Rise in participation among players, increase in coaches mark female football growth
With numbers detailing the decline in football participation among boys seeming to appear as often as weather reports, this statistic initially felt like a revelation: More girls — around 2,400 — are playing high school football than ever, according to the National Federation of State High Schools Associations.
Yes, that’s tiny (.002%) compared to the 1,000,600 boys playing on high school gridirons. And yes, football remains, by far, the largest prep sport. But when you start exploring the growth around female participation in football, that statistic becomes less of an epiphany. (Besides, we’ve already won a round of beers betting that an average of 48 girls in every state are playing high school football alongside their male classmates.)
Earlier this year, Antoinette “Toni” Harris became the first female non-kicker to be granted a college football scholarship. The 5-foot-7 Detroit native is playing free safety at Central Methodist University in Missouri, an NAIA school. Last year, the renowned Manning Passing Academy held its first Women’s and Girls Clinic. And the Utah Girls Football League, an all-female, youth rec tackle league, is now in its fifth year. Sam Gordon, the league’s 16-year-old star running back, appeared in the NFL’s recent Super Bowl spot alongside dozens of NFL hall of famers and current Pro Bowlers.
As USA Football Executive Director Scott Hallenbeck put it, “There’s more openness, opportunity and access than ever to women playing tackle football. The growth of women’s flag [football] is even more astounding, especially internationally.”
Thanks in part to its “Women’s Careers In Football” program, there are women working in various positions at NFL teams.
“When I played football at age 9 or 10, I was the only girl playing in the state of Virginia,” said Callie Brownson, a full-time coaching intern with the Buffalo Bills since August. “Now, there’s people at the top making policy and messaging that’s inclusive. There’s been a shift.’’
Brownson became the first female full-time Division I college football coach in 2018, when she was hired by Dartmouth as its offensive quality control coach.
“Society in general is just more accepting that girls can play our highest-risk contact sport,’’ said Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, “but very few girls are learning the game as kids — most are playing football for the first time in high school.’’
One of the people some of those girls will be learning from is Jennifer Garzone, the first female high school football coach in Connecticut.
“I kind of knew the microscope was going to be on me this year,” said Garzone, a social studies teacher who this year was named the head football coach at MCW United after seven years as an assistant. The team combines students from three schools in the state: Wolcott Tech in Torrington, Housatonic High in Canaan, and Wamogo High in Litchfield. “I didn’t take over a championship program, so my goal was to get participation up and to keep the program alive,” she said.
Garzone’s program now has 47 kids playing, including a freshman girl who Garzone said might wind up playing on the offensive line. For now, though, Garozne’s bottom line differs from other coaches. The number of kids playing is, she said, “the highest it’s been for a very long time.”
If attitudes about women and football have changed, it begs the question of what has to happen before there’s a college team with a female head coach.
“Clearly, now it’s just a matter of time,’’ said USA Football’s Hallenbeck, wondering aloud if a fledgling league like the XFL might do it just for the novelty. “You’d hope it would be some woman getting the job because she could flat-out coach,’’ he added.
Pop Warner Executive Director Jon Butler said a women’s college head football coach “is inevitable and it’s going to be faster than we think.”
Butler doesn’t have statistics to prove it, but he says that anecdotally he’s seeing more rosters dotted with girls names in Pop Warner’s universe of athletes ages 5 to 16. “Someone’s going to want to be the early adopter. It might be a move that would turn off some big college donors, but it could also attract some,” he said.
Added Garzone: “College coaching positions are usually reserved for those who have played at that level or higher and there have been very few women who have even tried out for a college team … so I don’t see it starting at Ohio State,” she laughed. “It starts by moving from, ‘It’s a female coach, to ‘It’s a great coach.’”
Brownson, who is working with the Bills’ offensive coaches, sees the issue in a more practical light.
“The more attainable goal over the next few years is continuing that upward trend of participation for girls, so it’s commonplace,’’ she said. “If you show college and especially professional athletes that you can help them succeed, they could care less who you are. The door was shut in my face a bunch of times. You’re going to be questioned and told ‘no way’ more times than you are going to be told yes, but all that really matters is how much you’ve grown and developed so that when you finally get that yes, you’re ready.”
Terry Lefton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.