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Column: It’s time to level the playing field

Women’s tackle football has long existed, but not at the collegiate level. The NCAA needs to close that gap.

Boston Renegades Practice Photo by Erin Clark/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Jami Jurich Jami Jurich puts her Ohio State journalism degree to good use, working as professional copywriter by day, SB Nation contributor by night.

As a child, I was a ballerina who also happened to play tackle football (what can I say? I contain multitudes). I’m the daughter of a collegiate football player, and my neighborhood friends were mostly boys. Our version of The Sandlot was football at the local elementary school.

In the summers, when my mom would send me outside to play with instructions not to return until it got dark, my options were to read or play alone or to join the boys on the gridiron. I think maybe my deep competitive streak began during those summers with my need to prove to the boys that I belonged on the field (to their credit, I was always welcome with open arms, and they tackled me just as hard as they tackled each other).

Eventually, I begged my parents to let me play in the community tackle football league. For one glorious year, I suited up every Saturday to play with the boys.

Unfortunately, after one season, my dad, who already had concerns about the safety of football given what we know now in terms of concussions, pulled me for safety because my age was going to require me to bump up a weight class, though I was well under the weight itself. That was the end of my football career, but not the end of my love for the sport.

Fast forward to a few years ago. My dear friend Molly called me up to tell me she was joining a competitive women’s tackle football team called the Boston Renegades. They had, she said, won many national championships as part of the Women’s Football Alliance. Molly had a history of collegiate sports, but she was new to the game of football.

My mind was blown. I had never heard of the Women’s Football Alliance, nor did I realize that competitive tackle football for women was an option. As it turns out, women’s tackle football teams and leagues have been around for decades. Columbus even had a team of its own — the Columbus Pacesetters — from 1974-1988 before they became a flag football team.

Over the past five years, women’s tackle football has seen tremendous growth in both the number of teams and the level of competition, in large part thanks to the WFA’s work to make women’s tackle football accessible as a community investment. There’s even a U.S. Women’s National tackle football team.

But there aren’t teams at the collegiate level. Given the growth of women’s tackle football in recent years, one has to wonder – will it ever become an NCAA sport?

Football has long been a male-dominated sport, and while I am hoping that in the near future, we move away from gendered sports altogether in favor of more inclusive systems, as long as we are still working under gendered sports, I would love to see more women on football fields across America.

While there are no rules barring women from taking the field in NCAA football games, women are few and far between, in part due to the physical size of most football players. When we do see them on the field, it’s usually in placekicker or holder roles — positions which are rarely involved in full contact. Only four women have ever played in non-kicking positions at the collegiate level.

But if there is such a large — and growing — interest in women’s tackle football for adults, wouldn’t it make sense that there are women at the collegiate level who would be interested in playing as well? Women who could theoretically feed into adult leagues?

The WFA is making incredible strides in bringing women’s tackle football to the forefront, and I think it’s time for the NCAA to catch up to the times, even if it starts at the club level. The impact of adding women’s tackle football teams to the NCAA would be vast, likely rippling down to high schools and youth leagues.

Surely I wasn’t the only young girl in America who had an interest in tackle football. But I also think many of my friends didn’t see it as an option for them; It was a boys’ club. Having women’s tackle football at the collegiate level would create exposure in a way that would help middle and high school athletes visualize that as a realistic option for them to consider, should they want to.

Playing football at a young age taught me toughness, persistence, resilience (having to get up for the next play after being dropped on your ass will teach you to bounce back in life in ways little else will). We know team sports are beneficial to young people even if they don’t choose to become professional athletes, and as safety continues to improve in the sport, football can help youth players develop life skills — skills which women and young girls should also have access to.

We’re also seeing a surge for professional women’s sports across the board. The NWLS and WNBA have both soared in popularity in recent years, and the NCAAW March Madness tournament saw record numbers this year. There’s no reason to believe that same sentiment couldn’t translate to tackle football.

It wouldn’t be an overnight shift, but it is also not out of the realm of possibility. The long-term payoff, in my opinion, is worth the investment.

The NCAA is in a position to meet the times and create a world in which football is a sport for everyone, not just boys. Where women are on the field enough that their presence isn’t a news headline. Where young girls could turn on the television on Saturday mornings to see people like them playing tackle football, with all of the strength and toughness that requires, and think “I could do that too.”