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Former Utah high school football player testifies of harassment, isolation as only girl on team

About two-thirds of the 15 girls attorney Loren Washburn has interviewed said they were sexually assaulted while playing on boys football teams at Utah high schools

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SALT LAKE CITY — Laura Goetz loved football so much, she was willing to endure being the only girl on her high school team.

But over time, the nicknames, the sexist language, the jokes laced with sexual innuendo, the uncomfortable situations, including dressing in the boys locker room where boys were also dressing, and isolation was too much to bear. She didn’t just leave the team, she left the school.

“If you’re the only girl on a team like that it’s just a, it’s a challenging situation,” said Goetz’s attorney Tara Isaacson. “It’s not an equal opportunity. That’s the whole point is that there needs to be an alternative, there needs to be a girls tackle (football) team.”

Goetz testified in a lawsuit filed against Granite and Jordan School Districts and the Utah High School Activities Association. The lawsuit seeks to force the districts and association to provide girls tackle football leagues, claiming the current system isn’t a meaningful opportunity for girls and is a violation of Title lX and Equal Protection provisions of federal law.

Tuesday’s testimony included district officials and coaches — one from the girls tackle football league started six years ago by plaintiff Sam Gordon’s father, Brent Gordon, and one from West Jordan High, the school Goetz played for in her freshman and sophomore years.

Goetz’s passion for football began at age 10 when she discovered girls were allowed to play in the Ute Conference. She began playing in the girls tackle football league the first year it was created.

“I wasn’t planning on it, but some of my teammates (from Ute Conference) invited me to weight lifting, and it kind of translated into playing,” she said of why she decided to go out for West Jordan’s high school team when she was playing in the girls tackle league in the spring.

She said she had a good experience her freshman year, despite feeling isolated and uncertain of her place on the squad at times. But when West Jordan changed head coaches, her experience soured.

She said her coach called her “princess,” which she asked him not to do.

“I felt like it was degrading,” she said. “Because I’m the only girl on the team, and he was kind of looking at me like a girly girl, trying to categorize me.”

She was the only girl who played high school football in the entire Jordan District that season. She said the only other girls were managers for the team, responsible for getting water for the players and assisting coaches with setup and equipment needs.

Goetz talked about not having a separate changing area, and how she saw “the backsides” of some of her teammates. She and attorney Loren Washburn discussed several text messages in a group chat set up by coaches in order to communicate with the entire team at once.

She didn’t have a phone, so the messages came to her mom. In one group text someone made a crude, sexually explicit dare, and in another, someone texted a vulgar picture to the group.

“I thought it was inappropriate, and it made me really uncomfortable,” Goetz said.

Under cross examination from association attorney Craig Perry, she noted that the school’s athletic director would “yell” at the players and disciplined others who said or acted inappropriately toward Goetz. She also never asked for a separate changing area, although she did attempt to use the girls locker room for home games but sometimes it was locked or in use.

Last winter, she said one of the team managers brought her the headshot of herself that had been hanging with the team photos, and had been torn into four pieces and tossed under the display case.

U.S. District Court Judge Howard C. Nielson Jr. closed the courtroom to reporters for part of Goetz’s testimony at her attorney’s request. Afterward, Isaacson said an initially good experience for Goetz turned into harassment and bullying that eventually drove her not just from the team but from the school.

“She’s a perfect example of someone who loves football,” Isaacson said. “She’s been playing since she was 10, and loved the game, got encouraged to be on the boys team, and actually initially had a good experience. But then the next year, it just became tougher and tougher. She has encountered some really challenging interactions.

“And then I think the torn up picture sort of summarizes how ... some of her teammates felt about her, how they made her feel. They felt like she didn’t belong, that she shouldn’t be there. That girl shouldn’t be on the team.”

In earlier testimony, Utah High School Activities Association Executive Director Rob Cuff said there have been 91 girls who’ve played high school football in the state. Washburn said he’s interviewed 15 girls who played on high school teams, and “two thirds of them have been sexually assaulted by a teammate.”

“I know 15 feels like a small number, but that’s a sixth of the history,” he said. “That’s an extraordinarily high number that has experienced a sexual assault.”

Of those girls who will or who have testified in the case, two told Washburn they were sexually assaulted. He said for some of the girls, it’s taken years to fully admit or be able to discuss what happened to them.

More players are scheduled to testify Wednesday, as well as more district and school officials. The districts and association will likely begin their defense late this week or early next week, with the trial ending next week.