SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH — Laura Goetz is really good.
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Not good for a sophomore good; or good for her size good; or good for a girl good. She’s just straight-up good. At the end of a long battle to win a game, her teammates hoist her up onto their shoulders. They love her, they say in interviews. They trust her. They want to protect her. She is their quarterback, after all.
But before Goetz calls the first play of the day, before she even does her very first warmup throws, there is a problem. It’s the same problem she always has. It’s a problem most of the girls in the whole league have every single practice and every single game: the shoulder pad problem.
It takes two girls to put on a single player’s shoulder pads. The first part is easy. There is a hole. You put your head through it. Now the shoulder pads are safely on your shoulders, where they belong. But then things get tricky. The buckles that secure the shoulder pads so they don’t shift during play connect underneath the arm: one near the armpit, one closer to the bra line. If you’re a girl—and on these fields, everyone is a girl—and your body isn’t quite as flat as it used to be, you can’t buckle the pads that keep you safe by yourself.
“They’re supposed to be tight, so it’s hard to put them on with one arm, and that’s impossible for us,” Goetz says. She motions, the way teenage girls do with an embarrassed pride, to her chest.
Several girls mention that they wear two compression sports bras to make their boobs fit under the pads. If your boobs are too big for even that to work, you have to push them down under the pads so they stick out. But this has its own problems. The way football players block, they often grab near the bottom of the shoulder pads, so if your boobs are sticking out, you get blocked there, and it hurts. Plus, playing football does not stop high school girls from wearing acrylic nails.
“It’s typical. They make the pads for boys. That’s why they don’t fit.” Gracie Lamoreaux, an incoming senior, says at a practice. “The gear just isn’t made for us.” she says. “I mean, look.” She motions to a teammate running post-route drills a few yards away. After catching the ball, the girl grabs the belt on her pants and wrenches it to the side to keep them from falling down. Later, she explains that her hips and her waist needed different sizes, and her hips won.
The problems start with the gear, but they don’t end there. The football world—the culture, the stereotypes, the assumptions, the shoulder pads, and the opportunities to play—isn’t made for girls. People are constantly reminding them that this is a sport for boys, that football is not for them. But here, in Salt Lake City, Utah, the girls are given boys’ pads, put on teams of their own, and taught to throw, and catch, and tackle.
“Everyone thinks that girls can’t play football. No. They think that [girls] shouldn’t play football,” Goetz says. “We spend a lot of time thinking about how to get to play, and where we can play, and how to convince people to let us play and sometimes it’s just like… I don’t always want to do this stuff. I want to just play football.”
This is the only place they can: the only all-girls tackle football league in America. They play on Saturdays, on the backfield of an elementary school. It is good, but it is not enough. They want to play on Friday nights. They want to play under the lights. They want to get a letterman jacket and star on an all-girls high school team, and be awarded captain in front of their peers. They want it so badly they’re fighting a Title IX lawsuit for the right to play in court.
But on game days they have to focus. They forget the comments, the snide remarks, the questions about their safety and their gender, and they braid each other’s hair and paint on each other’s eye black and help buckle every shoulder pad into place. The only thing they care about on Saturdays is winning.
Goetz’s team, the West Jordan Lightning, is one of the best in the league. The week I visited in early May, they were convinced that this could be their year, the year they won the championship. After all, the week before had been their biggest win of the season.
They had just done the impossible; they had beaten Sam Gordon.
Sam Gordon—like every girl in this league—is a girl who plays football. To many, she’s the only girl who plays football.
Gordon is short for a quarterback (barely five feet tall) and wears her extremely long straight chestnut hair in a low ponytail when she practices. She plays for the Herriman 1 Team (there are two teams in the Herriman high school district). To every other girl in the league, she is the one to beat.
That’s because she’s good, but it’s also because, in this little corner of the world, Sam Gordon is famous. In 2012, a video of her went viral. In it, her face is rounder, her hair unstraightened. She is still a kid then, but boy can she run. Wearing shoulder pads the same length as her torso, Gordon weaves through the boys she plays against and into the end zone over and over and over again. Almost 5 million people have watched that highlight reel.
