A group of college women athletes were invited onto the football field as South Carolina took on No. 1 Georgia. The gesture was meant to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the law that banned sex discrimination in education and created new regulations for equal funding for women’s sports in schools. Instead, it ended in the athletes being yelled at, shocking the women who were meant to be honored. Apologies were issued, but one of the women athletes involved said the media attention around the incident has largely missed the real issue: that the work of Title IX still isn’t done.
After the first quarter of the game against the University of Georgia Saturday, women athletes from the University of South Carolina gathered in the end zone. All of the school’s 275 women athletes, including members of the national championship-holding women’s basketball team, were invited to attend.
Just after the women took the field, an ESPN camera zoomed in on South Carolina’s head football coach Shane Beamer screaming, “Get off the field!” and pointing towards the women athletes, aggressively gesticulating as he spoke.
South Carolina women’s soccer player Jyllissa Harris tweeted that afternoon about what happened: “We were on the field for maybe 15 seconds then screamed at to get off. If you want to honor female student athletes, then do that, not this.”
Harris told The 19th that the women student athletes were “yelled at” by the game management staff as the football team prepared for a fourth-and-9 play. They were only on the field for 10 to 15 seconds, Harris estimates. It was only after the fact that she learned of Beamer’s reaction, which surprised her given how vocal she had seen him be about women’s athletics at South Carolina during her time there.
The next day, Harris told The 19th, she received a personal apology from Beamer, who called her after speaking to South Carolina’s women’s soccer head coach Shelley Smith. The University of South Carolina athletics department confirmed both of these calls to The 19th.
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“He said he was really sorry for his reaction that day. He didn’t know. They didn’t tell him about the ceremony before the game.” Harris said. “He said that he of course does support each and every one of us, which I believe, and he’s shown that time and time again.” Harris said she has a “lot of respect” for Beamer, a regular attendee at South Carolina women’s sporting events.
Beamer issued a public apology on Sunday as well, telling reporters, “I apologize to anyone that I offended. Certainly I know game management has a tough job and a lot of moving parts. I’m sure they feel like they could be better in that situation in regards to when and how we honored those female student-athletes and more importantly how to get them off the field a lot quicker than what we were able to when the ceremony was over. I hope people know me well enough to know what an advocate I am for women’s sports. I’ve got two daughters of my own that play sports. I’m at as many women’s athletic events at Carolina as I can possibly be because I believe in them and support them, and anyone that thinks otherwise surely doesn’t know me.”
Now, Harris wants increased focus on a larger issue: the need for serious investment into women’s sports, and how the university could have gone about honoring its women student athletes and Title IX.
Harris was excited to stand in front of almost 80,000 fans in the stands during a nationally televised game against the top team in the nation and be honored for her achievements.
“It was a great idea to recognize us,” she said. “But let the people in the stands know who we are and why we were there.”
Harris said an announcement was made as they walked onto the field over the loudspeaker. But TV commentators did not announce the players, and neither the announcers nor the coaching staff had been briefed on the ceremony. Her excitement for the day ended in disappointment.
“It was like checking a box, that’s what it felt like that day. If they wanted to honor Title IX and the 50 years, that’s great, and that’s something that we’re all really proud of. It’s changed a lot of people’s lives these past 50 years. I wish that it was more of a special moment,” Harris said. “It felt like a bit of a wake-up call that the work isn’t done yet and that time and money being put into women student athletes still needs to be pushed out in front.”
Harris said as coverage of Beamer’s remarks on the field started picking up, Beamer called Smith and apologized for his reaction, and that he didn’t know what was going on, hadn’t been informed of the ceremony before the game. He then asked if he could call Harris in response to her tweet.
“He was really apologetic and said he wished he had had a different reaction. He explained why his reaction was like that,” Harris said.
She also said that Beamer told her that she and her fellow women student athletes “deserved more in that ceremony.”
“It was nice to hear from him in that moment and have that reminder that we have him in our corner and that he supports our team, like we support his team as well,” she said.
As a fifth-year player, Harris — who is hoping to go pro — said she wouldn’t have stayed on for an additional year if not for her belief in her school’s women’s soccer program and what women’s sports do for women. She said in recent years, the school has expanded staffing for its women’s programs and has had discussions about how to better market its women’s teams. That said, “there’s always work to be done in the sense of how we can continue to evolve recognition and how people view us, which takes time,” Harris said.
“I wouldn’t be who I am without sports and without sports at South Carolina. I have the best coaches and support staff ever. I have hopes of going pro and sports give you the mental strength and toughness to get through hard times. South Carolina has shown me that having good people in your corner is really important.”