Girls tackle football? Yeah, it's happening

Columnist
Yahoo Sports
The Utah Girls Tackle Football League consists of four teams. (Courtesy UGTFL)

Girls Tackle Football

The Utah Girls Tackle Football League consists of four teams. (Courtesy UGTFL)

On Saturday, 50 fifth- and sixth-graders came to an elementary school field in West Jordan, Utah, to play some football. Parents and coaches marked off a 60-yard-by-35-yard grid for them, and threw out some smaller footballs for them to throw around. It was hardly an abnormal scene, except for the fact that the players were all girls, and when the scrimmage started, they began tackling.

It was the launch of the first known girls tackle football league in America, it had the blessing of USA Football and the NFL, and there are even bigger possibilities in the distant future.

"The ultimate goal is for women to get paid to play," said Sam Rapoport, the director of development for USA Football. "We'd love to see women's tackle football played at the pro level."

To the dozens of Utah families that showed immediate interest in the league, it has already been a great idea. But in an age of heightened concussion awareness and fear of allowing children to play football, is it a good idea?

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The inspiration for the Utah Girls Tackle Football League came from a familiar place: Sam Gordon, the Utah girl wonder who became somewhat of a sensation in 2012 when her father, Brent, published a video of her outrunning boys on a football field. In the days after the surge of attention for "Sweet Feet," the NFL reached out to Sam and began a relationship with the 9-year-old and her family. She even got to go to the Super Bowl and meet NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

Last March, Sam, now 12, was speaking at a school near her Utah home and asked for a show of hands: How many girls out there would want to play tackle football?

Lots of hands shot up.

That convinced Brent to try it. He had already heard from several local parents who wanted to get their daughters into football but had worries about competition and safety.

"I thought, 'Let's do one division, 50 girls. Let's see what happens.' " Brent told Yahoo Sports. "By the time we got the website up, we only had five days to promote it and it still filled up in that time frame."

Gordon called Crystal Sacco, a former women's football player who had already taken steps to start a league, and Rapoport, who had previously worked for the NFL and played for the Montreal Blitz, an organization in the Independent Women's Football League.

They both loved the idea.

"Tackle football is the most popular sport," Rapoport said. "Boys want to play it and it's America's passion. Regardless of my gender, that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to be like Troy Aikman. That's what you want to do and experience."

Rapoport's support meant two things: credibility for the league, which has four teams, and better safety measures. She worked to ensure that the coaches on the field had training in proper tackling procedures, so that the girls would be practicing "heads-up" hitting.

But is any hitting too much hitting?

(Courtesy Utah Girls Tackle Football League)
(Courtesy Utah Girls Tackle Football League)

All football brings the possibility of brain injuries, which can lead to serious life effects both in the short and longer term. Isn't that too much danger for a child? Even President Obama, who has two daughters, has said he would not let a son play pro football.

Now add the fact that studies have shown girls are diagnosed with concussions more often than boys. And in 2012, the New York Times reported "younger athletes and those who are female show more symptoms and take longer to recover from a concussion than athletes who are male or older." It's not known why, but possible theories include different strength in neck musculature and varying hormonal levels. (It's also possible that girls self-report more than boys.) Whatever the reason, there is heightened risk for children and perhaps even further risk for girls.

So the fact that Goodell has been "extremely supportive" of girls' football, in Rapoport's words, can seem both forward-looking and backward-thinking. On the one hand, lending support to a girls tackle league helps ensure it's done right. Yet there are viable questions about whether it should be done at all.

"There's no difference between girls playing and boys playing, and I feel strongly about that," Rapoport said. "There's the same risk. No sport is without risk."

She said a "player safety coach" will be assigned to the league, and insisted that "everyone will have eyes on the safety of the sport."

A lot of the onus falls on Brent Gordon, who has invested some of his own money into getting the proper equipment for Sam and the other players, including lighter helmets and better-fitting pads. (He also got financial help from Celtic Bank, based in Salt Lake City.) Just as Sam is the child star who has inspired many, Brent is going to absorb a good deal of the concern about the league.

"I have zero reservations," he said. "I had all four of my kids playing tackle last year. I haven't even heard of a kid who's gotten a concussion."

Still, part of the reason he wants this league to succeed is because he knows at some point Sam will be at a physical disadvantage if she continues playing football against the boys. Even in the video from when she was 9, Sam was one of the smallest players on the field. Sam is probably the most famous female preteen in football history, but she and her dad want there to be plenty more like her in the future. Rapoport built a career out of football, and she wants to help future generations do the same. There are already some women's leagues around the country – roughly 4,000 players overall – but she sees this as an important rung on a ladder for girls dreaming of playing at the highest level.

"Who knows?" she said. "I can see without a doubt a model similar to the WNBA."

 

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