Sam Gordon is disappointed that she lost a lawsuit asking a federal court to force Utah high schools to offer girls their own tackle football league, but she is undaunted in her fight to help women gain equal access to all athletic opportunities.
“It’s disappointing, but it’s not the end of everything,” Gordon said. “We just have to find a different way to accomplish our goals. We might not get to play, but it’s not done for everyone else.”
“I’ve learned so many things from playing football. One of them is that if you put in the work, you’re going to get results. From my very first year, when I was 9 years old, I could put in work at practice or the weight room and see the results on the field. ... I also learned that you can accomplish anything you put your mind to. This just motivates me to do more.” — Sam Gordon
Judge Howard C. Nielsen Jr.’s decision in favor of the Utah High School Activities Association and three Salt Lake County school districts — Jordan, Granite and Canyons — found that neither the schools nor the association violated equal protection provisions of the Constitution or Title lX in the decision not to offer girls separate tackle football leagues.
Association attorney Mark Van Wagoner said he was pleased the UHSAA was “vindicated.”
“They’re not a misogynistic, evil group somehow trying to discriminate against girls,” he said. “They’re not that kind of people. In many ways, I was happy to have them on display, to testify and to have them be seen for what they really are. There was never any evidence that they impeded opportunities for girls.”
Gordon said it was validating to have attorneys who believed in their case, and a judge willing to deal with significant COVID-19 precautions in order to hold the three-week trial.
“The judge was really awesome,” she said. “Even though we disagree on the outcome, I appreciate that he fought to have the trial.”
Van Wagoner agrees with Gordon and her dad, Brent Gordon, who helped file the suit four years ago, that there were a lot of positives that came from the lawsuit, specifically the UHSAA’s emerging sports process.
Now if new sports want to be sanctioned, there is a specific process, as well as requirements that aid the association’s board of trustees in deciding when and how to sanction new sports. It allowed girls wrestling to be sanctioned this past winter, and it was a remarkable success with hundreds of girls participating across all six classifications.
“When I started the lawsuit, I went to Rob Cuff, the executive director of (UHSAA), and asked what were the thresholds to get a sport sanctioned,” said Brent Gordon, Sam’s father, who not only filed the lawsuit on behalf of Sam and several other players, but also created a girls tackle football league that had more than 300 participants in its last season. “There wasn’t a process. ... Now there is. ... Maybe we didn’t get the remedy we wanted, but more girls will get the opportunity to play sports.”
Van Wagoner said the emerging sports process was being discussed in subcommittees, but the lawsuit definitely expedited its use.
“The necessity of having it was made evident by the lawsuit,” Van Wagoner said. “Because it was clearly something that should happen. It was a good thing to happen.”
The lawsuit sought relief, which could have come in a number of forms but most obviously in forcing the districts involved in the lawsuit to offer girls-only tackle football teams. The ruling also explored whether requiring the districts involved in the lawsuit to sponsor girls football at their schools would be an equal offering to what boys have, and would it satisfy the requirements of Title IX.
The judge acknowledged that some girls who played on Utah high school football teams had negative, even discriminatory experiences, but suggested those were not the experience of all girls. Additionally, the judge didn’t see a failure by the districts or the UHSAA in preventing the incidents.
“Plaintiffs, however, have failed to establish that these incidents resulted from any practice or policy of UHSAA or any of the districts,” the ruling said. “To the contrary, these incidents appear to directly violate defendants’ explicit policies.”
The judge pointed out that most of the plaintiffs have graduated with only two or three remaining in high school and eligible to play.
“The 10th Circuit has made clear that Title lX does not require the creation of a team for one talented athlete,” the ruling said. “Given that no Title lX class has been certified, it is far from clear that the court may even order relief under Title lX that commences or continues beyond the spring of 2021, when plaintiffs graduate.”
In concluding his rationale for siding with the districts and the UHSAA, the judge said that according to a survey discussed during the trial, girls tackle football wasn’t among the top six sports not currently offered by the districts.
“Finally, the court is especially hesitant to impose such a heavy-handed remedy given that defendants sponsor high school sports, not intercollegiate sports,” the ruling said. “The policy guidance on which plaintiffs rely was designed for college athletics programs, which differ in significant respects from high school sports. ... The court does not believe that Title lX requires high schools to be at the very vanguard of starting new sports from scratch.”
Sam Gordon said she looks forward to taking the field in the girls tackle football league her dad started. This will be her final high school season, and while she’s not sure if she’ll find a way to keep playing football, she is hoping to continue fighting for equal access to athletics for women, and she hasn’t ruled out staying involved in football through managing or coaching.
“I’ve learned so many things from playing football,” she said. “One of them is that if you put in the work, you’re going to get results. From my very first year, when I was 9 years old, I could put in work at practice or the weight room and see the results on the field. ... I also learned that you can accomplish anything you put your mind to. This just motivates me to do more.”