And she is still good. Her throws are always on target in practice and her understanding of play strategy is exquisite. There’s a reason the NFL’s marketing department has made Sam Gordon the face of girls who like football. She’s been NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s special guest at the Super Bowl. In 2017, she was awarded the NFL Game Changer award. Her face has been on a Wheaties box. This winter, Sam was in an NFL-produced commercial for the league’s 100th anniversary that aired during the Super Bowl. She wears a red dress and holds out the ball saying, “You want this? Come and get it.”
“I kept telling the girls [on the Lightning] to say they beat the Herriman team. She’s not the whole team.” says Melissa Worthen, a mother of a high school player on the Lightning. When you watch a team play Herriman 1, they do target Gordon, though, and it’s easy to see that she’s the one they all want to beat. She may also be the one they all want to be.
Until this season, Sam Gordon had never been beaten before. Even the game the Lightning won was a nail-biter. The Lightning were up with 36 seconds left, and they’d pulled some of their best players. The game was over. But no game against Sam Gordon is ever over with time still on the clock.
“She’d have five people all blocking for her, which means you have to move all of your players and like weave through it,” Goetz says. “It’s smart, but way hard to get past.”
On the last play of the game, Gordon took the ball herself and ran it all the way down the field for a touchdown. It was then 13-12 Lightning with six seconds left, and Herriman 1 went for the two-point conversion. The Lightning defense stopped them. That win, headed into the last game of the season, made the Lightning the only remaining undefeated team.
In some ways, though, every girl in this league is forever indebted to Gordon, and off the field, they all speak highly of her. “It sucks to play her for sure, but without her, none of us would get to be here,” Allysha Johns, a fullback and middle linebacker for the Lightning, says. “I love this game so much, and I’m so glad that I get to play it.”
The league almost started by accident. Sam Gordon’s highlight reel had just gone viral and she was becoming a little bit famous in Salt Lake City. Her father, Brent Gordon, an affable lawyer who loves to talk, was stage managing her meteoric rise. On Sam’s Facebook page one day he got a message from someone who wanted to start a football team for girls. He was a little skeptical, but a couple months later Sam was speaking at a middle school and wanted to do a demonstration. She asked for a girl to volunteer from the audience.
“It seemed like every girl’s hand went up,” Brent Gordon says now. “And the lightbulb went on for me. It’s not just Sam who wants to play. It’s so many girls. And they want to play each other.”
The person who messaged Brent, Crystal Sacco, had played tackle football for three years in a women’s professional league. “I remembered not even being able to think about football when I was in fifth grade,” Sacco says. “If I could have, I know I would have played, so we decided to do this.” Sacco and Brent Gordon teamed up, and instead of creating a club team to play in a boys league, they created a whole league for girls to play each other in 2015.
“The league wouldn’t have been successful without her. Sam [Gordon] was the face we needed to get us going,” Sacco says. “But now it’s more than her. This is a family affair now. It’s about all of the girls.”
That first year, the league started with 50 players. The next year, they doubled in size. Then they doubled again. In 2018, 300 girls signed up to play tackle football. This year for the league’s fifth-anniversary season, there were 446 girls. That’s an 892% increase in five years. Girls 4th-12th grades play on 24 teams, and they all seem to love it.
For Allysha Johns, every day is girls football day. She coaches the Lightning’s elementary team on defense in addition to playing on the high school team, so her car basically stays loaded with jerseys, whistles, coaching bags, cones, shoulder pads, cleats, and snacks. “It’s her whole life,” her dad says. Monday she coaches, Tuesday she goes to her own practice, Wednesday more coaching, Thursday more practice. On Friday, the Lightning teams (all coached by Laura’s dad Shawn Goetz) all practice on the same field, so Allysha is there doing double duty. Saturday is game day. “Pretty much any homework I do on Sundays,” she says. “Every other day is football.”
Laura Goetz has a similar schedule but instead of coaching she plays on the boys high school team as well. She started playing with the girls the first season the league existed. She came home from school with a flyer, presented it to her dad, and demanded to play.
