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 uniform.
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 see."
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.