Becca Longo is the first woman to earn an American football scholarship. Here’s why it matters.
Ceej Tantengco on Apr 16, 2017 02:01 PM
“Do it for those who said you couldn't.” (Photo from Instagram: @beccalongo5)
When you think of American football teams, chances are the first thing that comes to mind are hulking men crashing into their opponents. Men’s leagues dominate the sport, with women’s leagues receiving far less publicity and funding on average. But what casual fans outside the USA might not know is that women have played on predominantly male teams.
In 1997, Williamette Bearcats placekicker Liz Heaston broke barriers as the first woman to play college football. Usually a star on the women’s football team, she filled in for the team’s injured starting kicker, scoring two points on that same historic day. Ashley Martin of the Jacksonville State University Gamecocks became the first woman to play in NCAA football in 2001; two years later, Katie Hnida of the University of New Mexico Lobos scored in an NCAA Division I-A game, college football’s highest level.
This year, Becca Longo won’t be the first female kicker on a team of men, but she will be the first to do so on a scholarship. Longo has signed a letter of intent with Colorado’s Adams State University after an impressive high school season, where she made 30 of 33 extra point attempts and connected with her lone field goal attempt as well.
Longo shouldn’t be a blip on your radar, a headline to be hashtagged #girlpower and subsequently forgotten. Here’s what Longo winning a scholarship means to the future of women in football.
Underrepresented and misrepresented
Do a Google Images search of “female American football players,” and the top results are sexy Halloween costumes and photos from the Legends Football League (formerly known as the Lingerie Football League). The near-universally criticized LFL fined players for wearing additional layers under their skimpy outfits, and let male fans tackle the athletes at halftime.
“Young girls take in the message that the only way people will watch women play sports is if they're sexualized. It's not enough to be a great athlete; they also have to show cleavage and blow kisses at the camera,” explains ESPNW’s Sarah Spain.
This combination of underrepresentation and misrepresentation of female athletes makes it harder for young women to enter the sport. Longo told People that when she wore her team’s football jersey in high school—like all athletes do—her classmates made fun of her, asking whether she had borrowed it from her boyfriend.
After signing with Adams State, Longo shared with Arizona’s Channel 12 that people often discouraged her by saying football was a man’s sport.
"All the time, I get it all the time," said Longo. "I just ignore it, and don't listen to it. I just do what I do." Longo didn’t wait for recruiters to contact her; she made a highlight reel and sent it out to different colleges. Denver7 reports that Longo will be competing against two men for the position of starting kicker at Adams State.
Not only does a scholarship signal to outsiders that Longo’s talent and potential is valued just as much as that of her male teammates, it tells younger athletes and their parents that they do not need to give up football in favor of a sport where women receive more scholarships.
Creating safe environments for female athletes
In football and beyond, female athletes on average are more visible than ever before, but continue to face sexism and unsafe work environments that their male counterparts do not.
WNBA players have repeatedly complained when the media covers their looks or whom they’re dating instead of their skills. Serena Williams has received racially charged criticisms over the span of her incredible career. The trailblazers have it the worst of all.
After her time with the University of New Mexico, Hnida went public with the abuse she received from her teammates. Believing a woman had no place on the team, they threw footballs at her head, groped her in the locker room. In 2005, Hnida revealed to SI that at the end of her freshman year, a teammate raped her.
Then-Colorado coach Gary Barnett downplayed her accusations, saying: “It was obvious Katie was not very good. She was awful. You know what guys do? They respect your ability.” Barnett was placed on administrative leave for his remarks. Hnida graduated magna cum laude with a degree in psychology, wrote about the assault in her memoirs, and is now a motivational speaker for young women and athletes.
The rise of social media, which Longo may utilize, gives female athletes visibility that may act as a form of protection. It’s easier for them to take back the narratives—these women cannot be hidden anymore, and they have a platform to speak when and how they want to.
Even speaking about a positive environment helps the cause by showing that it can and should be done.
In the media storm following Longo’s signing, she has said that in spite of the negativity from outsiders, she was lucky to have a supportive high school team. Meanwhile, Adams State head coach Timm Rosenbach affirmed the school’s decision to grant the a scholarship, saying Longo’s gender did not matter—her reliable kicks did.
Here’s to hoping more young football players have the same experience.