Isabel Kaiser puts her girdle, pants and football cleats into her locker after practice, changes into her tennis shoes and leaves the girls’ locker room, clutching her helmet in her right hand, shoulder pads in the left and maroon polish on her nails.
Coach Matt Jones’ office is down the hallway past the boys’ locker room. Kaiser knocks on his door and hands him her helmet.
When Kentucky Country Day built its 80-acre campus and began its football program in 1982, no one envisioned a female student would play. Hence, the girls’ lockers are 9 3/4 inches wide, not big enough to fit a helmet and shoulder pads. The boys’ are about four inches wider — spacious enough to accommodate their equipment.
“My helmet lives in Coach Jones’ office,” Kaiser, a senior long snapper, said. “We’re working with some of the maintenance people on what we can do for the girls’ locker room.”
In Kentucky, girls are increasingly finding space on football fields alongside their male classmates.
According to the Kentucky High School Athletic Association, 42 girls in the commonwealth were part of a football team in 2018, more than a 27% increase from the previous year. Thirty-six of the 42 girls played at the varsity level. While the general football participation in Kentucky has declined, the number of female students on football teams has increased each year since the 2013 season.
Participation data for 2019 will not be revealed until next summer, but several girls are again playing for Louisville-area high schools this fall.
“There’s always been a social stigma against females playing football,” said Russ Crawford, a professor at Ohio Northern University who is researching the history of women playing football. “But the numbers are increasing. (Girls) have a group that gives them the identity that is unique from the rest of their peer group.”
Before joining the Kentucky Country Day team this year, Kaiser had no previous experience in the sport. She didn’t know how many points a team recorded for a touchdown. She didn’t know when teams elected to kick a field goal or why the referees threw yellow flags.
But as a competitive horseback rider since she was 4 years old, and with two black belts in taekwondo and judo, she wanted the opportunity to play a team sport.
“I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t join the football team,” Kaiser said. “I thought this would be a good thing for me going into college.”
And she’s not alone. Despite obstacles small and large, she and others like her are flocking to football.
More than 20 years after Title IX was passed in 1972, Kimber Hampton still didn’t see a point in playing high school football because subtle discrimination lingered.
“Why don’t you make a flag football team?” she says a coach told her when she showed interest in joining the football team.
“When we were students, there was a bunch of girls who would have liked to play,” said Hampton, a mathematics teacher at Farnsley Middle School. “Pretty much what they would say is if a girl wants to play on the team, she’ll never see playing time.”
The discrimination persisted through the decades.
Last season, when Atherton wide receiver Emily Amaya lined up for a play, an opponent shouted at her, “You can’t stop me, little girl.”
While some have had no issue being the only girl in a male-dominant sport , others have endured bullying and misery. A few of these athletes are still learning the rules.