Samantha Gordon is certainly not the first girl to play Pop Warner football. If she continued to play, she would not be the first girl to play at the high school level. Many women have kicked and punted for high school and college teams. At least one woman, the younger sister of Jets’ center Nick Mangold, has played offensive linemen at the high school level. Placekick holder Patricia Palinkas was the first woman to play professional football in a league made up predominantly of men; she held the football for her husband, Steven Palinkas, for the minor league football team, the Orlando Panthers.
What is different about Samantha Gordon is that, at least at the age of nine, she’s really good, and not as a kicker, punter or placekick holder. Gordon plays running back, some quarterback, and some defense. She takes hits and gives hits, and consistently outruns all the boys on the team, whose best chance for stopping her appears to be to pull her hair.
Research by gender scholars demonstrates that it is much easier for girls to enter the domain of boys than it is for boys to act girlish. Right now, Samantha Gordon is reaping the rewards that society often gives to girls who demonstrate mastery of “masculine” activities. Tomboyish tendencies in girls usually come to an end around puberty, when the pressure on young girls and boys to fit in rather than stand out is turned on full force. Who knows whether Gordon will choose to continue playing football into middle school, high school or college? Who knows if the talent she seems to demonstrate at this early age will continue? But what if it did? Could Samantha Gordon play in the NFL?
One of the questions I often ask students in my sociology of gender course is: Why are sports segregated on the basis of gender in the first place? What would the sports world look like if we did not segregate our sports by gender? Would there be men playing in the Lingerie Football League?
Suppose, I ask them, all professional sports followed the model of Major League Baseball or wrestling. Instead of the NBA and the WNBA, there would instead be various tiers based on ability or weight class. Teams would be organized not by gender, but by ability. Would any women play in the very top tier leagues? Would Samantha Gordon be able to play in the NFL, or would she be confined to the C or D league professional football teams, along with a small scattering of talented women?
Most students–both women and men–argue quite vehemently that no women would be able to compete at the top level. They are physically incapable of competing with the best men; they simply do not have the athletic ability. This argument assumes that everyone who plays at the elite level of professional sports is there solely because of superior athletic ability. Certainly, it would be hard to play in the NFL, MLB, NHL or NBA with no athletic ability at all; but surely work ethic, sports intelligence, motivation and (dare I suggest?) who you know might also have something to do with it?
But let’s look at the natural athletic ability argument a bit closer before dismissing it completely. Perhaps women don’t have quite the same level of athletic ability that men do…for now. There’s plenty of evidence that this has less to do with anything “natural” than it has to do with society and culture. Many presumably “natural” differences between women and men have changed over time. Average height differences between women and men are closing, most demographers believe as a result of families worldwide providing equal amounts of food to their daughters and sons, which in turn affects their adult height. The difference between men’s world records in distance running events and women’s have been lessening. These are just two examples of “natural” differences that appear to have a cultural basis.
Athletic ability is certainly partly about genetic inheritance, but it is also very much a product of a culture which encourages different groups of people to engage in different kinds of activities. Why does Kenya produce so many great distance runners? Is it genetics, or the fact that in the rural areas of Kenya, children run long distances on a daily basis from a very young age? Is this an advantage over American athletes who run not at all as children and who often are unable to start running competitively until high school? If boys receive more opportunities to play football, baseball and basketball at a younger age than girls do, could this partially explain their superior athletic ability? If more girls like Samantha Gordon start playing football at young ages, would they be able to narrow the gap in athletic ability?
Which brings us to the real heart of the matter. Who knows if Samantha Gordon could play in the NFL someday? Maybe she could. But how much sense does it make for a 9 year old girl to dedicate her life to a future that is only a vague possibility? The chances for any 9 year old boy of someday being able to play in the NFL are infinitesimal, but still more possible than the chances for a 9 year old girl. Thanks to Title IX, girls have more motivation to play sports than they have in the past; there are, in theory, equal numbers of college scholarships to be earned for female and male athletes. But what happens after college?
If you’re a girl who plays soccer, there are no professional women’s soccer leagues left in the United States. You can play in the WNBA and make a maximum of $87,000 per year, compared to the lowest paid NBA player, who still earns $700,000. If you fell in love with Little League as a girl, you’ve already been shuttled into softball, where you can play in the National Pro Fastpitch league for a whopping $6,000. And if you’re Samantha Gordon, the most popular professional woman football players compete in their underwear.
Sociologists understand that motivation is connected to the ability to imagine yourself in a future role. If it is fairly easy to imagine someone like you scoring the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl, then it’s going to increase your dedication to achieving that dream. But if it seems like something that is impossible not just for you to imagine, but for anyone to imagine, how long can that kind of dream be sustained?
Who knows what Samantha Gordon will want as she grows up? Perhaps playing football with the boys will get old or boring. Perhaps she doesn’t really have the right stuff. But watching her dash down the field on youtube, perhaps we can begin to dream a different kind of sports dream. Watching her tackle, perhaps we can imagine what it would be like if more women played alongside men. Perhaps we can make the answer to the question–could Samantha Gordon play in the NFL–a little more likely to be, “Yes!”