Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

Talking about Sarah Fuller as a ‘first’ avoids the uncomfortable conversation of Katie Hnida

While Sarah Fuller (r.) has deservingly captivated the sports world this year, she was hardly the first woman to score in a college football game — that honor belongs to Katie Hnida (l.), who bore a heavy burden for her accomplishment.
While Sarah Fuller (r.) has deservingly captivated the sports world this year, she was hardly the first woman to score in a college football game — that honor belongs to Katie Hnida (l.), who bore a heavy burden for her accomplishment.
Illustration: AP

Just after Sarah Fuller calmly kicked her first extra point for Vanderbilt yesterday in a game against Tennessee, ESPN sent out the alert. “With her successful PAT, Sarah Fuller becomes the 1st woman to score in a Power 5 game.”

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And that has been the refrain in the last three weeks, as Fuller’s story gained speed. There is so much respect for the work that Fuller put in under the brightest of complicated spotlights. The athlete stepped over from her varsity sport, soccer, to fill a need for the Commodores due to a COVID-decimated roster and has filled in admirably, culminating in two successful kicks Saturday. And honestly, given what she has said in the weeks following her appearance, she seems like a pretty cool person.

And yet, noting that Fuller is the first woman in a Power 5 game is like saying Baker Mayfield is the first Power 5 player from Oklahoma to win the Heisman. Sounds like quite a feat, except Oklahoma had Sam Bradford in 2008. The birth of the term Power 5 as a concept is only a year or two older, and generally when these records get noted, it’s in the context of FBS teams.

This isn’t shade, it’s context. Fuller doesn’t have to be the first to matter, to have her accomplishments be just as impressive, to have her path be just as difficult. But let’s not erase the other women in this tiny sorority.

 

Katie Hnida became the first woman to kick points in an FBS game in 2003 for New Mexico, and April Goss followed that up for Kent State in 2015. Both of those women were football players, part of their respective teams for years, before getting their opportunities. Fuller’s story is inspiring, and her approach to pressure is excellent, but it isn’t to be confused with systemic progress.

Which may be why it is easier for college football rights holders to hail Fuller’s accomplishment as “first woman” rather than looking at the complexity that is the history of women in kicking. There have been other women in the game as well, Willamette’s Liz Heaton, Jacksonville State’s Ashley Martin, West Alabama’s Tonya Butler, and Lebanon Valley’s Brittany Ryan.

“The first one through the wall is often bloodied,” is a quote that someone gave Hnida a long time ago, and she has put it on her wall to remind her that breaking barriers is painful. Hnida first played football in Colorado, where she said she was raped by a teammate. She went public four years later, but charges were never filed.

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You can easily find her story. The way her coach, Gary Barnett, insulted her, the backlash on the Colorado campus, the abuse she endured from CU fans and rape apologists. Hnida also found the support of her new teammates in New Mexico, where she transferred and played. After experiencing the worst of what defying gender roles can bring, she found a team in every sense of the word, and the best of what sports has to offer.

Hnida’s story is likely part of the reason Fuller gets the “first woman” headline. Easier to ring-fence the ridiculously short Power 5 era than tell Hnida’s story again. You can’t have the light-hearted celebration when you are forced to remember how sports can treat those women who dare to break the barriers.

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And of course Fuller is only three weeks into her career and already gets a piece of that. There are some who complain that women in sports are notable at all, and wonder what Fuller is doing on the team to begin with.

No sooner had she kicked that devoted misogynist Clay Travis tweeted: “So Vandy has a field goal kicker who just made a 39 yard field goal, but Sarah Fuller is kicking their extra points and you’re telling me this isn’t a stunt? Come on.”

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Even Fuller’s teammates have said this isn’t a stunt, come on. The team was struggling, the coronavirus impacted it, and then-coach Derek Mason explained it like this before he was axed:

“I’m not about making statements,” Mason said. “This was out of necessity. You look at our week. Our students had gone home. The ability to have access to students and tryouts was almost nil in terms of like what’s available. ... That just happened to be the most viable option.”

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To be clear, no one gets this into the weeds about a mediocre college team’s kicking depth chart until one of them is a woman. Then you’ve got a bunch of incels on testosterone supplements talking about insoles and ball placement like they were Scott fucking Norwood’s backup.

Of course, a woman can never just play in a football game.

This story exposes all the awfulness in the conversation around sports. The idea that it is either a celebration or condemnation of Fuller depending on how you come down on the idea of women playing a man’s game, as though games were exclusive to one gender.

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Fuller would be an interesting footnote in the Vanderbilt season if it weren’t for gender. What makes this a story is that women are systematically excluded from men’s sports, so that when one of them works her way up to the starting roster, or takes an opportunity in the oddest of pandemic seasons, it’s a bit of a surprise. The gatekeepers let this one through!

And that’s why Hnida has been so elusive in the context around Fuller’s accomplishment. Hnida is a reminder that these stories aren’t just confetti and you-go-girl. Where are the women who are on football teams and working their way up the roster? There is no reason there shouldn’t be more.

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After Fuller made the Vanderbilt team, Hnida received seven bouquets from her New Mexico teammates. She checked the cards. They remembered Hnida broke through the wall, and she bears the scars.