I religiously follow college football and have since I was young. In addition to my love for watching the game, I also played as the first and only girl in my 6th-grade football league. While my football career was short-lived after my parents squelched my scrawny, 90-pound dreams of playing middle school and high school tackle football, I continued to passionately follow my favorite college teams, taking notes, recording stats, and adding bowl game tickets to my Christmas list.
So when I first heard that Sarah Fuller, a 21-year-old soccer player at Vanderbilt University, would be taking the field as the first woman college football player in a Power Five conference this past Saturday, I was thrilled; excited to see a girl living out one of my dreams.
But what I thought was going to be a giant leap for womankind turned out to be a small kick, and yet another example of tokenism and cultural commentary promoted by sports leagues and the media.
Fuller first gained a spot on the team as a kicker following multiple COVID-19 quarantine orders for some of Vandy’s permanent players.
While she was supposed to kick the whole game including field goals, the female athlete didn’t get a chance to touch the ball until the beginning of the second half, at which point the Missouri Tigers were beating the Commodores 21-0. During her short time in play, Fuller sent the football a mere 30 yards down the field with a questionable “squib” kick, designed to be shorter and lower and prevent a long return from the other team.
Fuller’s kick was nothing but underwhelming, but according to Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason, who was fired on Sunday for his team’s terrible record, it was just what he ordered.
“That was designed, you know, meant for her because that’s what she used to striking,” he said. “You know we tried to go with the most natural kicks in her arsenal.”
“I thought she punched it exactly where she needed to punch it. Ball’s down, 35-yard line. Let’s go,” he added.
Others hyped up Fuller’s performance as “an inspiration” that “changed the game.”
Sarah Fuller just changed the game. pic.twitter.com/T6MwJPRG4M
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) November 28, 2020
One of the sports commentators narrating the game said that he “got chills.”
“That was pretty cool,” he said. “That was pretty awesome to see. What a moment.”
The SEC even announced that Fuller would be one of two players in the conference to be the Special Teams Player of the Week, elevating her role as a woman on the field.
— Southeastern Conference (@SEC) November 30, 2020
While her co-winner, punt returner Kadarius Toney of Florida, “returned a punt 50 yards for a touchdown which proved to be the decisive score in the game as Florida defeated Kentucky, 34-10, on Saturday,” the SEC called Fuller’s first and only kick in Saturday’s game “perfectly executed” and continued to advance the narrative that she did something extraordinary.
Fuller appears to be a superb goalie for the Vanderbilt women’s soccer team. One quick look at her highlight reels shows a skilled and exceptional player who clearly maintains the grit and passion to play a competitive college sport.
🚨 GOALKEEPER ASSIST 🚨
Sarah Fuller's free kick goes nearly the length of the field, and Raegan Kelly puts it away on a volley. Wow.
2nd | 72' pic.twitter.com/SoBY2TdBFa
— Vandy Hustler Sports (@vuhustlersports) November 17, 2020
Practice hard, play hard.
— Vanderbilt Soccer (@VandySoccer) November 2, 2020
Fuller’s expertise on her own type of field, however, is now overshadowed by empty words of affirmation and showy awards handed to her simply because of her sex. By giving Fuller extra recognition simply because of who she is, the SEC has lowered its standards for exemplary college football players, and for other women who may have the chance to play competitively.
It is a perfect example of tokenism.
Most people in America and around the world aren’t going to know Fuller as the Vanderbilt goalie who worked her way up from a broken foot and bad back to becoming a starter on the soccer team. This “confident, resilient, and hardworking” woman won’t be reveled as the one who overcame great challenges to rise through the ranks.
Instead, she is receiving attention for her inconsequential kick in a game which her team lost 41-0, in a season where her team has won zero of their eight games. She’ll be remembered for being a woman where women are usually not and giving a halftime speech despite only being allowed on the practice field and in the locker room for a week.
I just got off a Zoom call with Vanderbilt kicker Sarah Fuller, who detailed the halftime speech she gave and the reception it received.
"I had coaches come up to me and say 'I’ve been wanting to say that for awhile now,'" Fuller said. pic.twitter.com/AjoEEjJbeh
— Courtney Cronin (@CourtneyRCronin) November 29, 2020
For Vanderbilt, putting Fuller on the field wasn’t a risk because they had nothing to lose. For the SEC, giving Fuller an award for over-exaggerated execution of a routine kick wasn’t a problem. For ESPN, writing a long feature story about Fuller’s sports history and unique perspective as a woman on a male-dominated field wasn’t going to jeopardize their position as a leading sports network.
If anything, everyone in the situation stood to gain brownie points for being socially aware. And they got them. But at what cost?
It’s not sexist to criticize a bad coaching call, a losing team, and a poor kick that contributed little to nothing to actual gameplay. It is sexist to pretend like this performance is the new, acceptable bar for college football and women who want to participate in the sport.
Labeling Fuller’s performance as spectacular is merely an exploitation of her gender by Vanderbilt, the SEC, ESPN, and anyone else who refused to simply call it what it was: mediocre at best. It does no favors to her and certainly not to other women who want to take chances trying to join other college football teams.
Don’t reward the “Play Like A Girl” mantra. Reward those who are deserving of it.