Vanderbilt football head coach Todd Fitch was asked in a recent radio interview whether the team’s decision to bring on kicker Sarah Fuller as the first woman to play in a Power 5 football game was a publicity stunt.
His answer was convincingly matter-of-fact. Fitch did not gush about breaking barriers or paving the way for equality in sports. Instead, the football coach said he was just trying to win a football game.
“Something like this turns into a big story nationally. But within the walls of the building, people are just trying to find guys and girls that can help win games,” Fitch told ESPN Nashville this week. “Sometimes that’s what people lose sight of. I was never part of the conversation where it was anything to do other than find somebody who can kick it through the uprights.”
For the second straight week, Vanderbilt’s regular kickers will be sidelined due to Covid-19 protocols. That means Fuller will once again kick for the Commodores when they take on the Georgia Bulldogs Saturday.
Fuller made her FBS debut last week, opening up the second half of Vanderbilt’s 41-0 loss to Missouri with a squib kick that traveled 30 yards down to the 35-yard line. Fuller was named an SEC Special Teams Player of the Week for her efforts.
Predictably, there’s been some disingenuous trolling about Fuller’s place on the squad. OutKick founder Clay Travis called her SEC Player of the Week award a “sham,” and his colleague, Jason Whitlock, asked if players on Vanderbilt’s men’s soccer team were considered for the position (Vanderbilt does not have a men’s soccer team).
But increasingly, the naysayers look like antiquated carnival barkers, thirsty for a retweet from Donald Trump Jr.
Make no mistake: Fuller belongs on the team. She’s already seemingly earned the respect of her teammates, delivering a rousing halftime speech urging them to show more support for each other on the field.
Vanderbilt quarterback Mike Wright told The Washington Post that the speech helped, and called Fuller a “leader.”
The limited pushback against Fuller is confined to the Twittersphere and airwaves. Within the confines of Vanderbilt’s football program, she is respected. It’s a pattern we see with LGBTQ sports figures all of the time.
That’s certainly the case with the San Francisco 49ers, where Katie Sowers became the first woman and openly gay coach in Super Bowl history last season. She’s earned the praise of San Francisco’s highest-profile players, from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to star fullback Kyle Juszczyk.
The rising coaching star has also earned endorsement opportunities, getting featured in a Microsoft ad.
The notion still exists that locker rooms are filled with modern-day versions of Attila the Hun. There are fear-mongering stories about closeted Premier League players in British tabloids, and loud opinions about how homophobes in sports are even more proud now.
The noise is largely baseless.
The slew of young LGBTQ athletes whom we profile counteracts those outdated beliefs, and the research does, too. A study of coming-out stories on Outsports shows that male athletes are overwhelmingly accepting of gay teammates.
Meanwhile, some of the most visible stars in female sports are openly LGBTQ, from Natasha Cloud to Megan Rapinoe.
Trans athletes, despite shameful pushback from governing bodies, also find they’re accepted by teammates and coaches.
LGBTQ people are everywhere in sports. Last night for our Zoom holiday hangout, attendees included high school athletes, college athletes, professional coaches, and sports executives. We are not hidden.
That’s not to say the fight for inclusion in sports is over, or that LGBTQ people — and kids in particular — still don’t face grotesque discrimination in their lives. There is a long way to go, and we want to pave the road for equality one positive story at a time.
That includes stories like Fuller’s. A woman is gearing up to kick for the second straight week in the SEC, because she is the best person for the job. When sports are at their best, they are the ultimate meritocracy.
There are LGBTQ athletes around the world ready to answer the call, just like Fuller was.