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August 3, 2021

Sarah Fuller's talent shows the need for female representation in male-dominated sports

By CYNTHIA HU | December 9, 2020

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COURTESY OF VANDERBILT ATHLETICS

Fuller's groundbreaking appearance reverberated throughout the football world. 

One of America’s greatest pastimes is sports, but as the popularity of sports increased, so has the divide between genders. There are clear categories for sports based on which gender is most represented. For example, football, basketball, baseball, wrestling, boxing and hockey are examples of male-dominated sports because they are thought of as being more “masculine.” On the other hand, gymnastics and figure skating are thought to be female-dominated sports because they are more “feminine.”

Unfortunately, the lack of representation for the minority genders is an ongoing issue. Especially in, arguably, the biggest and most popular sport in the U.S. — football. 

Even if we almost never see a woman playing during a National Football League (NFL) game, it is allowed. In an interview, longtime NFL communications executive Greg Aiello confirmed this statement.

“The NFL has no male-only rule. All human beings are eligible, as long as they are three years out of high school and have a usable football skillset,” he said.

On Nov. 28, the rare sight of a female player on the football field became a reality.

Making history, Vanderbilt University’s Sarah Fuller is the first woman to play in a Power Five football game. She punted a low, directional kick of 30 yards before the opposing team fell on the ball. Fuller, a senior, was a goalkeeper for Vanderbilt’s women’s soccer team. In an interview, Fuller described the moment when she decided to try kicking for the football team.

“This year, last week actually, I was on the bus watching the Vanderbilt football team,” she said. “I was like, ‘I feel like I can do that.’ My teammates were like, ‘No. That’s funny.’ And I said, ‘No, I really do. I think I can do that.’ Then it happened.”

In recent years there has been an increase in opportunities for women in football. In 2015 the Utah Girls Tackle Football League became an official league in the United States. In 2021 the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics will introduce women’s varsity college flag football as an official sport. Additionally, 11-player tackle football has also increased in popularity and participation among women.

But due to physical differences, it’s difficult to picture women competing directly against their male counterparts. To give you an idea, the average NFL player is 6 feet 2 inches in height and roughly 240 pounds. And it’s not just football players. The average height of a National Basketball Association (NBA) player is 6 feet 6 inches with the average point guard height (shortest position on the court) being 6 feet 3 inches. The average height of a Women's National Basketball Association player is almost 6 feet 0 inches.

Even if we don’t see more female players, seeing more representation in staffing and coaching is equally as important and has been rapidly increasing.

On Sept. 27 of this year, the Washington Football Team traveled to FirstEnergy Stadium to face off against the Cleveland Browns. In attendance were Callie Brownson, the Browns’ chief of staff, Jennifer King, Washington’s coaching intern, and Sarah Thomas, an NFL official. For the first time in NFL history, three women were on the field during a regular-season matchup. These women are no strangers to making history.

In 2015, Thomas was the first-ever female permanent NFL game official. In 2018, Brownson was the first full-time Division-1 football coach. King played for the Carolina Phoenix, a team in the Women’s Football Alliance, where she was a seven-time All-American receiver and quarterback.

"Making history. Today's game marks the first regular-season game in NFL history to have a female coach on both sidelines + a female official," the Browns tweeted.

Additionally, in 2017, the San Francisco 49ers hired Katie Sowers, making her the team’s first female assistant coach and the second female assistant coach in League history, joining Buffalo Bills quality control coach Kathryn Smith.

Another male-dominated sport that has opened up its doors to women working within their biggest league is basketball and the NBA. As of March 6 of this year, there are 11 women working as coaches.

The National Hockey League also has several star female players, including Manon Rhéaume who played for the Tampa Bay Lightning and has an Olympic silver medal. Other notable players include Evelyn Byng, Kendall Coyne Schofield, Irene Castle and Marguerite Norris.

Now, even though Fuller has helped take a big step towards the representation of women in football and appears to be on the right track towards playing professional football (if that’s what she wants to do), it’ll still be incredibly difficult to land on an NFL roster. While continuing to work hard, Fuller has taken it upon herself to use her platform to inspire young girls.

“I just think it’s incredible that I am able to do this, and all I want to do is be a good influence to the young girls out there. You can do anything you set your mind to,” she said.

With the increase in awareness and exposure, hopefully it will become more common for women to play a bigger role in traditionally male-dominated sports.

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