A Girl Plays Football

“Hey, the Packers are going to beat your Cowgirls!” a student said.

And I corrected the student, “Don’t put down a team by calling them girls.” See, I believe in gender equality. I am a follower of leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who believed that everyone should have equal access to opportunity.

Last year there was an ad on during the SuperBowl. It was about running like a girl. Did you see it?

The commercial spoofed the stereotype that girls could not run well. But they can. The ad showed that many kids thought the phrase, “run like a girl,” was an insult. But it’s not. It’s the opposite. Run, fight, throw like a girl. That takes courage. We all must do things that require courage. We all must be unconventional.

I’m going to tell you a little story.

This is the story of a girl who played a lot of two-hand touch football with her brothers and cousins. Her Uncle Tom N. was a great coach in Park Ridge, Illinois. One boy who went on to play college football and become a coach himself said Mr. N. was the best coach he ever had. Uncle Tom was patient, kind, smart. But he made one big mistake at a family party.

See, at this big party with lots of cousins, Uncle Tom was throwing a nerf football around the dining room to only the boys. But one girl jumped up and caught it. An interception. Yes. the girl.

“Hey, you’re pretty good. Too bad you’re a girl. And you can’t play football.”

“I can play,” the girl said.

“No you can’t. But just to prove it — If you want to try out tomorrow for the team, you can. But I won’t give you any special consideration because you’re a girl or because you’re my niece,” he said.  “Don’t feel bad if you get cut — Only half of the boys who try out make the cut.”

So this girl showed up with her little brother John to try out for the Mighty Might football team, the Vikings. She was very scared. But she did not let on.

She did her very best. There were tires on the ground and she hiked up her knees and hopped in and out of the tires. And there was a catching practice. And she caught it just like she always did when playing with her brothers or her cousins – one hand on top, one hand on the bottom and she hugged it to herself and ran fast. Faster than the boys.

And during the scrimmage of the touch football – they didn’t have their equipment yet — she was so scared of getting tagged, she ran even faster. She played her heart out. She even got to throw the ball and she jerked it back next to her ear just like she always did. ‘Cause see, she played like a girl – a fast, athletic, capable girl.

After the tryout, when her father picked her and her brother up from the tryout, she told him that she and John had done well. She felt proud. She felt like a winner.

And that night they got a phone call. The girl made the team, but her little brother John didn’t. (In fairness to John, he did not make the age cut off. It had nothing to do with ability.) But she never went on to play in a team. She just wanted to prove that she could make the team. And she did.

And that girl was me. So, never say, a girl can’t play football, because she can. She just might not want to.

When I was a girl, schools did not really implement Title IX yet. You know what it is, right? It’s a law that says public schools have to give equal funding to girls’ sports as boys’. And there were other ways that schools, when I was little, weren’t fair. I loved wood shop, but I could only take shop one quarter of the year and three-quarters of the year, I had to take cooking and sewing.

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That didn’t seem right. So in middle school, I ran for and became the first girl president of Lincoln Junior High. I’m not sure if I made much of a difference. But there was an article in the local newspapers and maybe some minds started to change through my small acts of resistance about what girls could do.

Although women are not represented very well in the government in the U.S., in many countries half of the elected officials are women. In churches too, we have come a long way but we have a ways to go. As a girl, before Third Grade, I attended Saint Joan of Arc school in Skokie, Illinois and I could not be an Altar Boy. In Communion class in Second Grade, I asked the priest, Why can’t women be priests? And I’m still asking that.

So my message is: we must judge one another on the content of our characters and not on the way we look.

We can do better. We must do better.

  1. Girls are just as good as boys.
  2. Do not judge a book by its cover.

In English class we talked about how cool it is when a character is not how they, at first, appear. Take Chewbacca in Star Wars. How does he look? (Wait) Big, scary, mean. But you couldn’t have a better friend — a gentle giant.

Dr. Martin Luther King talked about we need to do in a sermon that is often called “A Tough Mind, A Tender Heart.” He talked about a creative solution to resist inequality. Thank you to Rev. Andrew Stehlik of Rutgers Church for his sermon on Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, which inspired me.

Dr. Martin Luther King said:

Jesus recognized the need for blending opposites. He knew that his disciples would face a difficult and hostile world, where they would confront the political officials and protectors of the old order.  He knew that they would meet cold and arrogant men whose hearts had been hardened by the long winter of traditionalism. So he said to them, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the mist of wolves.”

And he gave them a formula for action, “Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” It is pretty difficult to imagine a single person having, simultaneously, the characteristics of the serpent and the dove, but this is what Jesus expects. We must combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart.

That was what he said. We must have soft hearts. We must give everyone a chance and we must be aware of the potential in everyone. We must encourage everyone. We must ask, Why? Why can’t we all be equal? Why should we put someone down for how they look? Or whether they are a boy or girl?

What can we do? Resist the status quo. Do not become lazy or timid when you hear someone put another person down. Or when you hear a boy call another boy, ‘a girl’ as an insult.

And this goes for ourselves too. Do not put yourselves down.

I tell you:  be more loving. To each other and to ourselves. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that. So did Jesus. Dr. King said we have to love everyone, even those who were hating on us. He said, “Through nonviolent resistance we shall be able to oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of the system.”

In other words, love the hater but reject the system that encourages hate.

At the end of his sermon, Dr. King said,

When we are staggered by the chilly winds of adversity and battered by the raging storms of disappointment and when through our folly and sin we stray into some destructive far country and are frustrated because of a strange feeling of homesickness, we need to know that there is Someone who loves us, cares for us, understands us, and will give us another chance.  When days grow dark and nights grow dreary, we can be thankful that our God combines in God’s nature a creative synthesis of love and justice that will lead us through life’s dark valleys and into sunlit pathways of hope and fulfillment.

I want to end with one more upshot to my brief career as a football player. After that Vikings football season, between fifth and sixth grade, I took a summer school class on newspaper reporting. I wrote about my experience playing football. And a lot of other students, and even teachers and parents, said they saw my article in the school paper and they liked it. It made them think. And that summer school class probably inspired me in high school to work on the school paper, and, years later, to become a professional writer.

I saw that writing might start to change people’s minds –and I would not have not known that, had I not tried out for the football team. So take a risk, try something new. Just because everyone says you’re good at football doesn’t mean you can’t knit too. In fact, when I was a girl, there was a football player named Rosie Grier and he was a writer too, He wrote a book, Needlepoint for Men.

He was unconventional. So was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. So was Jesus. You should be unconventional too.

This is a slightly revised version of a chapel talk I gave to elementary school students after Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.

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One thought on “A Girl Plays Football

  1. Oh, my friends, if there is any one thing that we must see today is that these are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. … With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo, we shall boldly challenge unjust mores, and thereby speed up the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the rough places shall be made plain, and the crooked places straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” – Martin Luther King, Jr. “Why I’m Opposed to the War in Vietnam

    This is why I keep on challenging and questioning many policies that privilege men over women, that make men the ‘default’ and women the ‘other’, that limit the role of women as if they’re this fragile, mistaken, child-like entity that never matures.

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