Sophia sprinted out of left field and slammed into the running back before he could make it across the 40-yard line. She threw her all into it. He went down. She went with him. It was a spectacular tackle for middle school football. I cheered. Then in the melee following the tackle, another player fell on her. The cheer stuck in my throat. After a few long moments, Sophia got up and limped to the next play.
When Sophia, my 13-year-old daughter, started playing football on a school team last fall, I was caught somewhere between pride and terror.
To be absolutely clear, I didn’t want my daughter to play football. I don’t want my son to play it either. All things being equal, I’d like to see the sport quietly disappear from the earth: Not just because it promotes a violent, toxic masculinity but mainly because, despite recent declines, football still has the highest concussion rate of all high school sports. It is the only sport in our town where they feel it necessary to park an ambulance on the field.
When Sophia first declared she wanted to play football, both my husband and I tried to talk her out of it. I found myself making arguments I never thought I’d make as a lifelong feminist: that yes, men really are physically stronger than women, that other players might hurt her on purpose because she is a girl, and that maybe this fight wasn’t worth it.
Football is sacred to many men and boys, I told her. She would face other more important battles, like making sure she got paid fairly, like passing the equal rights amendment, like winning the presidency.
What I didn’t tell her was no. As parents, both my husband and I believe that children should be allowed to take some reasonable risks, and as they get older, to make more decisions on their own. We had lived nearly seven years in Berlin and embraced the German philosophy of letting kids develop “selbständigkeit,” or self-reliance, without the helicoptering that has become common among American parents. When we moved back to the United States, we were determined to keep raising our kids the German way.
But football tested that resolve.
I don’t fault parents who have decided football is off-limits for their kids. One thing I’ve learned about parenting is that there’s often a precise calculus to it, and one decision doesn’t fit all. If one factor were different for my daughter, our decision may have been different.
Sophia is not a fragile flower. She’s athletic and tall for 13 years old at 5-foot-6. She believed that she could physically hold her own against her fellow players since many boys her age would be much smaller than she is.
By the time she is in high school, some of the other players could be over 200 pounds, and she conceded, the risks for a smaller person would be higher. One of her arguments to us was that this might be her only chance to try football.
She wasn’t trying to prove a point. She wanted to play a contact team sport, and there was nothing like that for girls at her school, nothing quite like football.
The swaying factor for us was her sheer determination to do something that was hard. She wanted to play this sport against a host of odds, including her parents’ objections. That’s something that would take no small amount of courage. Why would we want to squash that?
We told her she had to organize it. I thought that might kill it right there, but she wrote the principal of her school, and he said yes. The coaches supported her as well, even though she had no experience, having never even played flag football. But it’s a no-cut team, and players don’t have to try out for a spot. (I joked that now, of all the times in my life, the patriarchy had let me down.) She handled the paperwork and laid out the schedule of practices and games.
Sophia was the only girl on a team full of boys, none of whom she knew well. I can only imagine what it was like to show up for that first practice, to be the only girl changing, alone, in the girls’ locker room while her teammates were all together in the boys’ locker room.
While the number of girls playing high school football has doubled in the last 10 years, it is still low at around 2,400 players compared to over a million boys nationwide, according to surveys by the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Sophia wasn’t a super star player, which isn’t surprising given that she’d never played before, but it didn’t matter.
“It’s really fun,” she told me, as if it were a dark secret. She liked the strategy, the intensity of it, and yes, the tackling of people.
Ultimately, I have to admit playing football was a good experience for her. She learned what it meant to be on the field instead of relegated to the sidelines. She faced fear, head on, and kept pushing forward.
She also heard how boys talk when they were, mostly, among themselves. She heard them pretend to be gay as a joke. She heard some evaluate girls just by their looks. Others made vulgar comments, and some bragged about sexual conquests that they might have made up. It was a valuable, if depressing, life lesson in how sexism has roots even at this age among young boys who feel entitled to objectify and degrade girls.
I have long worried that my daughter would join the many girls who lose confidence in middle school. That hasn’t happened. If anything, playing football made her stronger, and not just in a physical sense. Sophia doesn’t crumble when faced with difficult situations. She prides herself in being tough. She’s competitive and resilient, characteristics that will serve her well in a world that is still deeply unfair to women.
All this has not changed my mind about football. But it doesn’t matter. It’s not about me.
I know my daughter will make many decisions I don’t agree with as she gets older. We will still have to say no to some things. But within reason, we will respect her choices.
I don’t pretend this is easy. Yet, this is what I signed up for when I became a parent. Raising an independent young adult means ultimately letting go, and that’s a process rife with both pride and terror.
Sara Zaske is the author of “Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children.”
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