If you were scrolling through social media last week, you likely witnessed a lot of mixed opinions on Vanderbilt University student-athlete Sarah Fuller’s debut with the school’s football team.
Her accomplishment received severe backlash online, but the hate will only add to Fuller’s legacy as someone who disrupted the status quo and forged new paths for women in football.
Fuller, a senior goalkeeper for Vanderbilt’s women’s soccer team who had just won the Southeastern Conference (SEC) championship six days prior, was asked to become the football team’s new kicker when COVID-19 exposure prevented the entire kicking unit from playing. During the Saturday, Nov. 28 matchup against the University of Missouri, the Commodores put Fuller in the game to take the second half kickoff. Fuller was named the SEC special teams co-player of the week after her appearance in that game.
This was undeniably a historic moment in sports, as Fuller became the first woman to appear in a football game in any of the Power Five conferences. This led to her quickly going viral on social media; my Instagram feed was filled with photos of Fuller’s iconic helmet inscribed with the phrase, “Play Like A Girl,” and many legendary female athletes like Billie Jean King shared their congratulations.
But for every post of encouragement and excitement, there seemed to be twice as many spiteful insults. A Twitter-verified sports journalist with almost 750,000 followers called Fuller’s debut a “charade,” her halftime speech to the team a “ridiculous stunt” and her SEC honor a “sham.” This doesn’t even account for the plethora of disparaging and often sexual posts about Fuller by average Joes on the internet who find every reason to tear down women in sports.
Here are the facts: Fuller was one of the only student-athletes on campus available to kick for the football team on such short notice, and she executed a squib kick exactly how the coaches instructed. She did her job and happened to make history at the same time.
Much of the criticism online came from people—in many cases white men—who didn’t understand why Fuller was getting so much praise for a single squib kick. They posed questions akin to, “A man wouldn’t have been celebrated for a 30-yard kickoff, so doesn’t it go against equality to celebrate Fuller for that?”
It’s easy to write off these critics and move on, but this situation reveals a lot about how privilege can lead to ignorant mindsets about equality and opportunity. It is impossible for a white, straight, cisgender man to truly understand the feeling of seeing someone like them accomplish something for the first time ever. These moments are especially significant in sports, which is an industry characterized by resistance to change.
We celebrate Fuller because the moment she stepped on the field in a Power Five football game, it became about much more than just one player kicking a ball. Girls across the country who play or are interested in football got to watch a woman compete in one of the best football conferences in the nation, and now they have someone carving a path for them to play the sport they love. One man on Twitter wrote that his 4-year-old daughter “jumped with excitement” when she saw Fuller on the field, and another man’s 11-year-old daughter who plays football “cried watching [Fuller’s] kickoff.”
Fuller’s SEC honor and media attention were not just praising one squib kick. They were celebrating a woman who stepped up for her school on short notice and has since endured a deluge of hateful and harassing comments. They were celebrating a woman who shattered a very resistant glass ceiling that kept women out of Power Five football and is now inspiring girls to chase the dream that they’d once believed would never be possible.
This is the opinion of Ellie Kinney, a junior communication studies major from Boston, Massachusetts. Tweet comments to @LAloyolan or email comments to email@example.com.