Let It Be Said ... It Began with A Squib
Sarah Fuller had quite a November. First, she led Vanderbilt’s underdog women’s soccer team to the SEC championship. Then, with Vandy’s football kickers all in quarantine, she was called upon to handle place-kicking and kick-off duties for the Commodores in their game against Missouri.
She appeared once, squibbing the opening second-half kick-off to Vandy’s 35, where it was quickly covered up the Missouri return team.
Her low-liner kick did more than cover 25 yards. It marked the first time a woman had appeared in a Division I, Power 5 Conference football game.
It also set off a firestorm.
Attacking the innovator ... Covering Your Biases
The most offensive tweets, Facebook posts, and modified photos are easy to guess and don’t deserve calling out.
What does deserve calling out are the barrage of tweets, posts, and conversations that expose the real barriers to women having the opportunity to fully develop their skills.
Even as Sarah was standing before the cameras on Saturday after the game telling young girls: “You can do anything you set your mind to, you really can,” those who would shut the doors were already telling them they can’t.
No sooner were the words out of her mouth than the attacks began:
First came the charge that Vandy was simply going with Fuller to make some grand social statement. Said one Tweet: “Here is my take: if your [sic] making decisions based on anything other than results, you have some issues you need to resolve.”
Then came a darker charge - This was a coach trying to save his job by hiding his own failings behind a woman. Hence this story in Outkick:
“Sarah Fuller received a standing ovation for kicking the ball 30 yards or so and high-tailing it to the sidelines to be greeted by the winless head coach using her to save his job.
“This wasn’t Jackie Robinson 2.0. It was Make A Wish.”
It’s not like we haven’t heard such complaints before. Whenever people try and break barriers, the charge that they earned the opportunity not because of their ability or work but because of misplaced sympathy is always there. We heard it when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. We heard it when US Women's National Team soccer player Carli Lloyd took some practice kicks with the Philadelphia Eagles.
These complaints, however, have no merit. Let’s take a closer look.
Claims that we should make decisions based solely on merit is emotionally resonant, but deeply flawed.
The pathway to athletic success is paved with hard work, preternatural talent, and often, a lot of luck. And most of that luck has to do with the wealth of the family you’re born into.
To earn a place on any college team, but especially a Power 5 team, one has to first be noticed by the schools’ coaches. And getting noticed has become expensive.
Students who strive for spots on Division I soccer, field hockey, volley ball, track, swimming, tennis, golf, and other non-revenue teams learn early on that there are gateways to those teams. And those gateways are frequently controlled by travel, or pay-to-play teams.
Many of these teams do a world of good for their athletes. They can provide high-end training by nationally and internationally certified coaches. They can gain their athletes exposure at showcase events across the country. And they can give them a broader perspective on sport and the world by traveling nationally and internationally.
All of this, however, costs money. A lot of it.
If you are not with on one of these teams, getting seen by a college coach at any level – Division I, II, or III – becomes monstrously more difficult.
Some sports travel teams, of course, do a better job of creating opportunities for economically disadvantaged youth (a class that increasingly includes middle-class parents who lack the extra income to pay for these services) than others. But too many kids are being left behind. A study by the Aspen Institute recently revealed, for example, that low-income kids are 6-times more likely to quit sports than kids from high-income families.
So let’s leave behind the notion that coaching decisions are based solely on merit. The very funnel we’ve created to identify kids who can play at elite levels is already omitting kids because of their financial situation.
The Tyranny of Prejudice
Economic barriers aside, there are the coaches themselves who create barriers. Prejudicial ideas about who and who can't play can, and do, keep them from ever considering others in the pool of potential candidates.
Let’s return to the writer at OutKick. He argues that Vanderbilt treated Sarah like a terminally ill child and granted her dying wish of playing college football. He defends this position by raising what on the surface is an obvious, and fair, question. Was there not at Vanderbilt University one person who had the ability to fill in for a kicker this past weekend? Was there not someone from the men’s soccer team who would have been better? Some student who was a good kicker in high school who could have performed better?
Perhaps, but let’s consider the athleticism required to do what she did.
Contrary to what many may believe, kicking is not “easy” or something that “any soccer player” can do. In fact, kicking a football requires years of work to get good at.
I am, myself, a kicking coach at the high school level who routinely works with soccer players
who want to play for our team. They learn very quickly that the mechanics of successfully kicking a football are not the same as the mechanics of kicking a soccer ball.
Reviewing film of Sarah’s warmups, I can see right away that she hasn’t mastered the basic techniques. Her follow through is poor, and she lands on her kicking foot, as opposed to driving through and landing on her plant foot.
None of this is surprising considering she never really had tried to do this. Or been trained to do it. If you are pre-disposed to ignoring women because they aren’t technically proficient, you’re going to miss out on a lot of talented people who could learn.
I’ve looked at what Sarah did wrong. Now let’s look at what she did right. She has a strong leg. Her set up and approach are clean. When working with a live snapper her operation times are very good (i.e., she knows when to move and does so quickly). And most important, mentally she is up to the task.
Note during the postgame interview she talked about not being nervous. “The SEC championship games” she said, were far more stressful.
I’ve worked with kids who have all the tools, but who are never able to get over the mental hurdles. I’ve also worked with kids who lacked high-end athletic talent but became good kickers. What they lacked in physical ability, they more than made up for in mental toughness and work ethic.
Note the one kick Sarah did make in the game. Many derided it because it “only” traveled 25 yards. True, but it: 1) was a planned kick, 2) wasn’t returned, and 3) was perfectly executed. It’s called a squib kick, and placing a squib kick precisely where you need to place it is a difficult skill. Sarah’s talent as a soccer player shone through at that moment. There are a lot of Division I kickers who do not execute that kick as well as she did.
So could someone else have done a better job? Maybe. Would I, as a coach, trust Sarah? Absolutely.
The real question becomes, will the coaches who serve as the gatekeepers to individual teams learn to see beyond what’s known to see what is possible?
Wishes Lead to Dreams
What happened in Columbia, Missouri, on Saturday was a lot of things. The most important, however, may have been that it sparked young girls to dream. As important, a lot of coaches who refuse to consider people who traditionally haven’t played suddenly found themselves being called out for their prejudicial views.
Sarah Fuller is not going to open a flood gate of women kicking at the Division I level next season. A quick look at the ranking of kickers done every year by Kohl’s Kicking Camps – the leader in ranking kickers – shows why. Among the top 100 wannabe kickers from the class of 2020 that were ranked by Kohl’s, not one has a female name.
What we can’t know is how many young women or minorities (kicking is overwhelmingly done by Caucasians) watched Sarah on Saturday and begin to think that they, too, could do that.
The pipeline will take time to develop. But when we create opportunities, it does develop.
In my forthcoming book – 30 Days with America’s High School Coaches – I profile Adam Priefer, head women’s basketball coach at Centerville High School in Ohio, who talks about the time it took for women to begin being taken seriously as basketball players.
Even as recently as 10 years ago, he says, women in his part of Ohio did not – generally – have the skills that their male counterparts had. A lot of this was due to the fact that the guys and girls almost never played together. Around that same time, however, women and men began playing together on the outdoor courts in Priefer's part of the country. As this has happened, people increasingly don't see men's players and women's players, they just see basketball players. And the gap between men and women began closing quickly.
The same can happen in kicking, it just takes time.
It was a great weekend in sports. A lot of young girls got a glimpse of what is possible. And a lot of coaches are having to face how their own prejudices are preventing athletes from reaching their goals.
I suppose for Sarah Fuller, that all means so much more than a perfectly executed squib kick.