On a recent crisp and sunny fall day on the Polo Fields in Stowe, Jordan Zimmerman took the handoff from her quarterback, cradled the ball and sprinted the length of the field to score one of the Patriots’ three touchdowns of the day, 11 of her teammates cheering her on.
The Patriots would lose to the Bears, but they still fared much better than their professional counterparts did in the 1986 Super Bowl between Chicago and New England. One more key difference: this Patriot squad is the first all-girls team to play in the Stowe flag football league.
It’s a fitting moment during what is the 50th year since Congress passed landmark legislation aimed at levelling the playing field for girls and women across the nation.
And if you think today’s girls aren’t aware of how far things have come, you’ve got another think coming. And maybe a bootleg right through your defenses.
“Throughout history, women just haven’t been seen as important,” Olive Bettencourt said after the game, when asked what it’s like to form an all-girls team in a male-dominated sport. “They were overlooked, and people underestimated their abilities.”
A teammate chimed in with a single word: “Oppressed.”
Zimmerman explained the rationale for the team’s formation more pragmatically, “Also, the boys don’t pass to us.”
Revolution number IX
The Vermont Principals Association, which oversees high school sports across the state, announced before the start of the school year that it was going to place a year-round emphasis on the 50th anniversary of Title IX.
On its face, Title IX is strictly an education law, and there is no mention of sports in its concise 37 words. Those words, as written and signed into law in 1972, are: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
But in the decades since its passage, it has become all but synonymous with equality in sports. According to NBC Sports in a recent story about Title IX’s golden anniversary, before the law was passed, fewer than 4 percent of girls played high school sports.
Several Stowe girls, when asked after their game against the Bears, said they’d never heard of Title IX. But they have all heard of the U.S. women’s soccer team, and the years-long efforts by its players to achieve equity in sports. In February, after six years, those efforts paid off when the U.S. Soccer Federation agreed to pay women and men the same for all games, and to shell out millions in back pay owed to female players.
The five women who got the ball rolling in 2016 are household names among even casual soccer fans — Alex Morgan, Hope Solo, Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn.
For Lucy Knittle, a Stowe middle schooler who helped her team score 18 against the Bears, it’s the collective action — the teamwork — that inspires her.
“It’s not necessarily one person, but it’s just a bunch of people I’m seeing who want to do good things,” she said.
Added teammate Mia Bryan, “We do it so we can prove ourselves to everybody. We’re our own role models.”
The Stowe Parks and Recreation department oversees the town’s flag football league in the fall. Program director Kelli Millick said there are 105 kids playing the sport across three divisions — kindergarten to second grade; grades three to five; and grades six to eight, which is where the Patriots play.
The all-girls squad has the most players of any team in their division, with 12, and Millick said the middle schoolers set a good example for the younger kids on the coed teams.
“I think it has a strong possibility to be a mentorship,” Millick said. “This is the first year that we’ve had that, so I think it will encourage more girls to step up, step out of the box a little bit and try something new, even if it’s male dominated, and feel comfortable in that space.”
Patriots coach Ethan Carlson said only a few girls had played flag football before this season.
“We’ve been at this for four weeks, and we’ve made huge progress,” he said. “A lot of girls may have watched a football game but had never played.”
Carlson said Stowe flag football in general has taken off in recent years, and the teams held their own admirably last year during some games with teams from Burlington.
“We had it pretty together,” he said. “This is a cool thing we do, for a smaller town.”
Kristy Carlson said the genesis of the team was simple.
“Last year, there would be all these girls watching the boys’ games, and I told them, ‘Why don’t you play?’ They said they’d play if there was an all-girls team,” Carlson, who helps her husband with the team, said.
According to Zimmerman, the girls currently playing on the elementary school-aged teams are in the same spot some of the current Patriots found themselves in — on a team with a bunch of boys, perhaps waiting in vain for a handoff or a pass to come their way.
“We’ve all known each other for so long and we’ve grown up together, so it’s fun to have another sport that we can do together,” Harper Carlson, the coach’s daughter and a longtime Stowe player, said.
The Bears are coached by Ryan Heraty, the superintendent of schools for the Lamoille South supervisory union, which includes Stowe, Morristown and Elmore. Heraty said he finds the equal distribution of fans at the games refreshing, compared to the oft-hostile partisanship at pro sports games.
“The girls are having so much fun,” Heraty said. “We’re able to run these coed leagues and provide really good opportunities for the kids to compete against each other and see each other through a different lens, build different relationships and just strengthen everything that we’re trying to do in our community and in our schools.”
Women have been playing football since its inception, and there are several female football leagues in the U.S. and Canada.
Occasionally, a woman will make a splash as a place kicker for a men’s collegiate football team. Katie Hnida is perhaps the most famous, becoming the first female to score in an NCAA Division I-A game — the top of the collegiate pile — for the University of New Mexico in 2003. She scored two extra points in the fourth quarter in a 72-8 win for her team.
A decade ago, in a high-profile attempt to break the pigskin ceiling, Louisiana State University had a woman, Mo Isom, try out for the team as a placekicker. Isom was already arguably the best soccer goalie in school history — she still holds the school record for shutouts with 25.
She didn’t make it. Coach Les Miles said it wasn’t Isom’s kicking acumen, though. It was her tackling.
“She’s a great person but there’s some things she can’t do, and she knows it,” Miles told reporters at the time.
The Stowe girls are living in an age where they are seeing, little by little, more female representation on or surrounding the football field. They point out that there are more females in the broadcast booth or on the sidelines at NFL games. They watched Sarah Thomas make history last year as the first female referee to officiate in the Super Bowl.
These 21st century pre-teens also have a fictional role model who is the same age as them: Bella Dawson, the titular heroine of the Nickelodeon series “Bella and The Bulldogs,” which follows Bella’s adventures as she moves from being a cheerleader at her school’s football games to being the team’s quarterback.
Flag football, with its no-tackle rules, is the great equalizer, rewarding speed and reflexes over brute strength. The launch of Stowe’s first girls flag football team comes at a big moment for the sport.
The National Football League last month announced it was doing away with its traditional Pro Bowl game and replacing it with an all-star game of flag football.
Millick said this version has most of the same rules as tackle football but is much safer.
“It’s not as physical, which kind of takes the risk factor out a little bit,” she said. “There are still some collisions and people running into people, but not on purpose. So, I think it makes for more fun play.”