The league wants football to be for every girl: not just rich ones, not just athletic ones. “Utah is as white as can be. It’s 98 percent pasty white people. But my girls’ football league is about 35 percent minorities,” Brent Gordon says. He credits this with the low-cost entry point. Sam’s soccer, he says, can cost him thousands of dollars a year. The sign up cost for this league is $140 plus cleats. “If you don’t have cleats, we’ll find some cleats for you. Every girl who wants to play is going to play: period,” he says.
At the Lightning’s Friday practices, a slew of parents sits under the shade of a big tree in folding camping chairs and watch their daughters run drills and practice hits. They hand their daughters water bottles and tape up their cuts. In this way it is the same as every recreational sports league. HeaNisi Kinikini says football has taken over her entire life. Her husband is a coach on the West Jordan boys high school football team and now her two daughters and three nieces are all signed up in the Utah Girls Tackle Football League. Her daughter begged to be put in the girls league after playing at the high school on the boys team. “It’s just more fun,” she says. “I like playing here more.”
At the end of the Herriman combined practice a few days before game day, the girls stand in a circle discussing what they will order at Taco Bell. One girl on the Herriman II team, Cenise Richmond, carries herself completely differently when the shoulder pads are on. “Football has totally changed the way I view myself,” she says. “Like I know my body can do tackles. I’m strong. I like myself more now.”
The other girls in the circle agree. Part of it is that the team is supportive. When Destiny Marsing showed up to practice 20 minutes late with her hair newly highlighted and cut, all 30 girls turned from their drills to yell compliments at her. “Before I started playing football, I just never really felt like I had any power,” she says. “Now I’m so passionate about this. I want to play. I feel like myself out here.”
The girls love football and they love the league, but when I ask them about playing sports at school, a lot of them look less happy. At her high school, Sam Gordon plays soccer. She plays club soccer, too. Any athletic girls who want a chance at college scholarships have to play something else.
“If there was a girls football team at my high school I would absolutely play on it, no doubt,” Laura Goetz says.
That’s why the members of the Utah Girls Tackle Football League are suing their school districts. They want to play on Friday nights, too, under the big lights.
The Gordons are an offense family. Sam plays quarterback. She knows what she wants: to play on a girls high school football team. And so the Gordons are going after it.
Brent Gordon is an attorney, and a couple of years ago the Gordons decided to take their team to a game they are pretty sure they can win. They filed a lawsuit against the Jordan School District alleging that the state of Utah and several school districts were in violation of Title IX, a federal law passed in 1972 that bars gender discrimination in any educational program or activity that receives Federal funds.
Right now, their case seems solid.
Title IX compliance does not mean—as a representative from the Granite school district says in a deposition obtained by Deadspin—that an equal number of sports are offered to boys and girls. If a school, for example, has one sport for boys and one sport for girls but 10 boys play that one sport and only two girls play (assuming the population of the school is 50/50), that school is not Title IX compliant.
For a school to be Title IX compliant it must pass one of three prongs in the law. A judge has found that the school districts in the Gordon’s case have already failed the first two: 1) having an equal number of boys and girls playing sports based on population percentages and 2) a proven “history of continuing proactive program expansion” for the underrepresented sex.
According to discovery documents in the case, the three school districts are down 2,200 girls athletic positions. With 18 high schools between them that comes out to about 60 spots for girls. Girls football wouldn’t create all of those spots, but it would fill a lot of them.
The school districts’ last chance to be in compliance with Title IX, then, is to pass the third prong of the law, which states that the school must demonstrate that “the interests and abilities of the members of the underrepresented sex have been fully and effectively accommodated by the present program.” In other words: the school has unequal participation in sports and has made little effort to remedy this problem because the students are satisfied with the offerings.
Loren Washburn, a fast-talking Salt Lake City based lawyer representing the Gordon’s case, says, “The school districts can say as much as they want that as far as they know they’re offering every opportunity the students want. But I just keep saying, how? How do you know?” The school districts have not said how they know.
Right now, it is unclear who the onus is on to prove the district’s failure to satisfy the third prong. Does the school need to prove that the students are satisfied by the sport offerings? Or does the league need to prove that there is interest?
