There is something to watching a person do what’s never been done. It feels like an objective, impartial good, an impossibility vanquished by humankind on our trajectory up and up and up. We, all of us, couldn’t do it before; now at least one of us can, and it seems inevitable that more of us will as a result.
The clichéd metaphors used to describe these moments paint them as sudden, concrete ruptures: breaking down barriers, shattering glass ceilings, blazing trails. Where there was an impediment, now there is none. It’s black and white. You couldn’t, and now you can. Ambiguity is for suckers.
When Sarah Fuller became the first woman to play in a Power Five football game last weekend, kicking off for Vanderbilt in a matchup that would have been completely uninteresting without her presence, that sentiment surrounded her achievement. It is, after all, a moment when finding anything to celebrate without caveats feels like an insurmountable hurdle itself; Fuller offered the rare easy win.
The trophy, the first, is tarnished a bit by circumstance. Fuller is a very successful soccer player, not a football player; she was pressed into service as a kicker at a time when no one should be playing any sport, due to the lethal virus with which Vanderbilt’s usual special teams squad had been infected. Her opportunity was the desperate measure that these desperate times called for, not the expected result of plodding, gradual progress for women in football and sports as a whole.
Plenty of girls and women have spent years kicking for football teams at every level besides the NFL, as well as throwing and catching and tackling for them; Fuller had never kicked before, and learned how to in the days before the game — an added degree of difficulty that was, of course, not acknowledged by her detractors. It’s hard to say with any degree of certainty when those women, the ones who’ve spent countless hours preparing for exactly the moment Fuller was thrust into, will get to prove themselves on an SEC football field; after all, it isn’t their ability or lack thereof that’s keeping them off of it.
That’s what is so frustrating to see ignored time and time again, as we celebrate these nominally unprecedented events — not only with women, but with any group that has been collectively, arbitrarily kept out of a field or space. The false optimism of these milestones obscures the fact that years and years of them have not made it easier for those who follow; once the newness has worn off, so-called trailblazers are most often forgotten — the path they pruned back allowed once more to be grown over.
“An earlier version of this article misidentified the first woman to score in a Division I college football game,” wrote the New York Times at the bottom of its piece on Fuller. A slew of increasingly specific firsts are chronicled in the piece; what is omitted is any mention of the plentiful women’s football leagues that exist in the U.S., and the long history of girls playing football right alongside the boys. When no one fuels and amplifies the work of those who seek to build something holistic and new as they do those who dare to go first, the barriers might be broken but there is no supportive, inclusive infrastructure to replace them. The history that gets made remains in its first draft, in laudatory newspaper headlines that fade and crumble, rarely deemed worthy of being chronicled in a book or set in stone.
A “first” becomes the most important aspect of history when you insist that change is linear — that there’s a straight line or ladder in place of our reality, a jumbled mess of events that are bad and also sometimes good. “It’s never going to be a straight shot,” Fuller herself told Anderson Cooper. If it were, her participation wouldn’t still be so newsworthy.
Novelty — the battle itself, the thrill of overcoming — is more exciting, more visceral and easy to understand than broad, structural change, the kind borne of knotty, slow conversations and radical openness. It’s also less threatening, more familiar; we can accept one-offs in a way that we can’t accept, say, encouraging girls to try out for football across the country.
In an ideal world, the question we’d ponder about these arbitrary walls isn’t who will be the first to push through them, but why they were erected in the first place — put up so quietly and purposefully as to seem like natural law.
Right now, though, we insist that the walls must be broken through when we could just open the gate — or better yet, create something totally new.