“Trailblazing” Toni Harris: the first woman to receive a four-year football scholarship

Matthew Rago, Editor-in-Chief

Remember when you were a kid and your role models told you that you can accomplish anything you put your mind to? Most of us envisioned ourselves as famous, wealthy, popular and adored. We were professional athletes representing our favorite team. We were firefighters who went out and saved the vulnerable. We were lavishly dressed kings or queens who ruled with a compassionate hand. Unfortunately, most of us abandoned our childhood dream by the time we hit puberty. 

Antoinette “Toni” Harris did not.

In a history-making development earlier this year, Harris became the first woman to accept a football scholarship to a four-year university when she signed on to play at Central Methodist University, a Division I program in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). However, unlike female collegiate football players before her, Harris didn’t sign on to assume a non-specialty position. No, Harris is a free safety, and a very capable one at that. 

Harris initially gained notoriety when Toyota featured her in a commercial aired during Super Bowl LIII. The commercial, since featured on NFL.com, depicted a determined Harris running, lifting weights and training before cutting to a scene where she ecstatically received the news of her scholarship offer. The commercial concluded with an emboldened Harris glancing at the camera and stating, “I’ve never been a fan of assumptions.”

Standing 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighing 165 pounds, Harris will face an uphill battle to earn consistent playing time. However, though she has yet to log any game minutes thus far in her NAIA career, Harris’s story will forever be enshrined in history. 

What Harris’s scholarship means for sports is that male dominated leagues which have historically excluded female participation have now been penetrated. Harris’s accomplishment sets a precedent that talent, rather than sex, will be the determining factor as to whether or not women are allowed to play football at the highest level. 

It also begs the question of whether or not female participation in male leagues should be a universal standard. This question was again posed when United States Women’s National Team star Carli Lloyd fielded offers from NFL teams looking to upgrade at the kicker position. 

There’s no valid reason for women capable of competing at the highest level to be excluded from preeminent sporting organizations. Such a mindset is outdated and counterproductive to the social progression many counties have enjoyed over the past few decades.

However, we must consider the effects such a transition would have on women-exclusive sporting leagues. It’s possible that the inclusion of the top female athletes amongst predominantly male competition might diminish the credibility of leagues like the WNBA, which is already struggling to generate consistent revenue. A perception exists that leagues such as the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) and WNBA are second tier. Poaching top talent from the WNBA or NWHL and depicting said talent as worthy of auditioning for the men’s leagues might further enhance the perception of inferiority, whether warranted or not. 

However, it’s difficult to forget athletes like Jenny Finch exasperating future MLB Hall of Famer Albert Pujols with her pitching prowess. It’s easy to imagine Carli Lloyd excelling in the NFL. And perhaps one day, Harris will skyrocket up draft boards and become the first woman ever to play in the NFL. 

Maybe it’s time for us to stop segregating the sexes and allow the best to indiscriminately compete against the best. Sure, that might seem like a radical concept now, but then again, at one point in time, men in the United States of America contended women’s suffrage was not a feasible goal. Our women proved them wrong. Let’s stop depriving them of the opportunity to prove us wrong now.