“Playing like a girl is a compliment. It’s something you strive for,” Sarah Fuller, a Vanderbilt student athlete, said in an interview with the SEC Network in early December 2020.
By now, we have all read the headlines about Sarah Fuller. She is Vanderbilt University’s women’s soccer goalkeeper-turned-placekicker for their football team. Six days after winning the SEC Championship in soccer, she was on the practice field for her first football appearance.
The news broke via a tweet from Fuller; “Let’s Make History.” with the hashtags “#playlikeagirl” and “#anchordown” was all the message wrote. She was holding a football and wearing her Commodores football jersey.
“History” is selling the magnitude of the spectacle short. The post and the game were moments that will forever live in the minds of women and football fans for years.
Fuller didn’t debut until the second half of the team’s 41-0 loss against Missouri that pushed Vanderbilt to an 0-8 record. The team’s offense never gave her an opportunity to point puts on the board, so her only play was a designed squib kick that wobbled its way to the 35-yard line. That doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of this groundbreaking moment.
It’s not about Vanderbilt and the loss. It’s not about the type of kick either. It is about how a completely qualified woman was able to play in this game and simultaneously create an insurgence of support, love, and inspiration for the future of women in sports.
Fuller is not the first woman to participate in a college football game. Katie Hnida and April Goss are the only other women to play in an FBS game. Fuller is the first woman, though, to play in a Power Five football game.
So, why is this so monumental? For one, it’s inspiring. It showcases an athlete who is breaking down barriers and leveling the playing field for women everywhere. Sarah Fuller did that while also simultaneously changing the future of football. She brought women to a conversation where they needed to be an active participant. Sports are not inherently gendered, and Fuller is breaking the walls and doubts down, one kick at a time.
Additionally, there are people who don’t want to see women succeed. There were people who doubted Fuller’s abilities and counted her out.They still believe that women do not deserve to play in their obsessively masculine, fragile-as-glass football leagues.
It’s uncomfortable to watch people go against the norm. People comment that women who play football are just destined to get demolished in a tackle, or that they only made the team because of their looks or because of some other bogus privilege.
The future of sports includes more women, whether or not you want to accept it.
Watching someone prove the haters wrong, shows that they are exactly where they need to be. Sarah Fuller kicking footballs shows that is where she needs to be. Vanderbilt needed a kicker out of necessity, and she was the best option to go with.
Football as we know it today is an overwhelmingly masculine sport. Some men live and breathe running plays and sacking quarterbacks. Blocking punts and making miraculous catches seems to run through their veins. In a hypermasculine area of sport, Fuller is showing that women and girls belong right there with them.
There are stats to back that claim. In recent years, there has been an influx of girls in football. The sport is on trend to have more women than ever before, and this is just the start. In 2018, The New York Timesreported that 1,100 girls were playing Pop Warner football. Out of the 5.5 million Americans who play tackle football, girls make up 10.9 percent.
The NFL has grown to accept more women on their sidelines, too. Since 2015, there have been seven full-time female coaches and 15 female coaching interns helping the best names in all of football hone their skills.
That might only be a small number, but with representation growing on the most illustrious stages in all of football, Fuller is one of many proving that the game will grow to accept more girls. She’ll inspire the next generation of football players, some of whom will have braids or ponytails sticking out of the back of their helmets.
“The fact that I can represent little girls out there who want to do this, or thought about playing football or any sport, it encourages them to step out and do something big for them like this,” Fuller said in her post-game interview. She then looked at the camera, directly in its lens, and said, “I just want to tell all the little girls out there, that you can do anything. Literally anything you set your mind to.”
Vanderbilt announced on December 1 that Fuller would rejoin the squad the next week to play against Georgia. Interim head coach Todd Fitch said on the subject, “She’ll be with us on the trip to Georgia and we’re going to put the best people out there. If she’s our best option we’ll continue with her and we’ll do the best we can for the team.”
Unfortunately, that game against Georgia was postponed for two weeks, but Fuller’s time will come when she gets another chance to show the world what she’s got. To continue to prove the onlookers who doubt her wrong, and continue to bring women into a game where they didn’t always get to be anything other than a cheerleader.