Doors open for gender equality in sports

Californian Staff, Voice of California High School

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High school football standout Toni Harris is breaking down gender barriers in an era where women have become more prominent in the sports industry. 

Harris announced on Feb. 26 her decision to continue her football career playing free safety at Central Methodist University, an NAIA program, making her the first female skill-position player to sign a college letter of intent for football. 

She follows in a string of groundbreaking women making strides in once gender-specific sports careers, from broadcasting to coaching and now on the college football field. 

Back in 1987, Gayle Sierens became the first female broadcaster to call an NFL game, causing a domino effect that’s been revolutionizing the sport ever since. Sierens paved the way for a 21st century run in which trailblazers such as Sarah Thomas and Jennifer Welter made their own history in 2015 by becoming the first first female NFL referee and first female NFL coach, respectively. 

Although there’s been a growing number of female participating in high school and college football, Harris is taking no small step. Analyzing or coaching from the sidelines is one thing, but lining up against 275+ pound athletes at 5-foot-7, 166 pounds is truly remarkable from multiple perspectives.

Harris is sending a message. Women can coexist just fine with men in a physical sport like football, and they don’t have to meet a certain height and weight requisite to do so.

Hopping from one junior college to another, Harris faced challenges nobody has ever encountered on or off the gridiron.

In fact, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer when she was 18 and was able to recover, despite losing half her body weight in the process. 

Instead of dwelling on it, she used the obstacle as motivation to pursue the same goal. She continued to pursue her dreams and as a result, has proved that women are by no means lacking in what it takes jump a route or deflect a pass.

It’s safe to say Harris earned every dollar of that scholarship after what she’s been through. She’s been told over and over that she can’t play with the boys. But she’s proven that she has the ability to play bigger than her measurements proclaim.

Through her own perseverance, Harris has opened the door to women with the same aspirations, and now they have assurance that they can do it, too.