Sunday, February 03, 2013

Nine-year-old female football player becomes an inspiration

This year’s Super Bowl will probably not be remembered for the Sam Gordon’s appearance, but NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell hopes that the 9-year-old girl will serve as an inspiration for many—including other young girls. 

Gordon became an internet sensation with a YouTube video her father posted that shows her outrunning the boys in a football game. Since November, when the video was posted, Gordon has been receiving a plethora of media attention, including a feature on Good Morning America’s “Play of the Day.” She also became the first female football player to appear Wheaties box.

Sam Gordon’s story is fascinating for a number of reasons.  For one, there is the Justin Bieber-ish resemblance: young talent, YouTube video leading to commercial success… Minus the perfume line, she’s got it all.

On a more serious note, the celebration of Sam Gordon is remarkable, but should be consumed with caution. Let’s go over the positives first. She is a girl playing in a sport that is notorious for excluding women. The coverage focuses on her athletic accomplishments. The media cite her stats (1,911 Rush yds, 35 TD, 65 tackles), highlight her pace and agility and even offer a commentary of her plays. In a perfect world, all female athletes would be covered the way Sam Gordon is. 

Her confidence also provides a positive example for young girls who strive to succeed on boys’ teams and/or in sports that do not provide equitable opportunities for girls. In fact, Abby Wambach from the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, who invited Gordon to training and a game, considered meeting the young double-sport athlete an honor. 

Jane McManus, from espnW, quoted Wambach saying, "Sam is the bi-product of a powerful movement in women's sports. Her family provided her the opportunity to play whatever sport she loved and her story [is] one that I hope will influence many girls to follow their dreams in all sports. I was honored to treat her to a game as she inspires me to do more and be better. All I can say is, thank you Sam Gordon for your impact on all of us."

McManus also reported that Gordon preferred soccer over football and plans on playing football for only a couple more years. Her travels across the country will also presumably end with the Super Bowl attendance and, as McManus said, Gordon will return to her normal life.

Goodell invited Gordon to attend the Super Bowl as a spectator. Currently, that’s about the closest women can get to the field unless they are, of course, cheerleaders. Or unless the NFL has a referee lockout and a female ref just so happens to be available.  

Although Gordon receives kind questions about her future plans with football, I have yet to see an article that actually acknowledges the systemic exclusion of women from football by the leagues, schools and by courts. Title IX does not help much here either because of the contact sport provision—football does not “count.” Despite the occasional participation of girls and women on football teams on different levels, they remain in a token status.

Considering the alarming findings about injuries in football, particularly concussions—even in pee-wee—perhaps Gordon is also smart to plan on a soccer career. (On a concussion note, rising rates for girls in soccer has also received some attention.) But before we get carried away by Gordon’s potential to become a superstar athlete, let us remember that she is only 9 years old. 

Gordon's media exposure, however, is worthy of mention because provides an interesting glimpse into the U.S. sporting culture. On the one hand, the celebratory coverage communicates that girls and women in sport “can” do it. On the other hand, the she can do whatever she wants to rhetoric in a sport like football is close to an illusion. 

I am not sure if advocating for increased opportunities for women in football is be the best idea in light of the rising justified panic about head injuries. But when it comes to contact sports, girls and women are far from inclusion. So, if the strategy is to celebrate girls and women in football, the prevailing structural barriers need more attention. 

--- Dunja Antunovic