Utah Girls Closer to High School Football League of Their Own

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By Perry Cooper

High school girls in Salt Lake City who want to play tackle football scored a major victory in court Oct. 9 when a federal judge held they can band together to sue their school districts for the right to form their own teams.

They may pursue as a class constitutional equal protection claims that the schools discriminate against them by providing football teams for boys but not girls, Judge Robert J. Shelby wrote for the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah.

At least 200 girls are interested in playing in the three school districts based on enrollment in a recreational girls tackle league, the court said.

Utah has produced such notable male players as Steve Young and the late Merlin Olsen, both of whom played college football in that state and went on to Hall-of-Fame NFL careers.

No Other Girls Teams

Brent Gordon, the father of one of the students, told Bloomberg Law Oct. 10 he wasn’t aware of any all-girl tackle high school football teams in the U.S.

Gordon’s daughter, Sam “Sweet Feet” Gordon, won internet fame playing football against boys, he said.

“We started a recreational full contact football league in Utah and the numbers grew from 50 girls to 300 girls from 2015 to 2018,” her father said. “The experience with Title IX demonstrates that interest follows opportunity.”

Title IX of the 1972 civil rights law bars discrimination in education.

But comments from attorneys representing Salt Lake City’s school districts show the girls still have a long way to go before playing in their first homecoming game.

An attorney for the Utah High School Activities Association told Bloomberg Law he isn’t aware of “strong interest in girls tackle football, either here in Utah or across the country.” D. Craig Parry, of Parr Brown Gee & Loveless in Salt Lake City, represents the group as a defendant in the suit.

The suit “involves complicated issues related to Title IX,” according to Rachel Terry, an assistant Utah Attorney General and counsel for the school districts.

“The districts strive to comply with all federal and state laws, including Title IX, and are committed to providing a wide range of educational opportunities, including activities and athletics, to all of their students,” she told Bloomberg Law.

Over two thousand girls played high-school football in the U.S. in the 2017–2018 season, according to the National Association of State High School Federations. The same study says a million boys played that season.

No Title IX Class

The students won class action status for their claims seeking more athletic opportunities for girls under the equal protection clause and Title IX.

High schools in the Jordan, Granite, and Canyons school districts provided an average of 2,260 more participation opportunities for boys than girls in the three years leading up to the suit, the students allege.

The court narrowed the class to all present and future female students who want to play football, and limited the class to equal protection claims.

The plaintiffs didn’t provide sufficient evidence that a more general class of female athletes was sufficiently numerous to support class certification of their claims, the court said.

The Title IX claims weren’t appropriate for classwide resolution, the court held, because they would require the court to look at whether individual female students were interested in more athletic opportunities.

Counsel for the plaintiffs told Bloomberg Law they will continue to pursue the Title IX claims as individual actions.

Mark L. Smith of Smith Washburn LLP in Los Angeles said the plaintiffs believe those suits will “result in system-wide changes to offer all young women increased participation opportunities.”

Smith Washburn LLP represents the girls.

The Utah Attorney General’s Office represents the schools. Parr Brown Gee & Loveless and Savage Yeates & Waldron P.C. represent the Utah High School Activities Association.

The case is S.G. v. Jordan Sch. Dist., 2018 BL 371634, D. Utah, No. 17-677, 10/9/18.

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