The closest I ever came to playing organized football was in high school powder-puff games my junior and senior year.
It was a homecoming-week tradition in which the boys and girls traded places. The guys put on exaggerated cheerleading uniforms and stood on the sidelines; the ladies created personalized jerseys and played.
At the time, I didn’t think twice about participating. When I look back on the experience, after seeing Sarah Fuller make history with Vanderbilt as the first woman to play in a Power 5 football game, I’m kind of disappointed.
I’m disappointed that growing up, the only opportunity women I knew had to play football was in a corny powder-puff game when we were so clearly capable of more.
Fuller, a senior goalkeeper for the SEC champion Vanderbilt women’s soccer team, and the countless women whose footprints in football guided her into the history books are proof of that.
“This year, last week actually, I was on the bus watching the Vanderbilt football team,” Fuller told reporters this week. “I was like, ‘I feel like I can do that.’ My teammates were like, ‘No. That’s funny.’ And I said, ‘No, I really do. I think I can do that.’ Then it happened.”
Increasingly, there are more opportunities for women in football. In 2021, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics will have women’s varsity college flag football. Still, women lack opportunities to learn and develop in the game, specifically 11-player tackle football, because feeder programs for girls are virtually nonexistent.
In 2015, the Utah Girls Tackle Football League became the first known league of its kind in the United States.
In the last five years, the National Federation of State High School Associations has reported a gradual increase in girls’ participation in 11-player tackle football. Between 2015 and 2019, girls’ participation increased by nearly 1,000 players. California leads the country in participation with 593 girls playing in 2018-19.
There are 13 states in the country, including Illinois, that reported zero participation from girls in football during the 2018-19 football season.
So what’s the answer for women’s irrefutable desire to play a game unmistakably monopolized by men for men?
From the perspective of some of the brightest minds in football, the future for women in the game shouldn’t be based on their ability to succeed on coed teams.
Women deserve their own sustainable league, not because they can’t earn positions on men’s teams but because they shouldn’t have to.
“The sport is going to be inherently limited to girls who are the exception if the only opportunities for them are on men’s teams,” Jen Welter told the Chicago Sun-Times in a phone interview. “Why does it have to be that she’s different in order to be in this game?”
Welter speaks from experience.
Before she was the first woman to coach in the NFL, Welter was the first woman to play on a men’s professional team in a contact position when she came into a game for the Indoor Football League’s Texas Revolution in the third quarter at running back.
There are plenty of women who’ve broken football barriers and become “the first to.”
Patricia Palinkas became the first woman to play professional football in 1970.
Katie Hnida was the first woman to score in a Division I college football game for New Mexico in 2003.
Collette Smith became the first black woman to coach in the NFL and the first woman to coach for the Jets in 2017.
Toni Harris was the first woman to accept a scholarship to play football at a four-year college as a position player.
Women have proved they’re capable, but the point remains that they should be given the opportunity to succeed apart from being the exception among men.
Several women’s leagues have been established over the years, but none has been sustainable.
The Women’s Football League Association is a new venture trying to change that. Founded in 2018, the WFLA was set to begin its inaugural season in 2020 before COVID-19 hit.
Founder Lupe Rose is preparing the 32-team league, which includes franchise owners such as rapper and entrepreneur Ja Rule, executive producer and music manager Debra Antney and WNBA champion Tamecka Dixon, for what she hopes will be a 2021 start.
Smith, who left coaching after the Jets’ 2017 training camp, is working on defining her role with the WFLA but views the league as a new promise for women in football. She didn’t play organized football until she was 42 after discovering a women’s pro league on the internet.
She often wonders how different her life would’ve been if she’d had the opportunities that are available now for women when she was growing up playing on her block in Queens Village, New York.
“I played in the Women’s Football Alliance and the Independent Women’s Football League,” Smith said. “As much as they gave us women who loved to play football, they also didn’t dream big. It was only a place to play. The WFLA really, sincerely believes that women deserve to get paid to play.”
Many of us are left wondering about what could have been if our dreams stretched a little further, if society believed in our potential as much as that of our male counterparts.
We can’t do anything about that now, but we can make sure the next generation of women isn’t left with the same regret.