Training, Talent, and Testosterone

It's surprising / not surprising that Sarah Fuller kicking for Vanderbilt's football team has inspired so much sturm and drang. Not to mention very strong opinionating.

The strongest - and in my view most ungrounded - opinion seems to be that there is no possible way that a female was the best option available to the Vanderbilt special teams coach. Surely, the insistence goes, there were male players already on the team who could bring their testosterone to the job and do a much better job kicking than a girl. This is always accompanied by vague bro-science allusions to muscle density, bone mass, or fast-twitch fibers.

It is certainly true that testosterone is a performance enhancing drug. Among a group of athletes who all have innate talent and years of training, testosterone provides a substantial advantage. Take the top 10 male and female swimmers from the last Olympics and race them against each other, and it will be a man who wins. Top 10 finishers from the mens' and women's US Opens (I was thinking golf but it's also true for tennis), play them all against each other in one tournament, and it will be a man who wins.

But this is only true if the talent and the training are in place at a high level. Special teams coach Devin Fitzsimmons alluded to this when he said "Yeah, there were five guys on the team who were alleged soccer players. Like, when they were kids. We saw what they had and I was like 'Um, no. Not good.'"

Take the swimming example above. Yes, among male and female elite swimmers, the men will win. But if you grab some random guy off the baseball team and throw him in the pool against an elite female swimmer, he's going to get his butt kicked. It doesn't matter if he was on the swim team in middle school. He was never an elite level swimming talent, and he hasn't been swimming for a decade or more. As a bro-triathlete would say, "Dude's going to get chicked."

Not to go all Freudian, but "chicked" is a bit of jargon that yields to exegesis. If you're a male triathlete and you get passed by a female, you have been "chicked." It doesn't matter if the female triathlete in question is a UCI time trialist and you're a weekend warrior, if she passes you on the bike leg you have been branded with everlasting humiliation.

The ascendancy of talent and training is nowhere more evident than triathlon - the only sport I know where rank amateurs aspiring to mediocrity can race in the same event with elites. The year I "competed" in Ironman Costa Rica, women's world champion Leanda Cave was there. The bike course was two laps and I was just starting my first lap when a blur went past me, trailing rainbow light streams like the Enterprise going warp 9. I caught a glimpse of the numeral "1" on the back of her calf and realized, "Oh. I guess that was Leanda Cave." I've got more testosterone than Leanda Cave, but I have not the slightest vanishing fraction of her talent and training so I got "chicked." I was in pretty good company, though. Cave's time would have been good for eleventh place among the men. So there were 1479 other guys who got "chicked" along with me. Testosterone alone does not beat talent and training.

So, no, it's not the least bit implausible that Sarah Fuller could kick a ball better than any guy on the football team who isn't a placekicker. She doesn't have the testosterone, but she's been playing soccer continuously for more than 3/4 of her life. She's a goalkeeper, who is usually the strongest leg on the team - and she's the goalkeeper for the SEC champion women's soccer team. She's got talent and training in abundance, and that wins out over testosterone in the absence of talent and training.

Another thing worth mentioning about Fuller. She's a champion and she has a champion's mentality. Put yourself in her shoes. You've got every Bubba and Edgel in the entire country saying you're just a stunt - an exercise in feminist grandstanding. You're on national television. If you shank this kick, Bubba and Edgel and 10 million of their buddies will gloat over you for time and all eternity.

Three times this year, male placekickers for Vanderbilt have missed PATs or short field goals at PAT distance, and they just had the pressure of a football game. Sarah Fuller tried twice and hit them both.

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