Nine-Year-Old Girl Plays Football, Kicks Ass and Maybe Changes the World

Few 9-year-old girls are described as a “young—very young—Walter Payton.” But that’s what people are calling Sam Gordon of South Jordan, Utah. Gordon has become an Internet sensation after the spread of viral videos showing her shredding Pee Wee football defenses with a series of dynamic touchdown runs.

The footage of Gordon has been passed around breathlessly but almost as a YouTube curio, like she’s the 2012 version of the “dramatic chipmunk” or “sneezing panda”.

Her rather overwhelming awesomeness, however, raises far more interesting questions: Why do we still segregate so much of youth sports based on gender? Does the practice of doing so actually stunt female athletic potential? Would ending gender segregation foster a higher level of athletic excellence? The early women’s rights activists certainly thought so. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote in a women’s issues magazine, The Lily, “We cannot say what the woman might be physically, if the girl were allowed all the freedom of the boy, in romping, swimming, climbing, playing ball.”

This is not to argue that there aren’t basic physical differences between men and women. But those differences are often overstated in the name of protecting the “common sense” of gender segregation. Journalist Sherry Wolf wrote, “Let’s cut to the chase. Men tend to weigh more and have greater muscle mass than women: men have 40–60 percent greater upper-body strength and 25–30 percent more lower-body strength. However, with training and nutritional guidance on par with men, female power lifters, for example, have narrowed the gap in actual strength to between 0 and 8 percent.… While there is a connection between muscle size and strength, there is not a direct correlation, as other factors can influence an athlete’s strength such as age, limb and muscle length, and genetics.”

In addition, while the typical male may have greater natural muscle mass, women’s biology makes them provably better at sports that require endurance like ultra-marathons, Alaska’s Iditarod race and long-distance swimming. The book Playing With the Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal, by Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano, goes through this in painstaking detail. McDonagh and Pappano argue that “coercive sex segregation does not reflect actual sex differences in athletic ability, but instead constructs and enforces a flawed premise that females are inherently athletically inferior to males.”

This premise of “inferiority” is rooted at the founding of organized, professional sports at the end of the nineteenth century, which coincided with the enforcement of gender segregation as the new normal. A very useful view into this is Jennifer Ring’s book Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball. As Ring describes, baseball started as the British game Rounders, played by boys and girls together. Girls continued to excel in the Americanized game of baseball deep into the nineteenth century. It wasn’t until the game was professionalized and commercialized at century’s end that girls were forcibly pushed off the diamond. Leaders of the sport like Albert Spalding worked to establish a culture that “would mythologize baseball as a manly American game.” But as Ring writes, this wasn’t just a reflection of the sexism of the age. Spalding, like President Theodore Roosevelt and other leading thinkers, saw sports and masculinity as very tied with the dominant political ideas of the time such as Manifest Destiny and US imperialism. They gave us a primordial ooze where sexism, homophobia, militarism and sports all simmered in the same stew. Straining out what’s healthy in this stew has been a slow, arduous, century-long task.

Today gender segregation in sports is rightly celebrated as a proven arena of female empowerment. Since Title IX legislation was fought for and passed in 1972, there has been an explosion of athletic participation by women. Before Title IX, one in thirty-four girls played sports; now it’s one in three. Every study shows that along with participation comes an increase in confidence, a lessening likelihood of eating disorders and abusive relationships, and greater defenses against the relentless shrapnel of sexism aimed at young teenage women. Challenging gender segregation is not contrary to the mission of Title IX but essential to it. It’s about the same thing, challenging one of the very foundations of sexism: the great lie that boys hold an innate physical superiority to girls.

There is another issue as well that speaks to the urgency of challenging gender segregation in sports. The very concept of gender is something that at long last is under the microscope. There are trans athletes as well as entire trans teams whose members choose not to identify as male or female. Then are the millions of people whose bodies combine anatomical features that are conventionally associated with either men or women or have chromosomal variations from the XX or XY of women or men, often referred to as “intersex.” Doctors estimate that “intersex” children comprise one in 1,666 births. The NCAA to its credit has even provided new rules and guidelines to make sure trans athletes have a place to play. The guidelines openly discuss at what point someone plays for the women’s team and when, whether through hormones or surgery, they need to try out for the men’s. This is a very positive step in acknowledging the existence of trans student-athletes, but it still rests on the idea that boys are on one side and girls on the other.

Resistance to a “gender binary” will grow in the future. All of sports should be ahead of the curve on this in providing inclusive space so everyone can play without fear of being pushed aside. The future of sports could be a beautiful, life-affirming safe-space or it could be an anchor on human progress, expending effort on policing gender and making sure everyone stays on their side of the gym.

For now we’ll have to make due with the glimpse into the future that is Sam Gordon. At 9 years old, she has her own reason for playing football. “Most of the times it’s just really fun to be the one scoring the touchdowns,” she said on Good Morning America. “Rather than the boys.”

10 Reader Comments | Add a comment

Awesomeness is inspiring

Here's one 47 year old cancer survivor, in need of a little inspiration, who benefitted from this story. When I felt like getting lazy at the gym yesterday, I thought about Sam- legs pumping- flying by defenders, or simply dragging them along for extra yards. How could I quit?

huh

Gordon demonstrates that a 9 year old girl can play on a recreational league team against boys her own age. Consider that scenario. A local rec league team assembles kids in a given age group sign up if their parents are willing to sign them up, have the money for both registration fees and necessary equipment. Then there might be a draft to keep the teams overall even in talent. Kids are not cut for lack of ability, so any random kid in the league could literally be anywhere from special needs to the best at his or her age in the country.

With that in perspective, does the call for abolition of gender segregation extend to all organized sports, up to professional level, or just at the recreational level? Anecdotally, having played adult co-ed softball, I would say that one man was not necessarily better than any woman in the league(some of whom were quite good), but even the best women couldn't throw the ball as hard, nor hit it as far as the better male players. Since this was a low stakes, no cut league, we could not honestly determine whether xy is #% faster, stronger, meaner, more coordinated, etc than xx.

With that said, I would be curious to see where Ms. Wolf got her numbers to make the claims about male-female powerlifting disparities. If we're talking same weight class, age group, federation, and rules (e.g. drug tested vs. untested, straps or no straps), I have never seen results where the woman was within 8% of her male counterpart.

If we're talking about a supercompetitive venue, where an olympic medal, world record, or prize money is at stake, the top female athletes will have superior speed, strength, and other abilities to an average man, but such women are far from average. Likewise, if a young man isn't outstanding at some aspect of his sport, he's not playing it at division 1 college level, let alone professionally.

If Wolf, et al insinuate that female athletes have closed gaps from 40% differentials (or whatever it was at the earliest interval), with minimal training, to <%10 with rigorous training, therefore it is just a matter of time before women catch or surpass the men, then I would question her understanding of physical performance. Ring's assertion that women were forced off the baseball field with professionalism misses the bigger point: As interscholastic and professional sports grew in prestige, the men eventually trained harder. While women have improved, men haven't sat still all the while, and if an innovation benefits female athletes, it most likely simultaneously does the same for males. You can call gender segregation an artificial, arbitrary construct, but sports are about results. A stopwatch isn't sexist because it reads that the world's fastest woman finishes the race half a second later in the 100m than a man who wasn't fast enough to qualify for his national team.

Awesome

A jaw-dropping highlight reel and excellent commentary by Zirin.

Not to diminish in any way Sam's discipline, effort, and skill, but did anyone else flash on Forrest Gump during those unreal highlights? "RUN!" "Okay!"

Sam Gordon

Simply put. THE GIRL IS BADD!!!!

Special on girls of color in inner city and poor rural counties

PLEASE DO THIS SPECIAL! NOW.
PS you promised a year ago to send me the Quarterback Princess movie or the one you showed with it at Maysles Institute. I emailed and called. NO REPLY
I know you are an activist and busy and want to do the right thing. SO NOW PLEASE send it c/o Jessica at Maysles Institute 343 Malcolm X Blvd.
Harlem NY 10027 Att. LUPE thanks! (Working with youth in suspension, etc.)

Lupe

I don't know if it helps on girls of color, but if you're talking about the 1983 tv movie with Helen Hunt, you can watch it for free in its entirety on Youtube.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0lXJm0oFjqk

Boys Don't Exist

What a sexist title! Every article writen on the web about Sam Gordon features the fact that she dominated the boys as if this is the most important ellement of her exploits. Anything to glorify girls is all the rage today. Nobody seems to mind the fact that boys are being rediculed. I thought women were opposed to sexism but the title below screams sexism.
"Watch This Girl Completely Dominate A Boys Youth Football League"

So I am going to do something no other one has done. I am going to do the unthinkable. I am actualy going to defend the boys instead of rediculing them the way everyone else is. Think I can't just watch me burst all your bubles and show you why what Gordon did was realy what she should have been able to do and in fact all girls should easily dominate so called boys at their ages.Why? Because girls are a good five years ahead of boys in maturation.

Sam Gordon the eight year old girl of whom it is claimed out shined all the boys while playing on an alleged boy foot ball team actually did no such thing! If truth be known she did not out play boys because she was not playing on a boy team.First off when a girl is playing on an alleged boy team it ceases to be a boy team and become a co-ed team. So lets start with some good old fashion honesty.

Secondly lets introduce some facts. All the players were girls.Why? Because Until a boy develops testosterone around 13 years of age he is a girl and actually a weaker girl than most girls are. Real girls mature a good 5 years earlier than a so called boy. In reality there is no such thing as a boy. Boys don't really exist! The term boy identifies a special type of girl that under the influence of testosterone can metamorphose into a male in much the same way as a Caterpillar can metamorphose into a butterfly.

Surprised you didn't I?. Already your starting to suspect that I can make a very resonable case for why Gordon's domination of them should have been anticipated and it was realy no big deal.

These specialized females refereed to as "boys" in our society are until coming under the influence of testosterone are no different than real girls.Actualy they are weaker and farlesws matured. Yes Sam Gordon deserves alot of credit but not because she out played the boys that don't exist in reality but because she out played all the other girls! All you people marveling over a girl out performing boys are doing so in ignorance. Things aren't always as they appear to be and this is one such instance.

You should not be making a big deal over a girl out performing something that really doesn't exist. As the videos of her out maneuvering the nonexistent boys is only proof that she being a real girl was matched up against mostly inferior females who don't become boys until around 13 yrs of age. woman bragging about how Superior you think girls are because Sam Gordon out played all the other girls on her team should realize that all the so called "boys" were a good 5 years behind her in maturity. In short there is nothing spectacular about real girls beating the weaker girls known as boys. Its a wonder it doesn't happen more often. And it will start happening more often now that girls are starting to realize they are the stronger gender until the specialized girls become males.

But once you realize the truth of what I have just told you it should be easy to get all real girls to easily defeat all alleged boy teams. In short real girls have a big advantage over alleged boys(specialized girls) until the girl is transformed into a real boy at about the age of 25. Until than boys are as femine as the girls. You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free. Free of what? Ignorance of not knowing boys don't exist.

Boys Don't Exist

What a sexist title! Every article writen on the web about Sam Gordon features the fact that she dominated the boys as if this is the most important ellement of her exploits. Anything to glorify girls is all the rage today. Nobody seems to mind the fact that boys are being rediculed. I thought women were opposed to sexism but the title below screams sexism.
"Watch This Girl Completely Dominate A Boys Youth Football League"

So I am going to do something no other one has done. I am going to do the unthinkable. I am actualy going to defend the boys instead of rediculing them the way everyone else is. Think I can't just watch me burst all your bubles and show you why what Gordon did was realy what she should have been able to do and in fact all girls should easily dominate so called boys at their ages.Why? Because girls are a good five years ahead of boys in maturation.

Sam Gordon the eight year old girl of whom it is claimed out shined all the boys while playing on an alleged boy foot ball team actually did no such thing! If truth be known she did not out play boys because she was not playing on a boy team.First off when a girl is playing on an alleged boy team it ceases to be a boy team and become a co-ed team. So lets start with some good old fashion honesty.

Secondly lets introduce some facts. All the players were girls.Why? Because Until a boy develops testosterone around 13 years of age he is a girl and actually a weaker girl than most girls are. Real girls mature a good 5 years earlier than a so called boy. In reality there is no such thing as a boy. Boys don't really exist! The term boy identifies a special type of girl that under the influence of testosterone can metamorphose into a male in much the same way as a Caterpillar can metamorphose into a butterfly.

Surprised you didn't I?. Already your starting to suspect that I can make a very resonable case for why Gordon's domination of them should have been anticipated and it was realy no big deal.

These specialized females refereed to as "boys" in our society are until coming under the influence of testosterone are no different than real girls.Actualy they are weaker and farlesws matured. Yes Sam Gordon deserves alot of credit but not because she out played the boys that don't exist in reality but because she out played all the other girls! All you people marveling over a girl out performing boys are doing so in ignorance. Things aren't always as they appear to be and this is one such instance.

You should not be making a big deal over a girl out performing something that really doesn't exist. As the videos of her out maneuvering the nonexistent boys is only proof that she being a real girl was matched up against mostly inferior females who don't become boys until around 13 yrs of age. woman bragging about how Superior you think girls are because Sam Gordon out played all the other girls on her team should realize that all the so called "boys" were a good 5 years behind her in maturity. In short there is nothing spectacular about real girls beating the weaker girls known as boys. Its a wonder it doesn't happen more often. And it will start happening more often now that girls are starting to realize they are the stronger gender until the specialized girls become males.

But once you realize the truth of what I have just told you it should be easy to get all real girls to easily defeat all alleged boy teams. In short real girls have a big advantage over alleged boys(specialized girls) until the girl is transformed into a real boy at about the age of 25. Until than boys are as femine as the girls. You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free. Free of what? Ignorance of not knowing boys don't exist.

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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