In May, the federal judge overseeing this case ordered a survey to be written by all parties to poll the students. Part of the reason there is no clear answer to these questions is that there isn’t a lot of legal precedent for Title IX cases at the high school level. Many cases (like the 1996 case for girls wrestling brought by Courtney Barnett and Melony Monahan) become moot because the plaintiffs graduate from school before the court can issue a final decision. Luckily for the the Gordon’s case, they have 500 potential plaintiffs, the youngest of whom areeight years away from graduation. It’s going to be hard for the districts to prove that these girls are satisfied with the offerings they have.
“Oh. If we had a high school [tackle] team I think all those girls would play, and probably more,” Kaili Ackerman, who plays for the Bingham team, says.“It takes a lot of time and fighting to go out for the boys team, and I think a lot of girls don’t want to do that.”
In the meantime, some of the girls in the league do play with the boys at their high schools. At the Lightning game, Laura Goetz’s coach for the sophomore boys high school team came to watch her play. “She’s smart. She’s so smart,” he says. “But I’m not here to recruit, I promise. I’m just here to support her.” By the end of the game, though, another Lightning player had asked to attend workouts with the boys’ teams.
But most of the girls don’t want to play with the boys. Some quit playing with boys in middle school because they feared the size disparity would create more injuries. But when the girls talk about why they want an all-girl high school football team, they all use the same word: “vibes.”
“You have boys that are forced to play by their parents because they want them to be a big star. It gets kind of intense and not as fun because they don’t want to play,” Allysha Johns says. “So they either don’t want to play or are kind of snotty.”
No state in America currently offers school-sanctioned girls-only football. But then again, there’s no other league of 500 girls playing tackle football in the entire country.
“I see it in their eyes. If [the school districts] give them the opportunity, they’ll run with it. I know they will.” Dan Powers, who coaches boys football at Murray High School, says. “There’s more energy here. There’s more passion for the game.”
So why stop the girls from playing in the high schools? It’s not money. (For this year’s championship game in a recreational league, the Utah Girls Tackle Football League charged $5 a head or $20 a family for tickets. The gate receipts totaled $3,500.) It’s not interest. It could only help these school districts get closer to Title IX compliance. So why not give the girls a gridiron?
“The only thought that would make any sense to me is that [the school district] is nervous about concussions,” Sam Gordon says. “But I’ve had almost every single girl on my team get a concussion in soccer. There has been one girl on my [football] team, one girl, in five years who has gotten a concussion.”
“The question people are always asking is ‘Should girls play football?’” Brent Gordon says. “That question assumes that girls need to be protected. Now, I think the concussion concern is valid, and no one wants any girls to get hurt. Why not make any sport or any activity safer? What I’m saying is there is a disconnect between the actual injury rates of the sport and people’s sudden concern for these girls.”
A study released in March 2017 by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons backs up Sam Gordon’s anecdotal argument. The study found that girls were 12.1 percent more likely to sustain a concussion than boys. Football actually came in fourth on the list for highest concussion percentages behind girls’ soccer, girls’ volleyball, and girls’ basketball. The authors of the study cite a potential increase in headers that could be boosting the number of soccer concussions. Another study, from 2007, found that girls’ soccer and boys’ football had almost equal concussion rates at the high school level.
Still, fewer concussions than another dangerous sport doesn’t make a sport safe. Football is a contact sport, and the girls’ tackle football league knows that. They’ve made some adjustments to the game to try and make it safer. There are no kickoffs or punts in the girls’ league. Kickoffs account for almost 25 percent of concussions in football. Instead, the other team simply takes possession of the ball at the 30. And that’s not such an oddball idea. Perhaps even the NFL may rid itself of kickoffs in the future.
“People make such a big deal about the injuries,” Sam Gordon says. “But it’s not that bad. All sports have injuries.”
“These girls want to be here.” Tessie Mae, a former women’s professional football player and coach for the Lightning, says. “You always know who is going to stay in the sport after you start full hitting. Some girls thrive on that. They don’t just love to play football, they love to hit.”
In fact, the girls are proud of their injuries most of the time. They are proud of the scrapes on their knees, the bruises on their calves, the cuts on their forearms, their battle scars. “When I was in Hawaii, I had gotten cleated up here,” Hailee Hiatt says, laughing. She shows on her upper arm the remains of a bruise once lavender, now a sickly yellow. “In all my Instagrams, I just made sure I was facing the other way and like tilting it out of the picture.”
