Katie Hnida

The Feministing Five: Katie Hnida

Katie Hnida is an athlete, advocate, and all-around bad-ass, who was the first woman to score in an NCAA Division I football game.


She has been playing top-tier football for twenty years and has used her platform to speak out about the importance of improving sexism within sport culture. As a sexual assault survivor, Katie has a unique perspective on how to support women on campus and on and off the field.

We were so thrilled to speak with her about her experience for this week’s Feministing Five!

Suzanna Bobadilla: You have been playing football since you were in middle school and you were the first woman to score in an NCAA Division I game. You have touched various aspects of Title IX, and I was wondering if you could share your experience on and off the field. 

Katie Hnida: It’s a long, long journey. Athletically, Title IX is what allowed me to get onto the field. The strides that we made as female athletes were huge. I never lose sight of that.

I’ve been playing football for 20 years. When I started playing in 1995, it was not very common for women to be on the football field. I was very lucky when I went into high school where I had a supportive coach. I think it was a little bit weird for the guys at first, but once they saw I could kick, it was like nothing else really mattered. I knew that I wanted to play in college as I absolutely loved the game.

I went to our state school University of Colorado and thought it was going to be a fantastic fit for me, but then there was a coaching change. I wasn’t sure what to do as it happened late in the year, and I thought about maybe going to another school. I met with members of the new coaching staff and they still invited me to join the team, but honestly, it felt like it was something that there was pressure to do — me being on the team didn’t seem like something anyone actually wanted. It felt like, “Oh great, she’s a girl, she came out for the team, fun, but it’s not serious.” Not being taken seriously as an athlete is really difficult, especially for me.

Then as soon as I started working out at CU, I dealt with harrassment. It started as verbal. First or second day of my workouts, there was a guy who told me to “go home” as girls “can’t play football.” It was honestly a shock to me. Where I had grown up, I had been very supported in everything I had tried to do. I had never run into something that was so vivid or so obvious. It escalated on from there. Players threw footballs at my head, guys would corner me outside the locker room asking me how the shoulder pads fit my breasts, all sort of things. People would grab my body when we were all in a huddle together. It was awful.

The part that perplexed me the most about it was that these things would happen when other people were around. I could not understand why nobody stood up and said anything. Why did people think this was acceptable? The lack of institutional control there was awful — my coach didn’t want to do anything about the things that he knew about.

At the end of my first year, I had a couple of guys on the team that I had really trusted, and I went over to one of their house’s for pizza and he ended up raping me. There really still aren’t words to this day. Fifteen years out, and when things like that happen, it’s absolutely life changing. I ended up leaving CU and I didn’t end up talking to anyone about being raped because it was not something that there was a dialogue about, at all. They gave you the whistle on campus, told you not to blow unless you were raped, and to watch your drinks. That was the thing — I assumed that I had done everything right. I didn’t go out by myself — I always thought it was going to be a stranger rape, never someone that I knew and trusted.

I transferred schools, spent a year in a very deep depression, and I realized that I still wanted to be on the football field. I didn’t want that to be taken away from me. I sent out about 80 tapes to 115 Division I schools as I knew that I wanted to play at the highest level. I ended up in New Mexico, and a big part of the reason was because I really liked the coach’s attitude there. He was really clear that there wouldn’t be any problems. It was pretty phenomenal. I was still terrified of going back onto the field, but the way that he ran that team, nobody ever did anything to disobey him. The guys really took me in and adopted me like a sister. It was odd when I left because they were used to having a woman around. I was so comfortable with them. For example, when I had my period, I would bring a heating pad, and they just knew that “Oh, well, it’s that time of the month for Katie.” Some of the guys would freak out, but the other ones would bring me a chocolate bar.

It was amazing and I think it really goes to show that it is absolutely possible to make these kind of things work. You have to have people who care about making it work and care about making it happen. I don’t think it was that hard — it wasn’t anything magnificent. I think if we just pull it together we can see this in all of society — that women can be accepted. I realize that there are some really deep-seeded gender expectations and norms, but I think that with the new generation we are seeing that people are moving forward.

