As a 9-year-old, Sam Gordon was the girl with the pony tail bouncing beneath her football helmet, schooling boys her age on the way to the end zone and then to the spotlight as a booster for girls’ athletic participation, especially in football.
Now 16 years old, Gordon has several Utah school districts, along with the state’s high school sports governing body, playing defense over their refusal to offer girls’ tackle football as an intramural or varsity sport.
Gordon and her father, Brent, an attorney, filed a lawsuit almost two years ago alleging the state and those school districts were violating Title IX, the federal law that bars gender discrimination in education.
This week, a federal judge ordered her attorneys and officials from the Canyons, Granite and Jordan school districts and the Utah High School Activities Association to negotiate language for a survey to gauge girls’ interest in football.
Sam Gordon insisted in a telephone interview that there are enough potential participants to at least offer football as an intramural sport that eventually could gain varsity status.
“The minute I start talking about girls’ tackle football, everyone gets super excited,” she said. “Their faces light up. They start talking about having their own team. These girls, they love football. They want to play, and the idea that it’s not offered to them is just crazy.”
The suit argues that the school districts have not done enough to ask girls what sports they are interested in playing and suggests that the UHSAA’s influence over what sports are offered is a barrier to school districts themselves offering equal opportunities, as the law requires.
Utah school districts generally only offer sports that are sanctioned by the UHSAA for competitive play. Even districts with multiple high schools do not commonly offer programs on their own that could fall under the UHSAA’s jurisdiction and instead lobby the activities association to sanction such activities in the future.
The Granite School District, for example, is lobbying the activities association to endorse water polo and competitive cheerleading, Granite spokesman Ben Horsley said.
But to Gordon, that system leaves girls who are interested in a non-sanctioned activity little recourse to push for new sports at their schools, said attorney Loren Washburn, who represents Gordon and five other plaintiffs who live in the districts that are being sued.
“School districts who are responsible for complying with Title IX have outsourced it to the high school activities association,” Washburn said. “They don’t have any mechanism, they haven’t taken any steps, to determine what girls in their district want.”
The association also argues that it’s the school districts that must follow the federal law.
“In legal terms, the responsibility for compliance with Title IX lies only with the schools and school districts,” said Mark Van Wagoner, the UHSAA’s legal counsel. “In operation in this state, the activities association will create an emerging sports system in which schools, individuals and clubs can show interest in a sport and let everyone see it’s there so it can be augmented, watched and supported.”
A spokesman for Canyons School District declined to comment on the lawsuit but said in a statement the district provides “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.”
Horsley said Granite School District routinely surveys middle school students on athletic participation so high schools can make changes to their activities offerings. In recent surveys, he said, there has not been enough interest in girls’ flag or tackle football for schools to offer it.
No state offers girls-only football as a sanctioned sport.
A representative from Jordan School District did not respond to a request for comment.
“We don’t know. We have no idea who wants to play,” Van Wagoner said. The petitioners “think it’s like the movie [“Field of Dreams"], where ‘If we build it, they will come,’ but there’s not too many people out there. We’d be happy to have girls’ football if there was interest that was deep enough and wide enough to have statewide interest.
“There’s not enough demonstrable interest yet. If there were, nobody would be against it.”
But Gordon maintains that enough girls want to play football for each district to offer a viable program. An all-girls league her family started in the Salt Lake City area in 2015 now has 460 players from fifth through 12th grades, up from 50 players in its first year.
“We say, if you offer participation opportunities, the girls will show up,” Brent Gordon said. “You just have to give them those opportunities.”
When Sam Gordon and her father arrived at the first game of the season this spring, she said, they struggled to find a parking space at the league’s fields with the number of players and spectators who had already gathered.
“I thought, ‘This is crazy. It’s packed,’” she said. “'This is what it looks like in the boys’ league, and we’ve grown so much you can’t tell the difference.'”
But when the 5-foot tall Gordon steps on the field next to her male classmates, there are clear physical distinctions. She stopped playing coed football in seventh grade for fear of injury going up against boys who were much bigger.
That’s why an all-girls division at the high school level is so important, Brent Gordon said. If girls suited up on the varsity football team as if it were a coed sport, physiological differences would largely keep female athletes off the field. Title IX also includes a provision that requires teams separated by gender for contact sports.
And Sam Gordon, who was included in the NFL’s star-packed Super Bowl commercial this year, said she thinks a girls’ high school league could generate the same energy and enthusiasm as the boys’. Her club league rented out a high school stadium to play the past season’s championship game under the lights.
The stands were crowded. Fans roared and stomped on the bleachers. It felt like the Friday night lights atmosphere she had never experienced for her own games, Gordon said.
“It was loud. It was packed with fans. I was out there thinking, ‘This is legit,’” she said. “I really just want the girls to be given the same opportunities as the boys.”