In the weekend I spent in Utah, most of the injuries (if you can even call them that) I saw were during the elementary school games, when several girls on each team got the air knocked out of them. “More than half of the girls out there are first year,” Laura Goetz says. “They can hit, but they don’t know how to take a hit. So it’s mainly shock.” The worst injury I saw was a bad shin sprain.
The Saturday I was there, Goetz’s team won in another nail-biter. At the end of the game the Lightning lifted Goetz up onto their shoulders for a team picture. They headed into the playoffs the next week as the only undefeated team in the high school division. But their dominance ended there.
“One bad day at the wrong time,” head coach Shawn Goetz said of their first playoff game. Laura dislocated her thumb, and though Tessie Mae popped it back in, she couldn’t really throw a spiral and the team fell apart to the Herriman II team.
Herriman I played Herriman II in the high school championship game, and Sam Gordon continued her reign. For now, at least. “We have a lot of girls coming back next year,” Laura Goetz says. “I’m trying to work hard and learn a lot and next year come back stronger.”
A few weeks before the Herriman teams even knew they would be playing each other in the Championship game, they met for a Thursday night practice on a big open field in the late Spring. The sun was golden, setting slowly over the Western mountains, and the team had just finished running drills and were standing huddled around bags of clothing and bottled gatorade.
Prom was that weekend, and they were debating over when they should get their nails done. The football games wouldn’t be over until 2:00 p.m. on Saturday and by then it would probably be too late. They are still girls, after all. That weekend, a few of their dates showed up to watch them play, and though I tried to talk to them they were shy. “I love watching her play,” is the only thing any of them would say. And I could see in their faces that they were proud.
“I’m in this lawsuit because no straight boy has ever been able to date the captain of the football team and brag about it. And I want that to happen for these girls,” Loren Washburn, the lawyer, says. When I relayed this idea to a few of the girls on the Herriman teams, their faces broadened and their smiles lit up. “Yeah,” they say quietly. “That would be really, really cool,” and “I want that.”
They are fighters, even though they want to just play football. “I like feeling like I can do all the things that guys do. Growing up, it is really belittling seeing all these things that guys do that you can never do,” Sadie Ann Thomson, a Herriman player, says. “I guess that’s why I wanted to play in the girls league. This is something that all boys do, and that girls just watch and never get to play. I think that’s really unfair.”
In her free time, Thomson referees games in the boys recreational leagues and says that playing has taught her to watch the football differently. Maybe, she hopes, she can keep doing that even after the opportunities for her to play run out after she graduates high school. For Goetz, the goal is a little different. She’s going to try and play for as long as she can, and when there’s nowhere for her to play anymore, she says she might try coaching. Sam Gordon, knowing there aren’t many opportunities in football ahead for her, is hoping to play soccer in college.
All of the parents and all of the girls in this league say that they’ve faced criticism from people who don’t think girls should be playing football, and don’t like that they hit each other. “I think they should get a new opinion,” Laura Goetz says. “Playing football is a very uncommon thing for girls, but I don’t think you should discriminate against what somebody wants to do just because they’re a girl.”
Mostly they try to ignore their critics. If anyone’s mind is going to change, they say, it won’t be from an argument; it’ll be from watching the game.
Come watch us play, they say, and you’ll see it. You’ll see the confidence and the arrogance and the beauty and the athleticism all at once, and it will shock you. You might even like it.
At the end of the last game she won, high off the adrenaline of a close win, Laura Goetz’s eyes were ablaze. “Listen. I love this game,” she said. “I love the hype and the energy and the compassion and the family aspect that football brings. No other sport is like this.”
She motioned to her friends to come over and help her. She couldn’t get her jersey off alone. It was too tight, and the buckles on the shoulder pads too hard to reach with her hands still taped. “I don’t think any other sport has this kind of aggressive attitude to it. Maybe that’s why they don’t want girls to play football,” she said. “But honestly? I just don’t care about them. I’m going to play. I have to play.”
GIFs: Senior Producer: Kiran Chitanvis | Creative Producer: Anders Kapur | Creative Producer: Jorge Corona | Camera Operator: PJ Rickards