- College football reporter
- Joined ESPN.com in 2007
- Graduate of Indiana University
One 30-second Super Bowl commercial will air on Sunday, only in the state of Utah, and it will be unlike any other shown nationally — school-age girls in football helmets, jerseys and full pads — tucking the ball and running, passing, blocking and … tackling.
This is not flag football, which the NFL recently spotlighted in its Pro Bowl and is a quickly growing sport for girls in California.
“Utah is the only place where girls who love football can play football,” says Sam Gordon in the commercial voiceover, years after she became a viral star in tackle football at age 9 and now continues to advocate for access to it as a sophomore soccer player at Columbia. “Be a part of history.”
Paid for by Sam’s dad, Brent, the advertisement is for what is believed to be the only girls’ tackle football league in the country. Brent, an attorney, insists the sport is powerful enough to change the lives of young women and is using Title IX legislation in an ongoing fight to bring it to them.
Brent Gordon (who declined to say how much he paid for the ad), has continued to pursue his daughter’s public dream of having girls’ tackle football offered at every high school in the state, but while that remains tangled in the judicial system, he said the Super Bowl was the perfect opportunity to continue the push.
“The commercial is a great way of showing people who might be skeptical about whether girls can play football, whether they really want to play football,” he told ESPN. “It’s essentially a 30-second pitch for why girls’ football is important to people who are in the community and some who might even be decision-makers about whether girls’ high school football will be offered or not here in Utah.”
In June 2017, the 45th anniversary of Title IX, Brent Gordon filed a lawsuit against 19 high schools in three school districts in Salt Lake County — Jordan, Granite and Canyon school districts — arguing that the way to remedy the disparity in sports participation numbers between high school boys and girls is to offer girls’ tackle football. They lost the case but appealed the decision, which ultimately said the courts couldn’t force the high schools to provide girls’ tackle football, and the decision is currently back in district court to be reviewed again.
“When my dad called me and told me that he’d gotten a slot for the Super Bowl commercial, I was just ecstatic,” Sam Gordon said on Thursday as she hustled between classes at Columbia. “I thought it was such a great idea. He has always been my biggest supporter, this league’s biggest supporter. So it’s incredible to see that he’s still fighting even when I’m no longer in the league, and it’s bigger than just us two and the Gordon family trying to let their daughter play. No, this is an entire community and entire gender, and my dad is still fighting even though I’m not there.”
Last season, the Utah football club had 650 participants and about 34 teams, a significant uptick from the 50 registrants when it began in 2015. It has also partnered with Under Armour as a sponsor and plays its championship game at Rice-Eccles Stadium, home of the Utah Utes, and where the boys’ high school football championship is held.
“We’re trying to recreate the best we can a comparable experience for girls,” Brent Gordon said, “but nothing compares to being able to play for your school, and have a pep rally and all that.”
Sam Gordon played on a boys’ football team until seventh grade, when it became clear that safety and risk of injury were becoming more of a factor. Instead of arguing to let the girls play on the boys’ team, they turned their attention to giving girls a team of their own. Sam Gordon played in the Utah Girls Tackle Football League until she graduated from high school.
“Just give us the opportunity to play,” she said. “When you look at Title IX and from a legal standpoint, girls’ participation numbers are drastically less than boys’ participation numbers and it’s fully made up by football and I think it’s impossible to ask girls to try and compete against boys who are twice their size,” she said. “There’s no way that I would be able to participate in boys’ high school football. I think it’s an unfair expectation and you’re just kind of making this ruling off of preexisting stereotypes. If you give us a chance to play, we will come out and play, and we’re not asking for much — just access to the fields and giving the girls the validation that they’re playing for their high school team.”
It’s an opportunity, Brent Gordon said, that goes beyond the game — intangibles you might not glean from the 30-second clip on Sunday.
“I get text messages and emails from parents all the time telling me, ‘My daughter was bullied because of her weight, and now she shows up to football and the coach says, ‘you’re going to be the star of my team,'” he said. “They’ve seen this transformation in their daughter from depressed and suicidal ideation to self-confident, self-esteem.”
“It’s something I believe in as a way I can help these girls, be supportive to them, and let other girls that are in similar situations that have no idea this is an opportunity, let them know that this is something maybe they want to do,” he said, “let them know that if this something they want to do, it’s out there for them.”
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