We need to talk about Sarah Fuller. More broadly, we need to talk about the deeply absurd double standards in American society for women who break down barriers, especially in sports. There is a widespread and profound misunderstanding that gender and athletic ability are intrinsically linked, and hateful hot takes on social media prove how far we still have to go in achieving any sort of gender equity in sports.
Fuller is the starting goalkeeper for Vanderbilt University’s Division I women’s soccer team. She recently led the team to a Southeastern Conference (SEC) championship for the first time since 1994, but instead of taking a well-deserved break, Fuller decided to make history. On Nov. 28, she suited up in a Vanderbilt football jersey and, when she kicked off the second half of the Commodores’ game against the University of Missouri, she became the first woman to ever play a snap in a Power Five conference football game.
The moment Fuller took the field should have been magical, and for many women in sports, it was. People shared stories online of their daughters who aspire to play football at a high level of competition, of how hopeful they felt to see her on the field, of joy at seeing yet another glass ceiling broken. Unfortunately, hope and joy do not thrive on social media, and Fuller’s name trending on Twitter quickly filled with hateful vitriol.
Most of the ignorant opinions centered around Fuller’s sole kick of the game. The kick was not the high, sailing drive that football fans are accustomed to seeing but a low, direct ball that traveled approximately 30 yards. Then-Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason confirmed in his postgame press conference that the kick was intended to be a squib — a short tactical kick intended to prevent an opposing team from returning the ball on a kickoff.
“That was designed, you know, meant for her because that’s what she used to striking,” Mason said at the press conference. “We tried to go with the most natural kicks in her arsenal. … I thought she punched it exactly where she needed to punch it.”
For football fans truly watching the play, it was obvious from Vanderbilt’s formation on the kickoff and the direction of the kick that Fuller executed exactly what she was coached to do. A squib on the kickoff was arguably a bad play call by the coaching staff, considering Vanderbilt was losing 21–0 at halftime, but the kick itself was not. However, social media pounced on the kick as evidence that Fuller didn’t have the leg strength and wasn’t capable of kicking a football more than a few yards. All of that is obviously false — Fuller has made 38-yard field goals in practices — but, more importantly, it shouldn’t matter.
Fuller took only one kick throughout the course of the game because Vanderbilt’s offense failed to get into field goal range. Male football players shank kickoffs, field goals and punts at the Division I level every single week, but those mistakes are not used against every male athlete. No one sees a missed extra point and immediately jumps to the conclusion that men are simply unable to kick a ball from that distance. No one assumes that one man’s error or lack of talent applies to every single man because that would be insane. Yet when women participate in sports, particularly when they participate in traditionally male sports, they are held to a standard of representing every woman’s ability to succeed.
The other — and more frustrating — comments were those that called Fuller a publicity stunt. Some social media users begged the question, “If she can play a men’s sport, men can play on women’s teams now, right?”
First, Fuller started in the game against the University of Missouri because Vanderbilt’s other kickers were all unavailable due to COVID-19 protocols. Vanderbilt does not field a men’s soccer team, so the women’s soccer team was an obvious choice for the Commodores to pull from. The team conducted a campuswide search, but the women’s soccer team was the only group of students left on campus because its SEC championship game occurred after Thanksgiving break began. However, the football team had no reason to search the student body or change the positions of players on its roster when there was a talented young woman ready and willing to step up.
Perhaps if Vanderbilt had a women’s football team, Fuller would be an incredible football kicker. We do not know because Vanderbilt does not have women’s football. In fact, no American colleges in any NCAA division currently field varsity football teams for women. Fuller’s participation in a men’s sport does not suddenly mean that men should be allowed in the WNBA because men already have access to professional basketball. They do not need to be included in women’s sport because they have always had their own spaces.
At the root of the critical response to Fuller’s history-making performance is plain and simple sexism. A woman playing football will not change the sport. One woman’s success or failure do not dictate the capabilities of every other woman. The search for justifications and excuses when women break boundaries needs to stop. The desperate attempts to regulate when and how women are allowed to break those boundaries need to stop. Let women be exceptional, and leave it at that.