

Yet outside of court, there will also be other obstacles. Some will surely object based on safety arguments (even though concussions are a risk in everything from cheerleading to soccer to lacrosse) and some will be resistant for other reasons. Cost is another, as adding an entire new football program would not come cheap and could potentially come at the expense of other athletic programs.

According to the filing, only 14 girls are necessary to field a viable team. The suit also contends that the three districts being sued are not Title IX compliant, in that they all have consistently provided more athletic opportunities, proportionally to their respective enrollments, for boys than girls.

“We are going to have to face some public backlash here,” Washburn says. “There’s a segment of our population that will have a hard time embracing girls playing.”

Sam is used to that. Her dad says she’s dealt with social media criticism for a while now.

“I just ignore the negative,” she tells him.

That is certainly one of the strategies that has made Title IX so successful.

Read the full lawsuit here: