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When a Woman Signs a Football Letter of Intent, What Does it Mean for Other Gridiron Events?

19 Apr, 2017

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Here’s a word out there to all the trailblazers: If you’re ready to push the envelope, there’s a student in Arizona who has already licked the stamp.

Last week, Becco Longo, a senior at Basha High School in Arizona, became the first female student-athlete from Basha high school in Chandler, Arizona, to sign a college football letter of intent for NCAA Division I or II.  And Sports Illustrated noted that she will be the first woman football player on a scholarship at the Division II level or higher, according to ESPN. She will kick for Adams State and also will play basketball for the school.

Longo wasn’t the first woman nationwide to sign with a football team; in fact, several had gone before her.  In 2017l Ashley Martin kicked for Jacksonville State University. In 2014, Indiana’s Shelby Osborne signed with an NAIA school. And according to ABC News, other women have suited up in Division I games without playing. Kathy Klop dressed for the University of Louiville in 1995, and Katie Hnida for Colorado University in 1999. Neither woman played. In 1997. Liz Heaston  kicked two extra points for then-NAIA Division III Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.

The fact that women can play football at the college level – albeit mainly as kickers – can have ramifications on the sport as a whole. (Don’t believe us? Consider the history. Back in the 1970s, it was women who had to use court orders to play Little League Baseball, fighting any number of misconceptions. In fact, Sylvia Pressler, a hearing officer with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, was told she should not let girls play ball because of they faced a heightened risk of injury because of inferior muscle strength and that they might develop breast cancer from getting hit in the chest with a baseball.) And let’s not forget that 50 years ago, Katherine Switzer participated in the Boston Marathon at a time when it was considered unhealthy for women to be distance runners.

Of course, the opponents were wrong, and today, girls play Little League alongside boys, run in marathons and more. When it comes to football, though, the numbers of girls playing on the high school gridiron has been relatively small – in fact, during the 2015-2016 school year, the National Federation of State High School  Associations (NFHS) showed only 1,964 girls (out of a total of more than more than one million participants overall) who played traditional 11-player football. Far more girls played flag football, according to the same survey (a total of 10,867) with 1,226 boys playing.

But traditional tackle football, in the concussion-conscious era? Nah.

But despite the small numbers, the fact that they are playing is important. With girls already playing rugby, the time is ripe for them to take up a more traditional contact sport.  In fact, rugby is already labelled an NCAA emerging sport for women, where two organizations are involved in its promotion: the National Intercollegiate Rugby Association and USA Rugby. Beyond that, quidditch, played at the club level, uses co-ed teams, and it’s a full contact sport.

So can this attract more girls to programs at the youth and teen level? Absolutely. The question, however, is where athletes can go, even after a promising career. The opportunities for women beyond that level have traditionally been very limited. There is a handful of leagues, including the Independent Women's Football League (IWFL) ,  Women's Football Alliance (WFA)  ad the  United States Women's Football League (USWFL – if you count the Legends Football League (LFL, in which women play in lingerie) .

Small wonder many women with compatible skills have drifted to rugby or to soccer.

But the fact that women are starting to make their entrance onto the football field just might convince some planners to adopt more gender-non-specific language in their team materials, and to keep a more open mind during tryouts.

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