SB: How do you see the role of gender in sports continue to evolve? 

KH: I think we still have a long way to go. I’m currently working with a young woman now in Pennsylvania and her school is not allowing her to play football. The school changed the rule allowing her to play so they wouldn’t get sued, and now they have changed it back. So on one hand, we are not allowing a woman or a girl play where she wants to play. For me, in 2015, that is very frustrating. I was playing in ’95 and I can’t believe that we are still here.

In terms of women’s sports, there still is this stereotype that women’s sports do not have as good athletes, that it’s boring, that no one wants to watch. The difference between the attention paid to men and women’s professional leagues is huge. To me, it says that we value our male athletes much more than the female athletes. We have unbelievable women athletes who are playing well. In reality, we have some pretty bad-ass players in there. It really bummed me out when the women’s national soccer league folded, but now they are back up playing again.

Also, I think a lot about appearance and sports. I am very feminine looking — people would be surprised about the way that I looked and that I played competitive football. I felt like there was a lot of pressure for me to be pretty because it was the ’90s and people were like, “Wow, you can be an athlete and be pretty too!” But now, we pushed it to another extreme where we tell young girls, “Hey, you can be an athlete but you also have to be sexy.”

There is a reason why Maria Sharapova makes more money than Serena Williams, and it’s not because of her tennis playing — it’s because of the way that she looks. As women athletes, we are still so valued for our looks and we are objectified. It’s something that plays onto the sports field too.

SB: What would you say to a young athlete who wants to join the team but can’t because of gender exclusivity? 

KH: If it is something that you want to do, then you absolutely go and fight it. Obviously for each person it is their own decision, but if it is something that you love, then go for it. There are a lot of great organizations out there who are willing to work with athletes to make sure they can get on to the field, like the Women’s Sports Foundation. There are a lot of Title IX lawyers who are out there now as well.

SB: Who are some of your sport heroines? 

KH: There are a lot of women that I admire. Growing up, I really loved women like Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Amy Van Dyken. My parents took us to local high school games, which was one of the best things that they did for us kids. We went to see the both male and female sports, and so I had a lot of local heroes. I also looked up to Becky Hammon, who is first woman to have a full-time coaching position with the NBA. She played in Colorado so I used to watch her play. Here we are all these years later and she’s breaking down these barriers! There is a strong community of female athletes, and it’s really important that we support each other.

SB: The NFL was under significant scrutiny this year for its handling of gender-based violence (or lack thereof). What are your thoughts on its ability to improve? 

KH: I’m glad to see some change happening, because almost anything is better than where the NFL had been before regarding domestic violence. There are some people within the NFL (including players) that truly care about fixing this issue. That said, it’s going to take time to shift the culture. We need to address the root causes of domestic and sexual violence at their core, and that will take a serious commitment and work from the league. The NFL is one of the most powerful institutions in the USA and their influence is undeniable. They have an amazing opportunity to really create change and influence — particularly with young people.

SB: You’re stranded on a desert island and can take one food, one drink, and one feminist. What do you pick? 

KH: For food, cheese. All of the cheese. For drink, 3 Floyds Gumball Beer. For a feminist, my friend Alisa. She is one of the smartest, most compassionate world-changers I know.

San Francisco, CA

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist. According to legend, she first publicly proclaimed that she was a feminist at the age of nine in her basketball teammate's mini-van. Things have obviously since escalated. After graduating from Harvard in 2013, she became a founding member of Know Your IX's ED ACT NOW. She is curious about the ways feminists continue to use technology to create social change and now lives in San Francisco. She believes that she has the sweetest gig around – asking bad-ass feminists thoughtful questions for the publication that has taught her so much. Her views, bad jokes and all, are her own. For those wondering, if she was stranded on a desert island and had to bring one food, one drink, and one feminist, she would bring chicken mole, a margarita, and her momma.

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist.

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