They rented a high school field for about $450 an hour, hired a public address announcer, brought in a musician to sing the national anthem and packed the stands with hundreds of fans.
“You got that little taste of what it would be like to play high school football,” Gordon said, reminiscing about one of her favorite memories in a youth football career that has been unlike any other. At 9, she became a viral sensation after running circles around boys in a youth league, which eventually landed her on a Wheaties cereal box. At 12, she helped start the independent Utah Girls Tackle Football League. At 16, she appeared in an NFL commercial during the Super Bowl.
And now, at 17, she is waiting to hear a verdict on a lawsuit that has spanned her entire high school career. In 2017, Gordon and her father, Brent, sued several Utah school districts and the state’s high school athletics association, alleging violations of Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution by not providing girls’ tackle football as an interscholastic sport. Her hope is that a victory in Utah could eventually lead to the adoption of girls-only high school football across the country.
“That’s definitely a legacy I want to start — and hopefully finish,” Gordon said.
Attorneys for the state and school districts have argued that they are not bound by law to offer girls-only football teams. After more than three years of litigation and a three-week bench trial that concluded in late October, U.S. District Judge Howard Nielson Jr. is expected to rule on the case in the coming days.
It’s a decision that could determine whether school districts in Utah start to offer football teams for girls or continue a policy that allows girls to play on predominantly boys’ tackle football teams, which plaintiffs in the case have argued isn’t a meaningful opportunity for girls.
Gordon believes that a verdict allowing for girls-only football teams sanctioned by high schools in Utah, which would make it the first state to sanction such teams, could have a wide-reaching impact.
“It sends the message that girls are here wanting to play football. I see girls’ tackle football having the potential to go into colleges, go into high schools and build into a league like the NFL for women,” she said. “Obviously that’s a really long process, but if we start here in Utah … there’s such a power behind high school sports, football in particular, so if we get that offered here, I can definitely see other states follow in that direction.”
Gordon’s lawsuit contends that Jordan School District, where she is a student, along with Granite School District are not in compliance with Title IX — the federal law that bars sex discrimination in education — because they have not provided enough opportunities for girls in those districts who express interest in football. Gordon’s suit has also argued that the Utah High School Activities Association, which school districts often rely on in recommending the addition of sports, has discriminated against girls by not offering football.
“There was essentially no amount of interest that girls could express, or no mechanism for them to express it, that could convince their school districts of their interest level,” said Loren Washburn, who represents Gordon and other plaintiffs in the case. Washburn argued during the trial that there is sufficient interest in the sport to establish sanctioned teams.
In 2019, a federal judge ordered a survey to be commissioned in several districts, including Jordan and Granite, in response to the lawsuit. In Jordan, Gordon’s district, the two sports girls were most interested in were archery and cheer, both of which are not sanctioned by the UHSAA. But 15 percent more girls were reportedly interested in playing football than lacrosse or wrestling, two girls’ sports that have been sanctioned in the state in recent years. Across all districts surveyed, girls’ tackle football reportedly ranked 15th among 35 sports girls could choose.
Gordon and her father had seen the interest firsthand when they formed the independent Utah Girls Tackle Football League in 2015. The league had boasted hundreds of participants, ranging from fifth to 12th grade, and had 270 high school players last year, according to Brent Gordon. Establishing that interest is key in Title IX cases, according to Erin Buzuvis, a Title IX expert and law professor at Western New England University.
“The central legal question in a case like this is if the plaintiffs can establish significant interest in the sport, because if they’re able to do that, then they have a strong case under Title IX that this is a sport that should be added to individual school districts throughout the state,” Buzuvis said. “The trick is that an individual school district is always able to say, in a response to a showing of interest for a sport they don’t offer to the underrepresented sex, is that there isn’t a reasonable likelihood of competition because there aren’t enough other teams for them to play against. … So it really does require this kind of strategic litigation.”
Officials with both the Jordan and Granite School Districts declined to comment on the case, citing pending litigation. Mark Van Wagoner, legal counsel for the UHSAA, said in an interview that one potential remedy in the case would be to follow the same policy it has over the past several decades — that girls play on predominantly boys’ teams.
“The position I took with the judge is, if you find that there is a violation of equal protection, you can order us to do what we’ve been doing for 30 years — and let boys and girls play on the same team,” Van Wagoner said. “No federal court has ever required, either a school or an activities association, to create a new sport."
No state athletics association sanctions girls-only tackle football. According to the latest data from the National Federation of State High School Associations, more than 14,000 schools offered 11-on-11 tackle football teams in 2018-19. More than 1 million boys played on those teams, and 2,404 girls participated.
Gordon, who is 5 feet tall, has never felt comfortable enough to play on predominantly boys’ teams at her high school. “Those kids are twice my size,” she said. “That risk of injury is pretty scary.” Some of her friends that had tried to play on boys’ teams had testified during the trial that they endured harassment before joining the Utah Girls Tackle Football League.
Gordon had experienced harassment herself, even before she became a YouTube star. On the first day of tryouts as a 9-year-old, she tackled a boy to the ground during a drill. The boy’s father, Brent Gordon remembers, stormed onto the field, grabbed his young son by the face mask and screamed at him to beat her. Later, the other boys on the field chanted, “Beat the girl!”
“I felt like she could make her own statement by scoring touchdowns and making tackles,” Brent Gordon said.
When the lawsuit was filed in 2017, Sam Gordon, then a freshman, thought she would have a chance to get on the field with an all-girls team at her high school by the time she was a junior. She is holding out hope that the verdict would allow for a potential season in the spring, right before she graduates.
“It is a little bit crazy that I might not be able to play for my high school football team. But I think this is a lot bigger than myself,” she said. “If we get the results and I don’t really get to play, and other girls get that opportunity, it’s worth it.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly described Title IX as the federal law that bars gender discrimination in education.