For one shining moment Heather Sue Mercer was a placekicker for
the Duke football team. It was spring 1995, in the annual
intrasquad game, when Mercer, then a freshman, kicked a 28-yard
field goal to clinch a two-point victory for the Blue team.
Hours later the university sent out a press release, the first
sentence of which noted that Mercer was "bidding to become the
first woman to ever play Division I football." Two days later
Duke coach Fred Goldsmith told Mercer, "You're on the team."
Mercer was a Blue Devil, or so she thought. In truth, she was
never officially on the team. As a freshman, and as a sophomore
and as a junior, she worked out with Duke's kickers but was
never given pads or allowed to practice with the Blue Devils,
and she was never allowed to stand on the sidelines in a Duke
Last week Mercer, now a senior who no longer does any
placekicking, filed a federal lawsuit against Duke, maintaining
that the school and Goldsmith discriminated against her because
she is a woman. She says if a judgment favorable to her results
in a monetary award, she will use the money to establish a
scholarship fund to help other female kickers. Around the Duke
athletic department, Mercer's once-celebrated 28-yard kick is
now described as "wobbly," a floater that barely cleared the
uprights. She has become the enemy.
When Mercer talks about Goldsmith and her experiences with his
team, her lips quiver and she stares off into space. "I had
always believed that quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, 'Nobody can
make you feel inferior without your permission,'" Mercer said
the other day. "Goldsmith took that from me." She was weeping.
Goldsmith isn't talking. "Fred got carried away after that
spring game, he got excited," says one of his assistants, Fred
Chatham. "He should have never said she was on the team. I said,
'Coach, she's not very good.' And Fred said, 'Oh, no. She'll
work hard. She'll come around.' He sympathized with her cause.
He saw his own two daughters through her. The fact is, she just
didn't have the talent to kick at this level, as Fred came to
In her complaint Mercer alleges that Goldsmith asked her during
a phone conversation why she was interested in football and why
she didn't "participate in beauty pageants instead." In an
interview last week Mercer maintained that Duke's sports
information director, Mike Cragg, who was on the line for part
of the call, later acknowledged to her that Goldsmith had made
that remark. "That," Cragg says, "is a total lie."
To which Mercer responds, "If he says he didn't hear it, then
that's a lie."
This is Duke, you will recall, the normally civilized collegiate
oasis in Durham, N.C., the university that proves annually that
the phrase student-athlete is not an oxymoron. To honor federal
antidiscrimination law, all Goldsmith had to do was treat Mercer
without regard to her sex. Easy to say.
Mercer was a good, not exceptional, kicker at Yorktown High in
Yorktown Heights, N.Y. As a senior she made 28 of 31 extra point
attempts and four of seven field goal tries. Her longest field
goal was a 33-yarder. Her team won the state Class B title. She
was named third-team all-state. She was accurate. She was calm
in the face of a rush. Her kicks lacked oomph.
In September 1994--with Duke's season under way and Goldsmith
set for kickers--Mercer asked him for a tryout. He said yes, and
in doing so began a series of well-meaning gestures in which he
failed to treat Mercer like one of the boys. A male with her
level of kicking skill would have been told to wait for spring
practice. In April '95 a male freshman with her kicking skill
would not have been chosen to play in the intrasquad game.
Goldsmith had created his own little affirmative-action program.
In her sophomore and junior years the men on the team who had
Mercer's middling skills and immense devotion were given a game
uniform and allowed on the sidelines, not because they would
ever see a down of action but as a reward for being used in
practice as human tackling dummies. Goldsmith didn't want
Mercer, who is 5'9" and 145 pounds, to be a tackling dummy,
despite her willingness to be one. In the odd way of modern law
he may have violated her rights.
Last Saturday night Duke beat Army, on a field goal with 54
seconds to play, its first win in 16 games. With Mercer on the
sidelines, it's doubtful the Blue Devils would have played
worse. That's all she wanted, to be a member of the team, to be
one of the boys.