Battle of the Sexes
Athletic directors at the two dozen high schools in the Lancaster-Lebanon (Penn.) Secondary School Athletic Association will have to make a major decision in the coming months: Should they heed the association's recent recommendation to ban boys from playing girls' sports?
In mid-April, the association issued a statement suggesting that its member schools "seriously consider adopting a policy prohibiting male participation in all sports identified specifically as female sports," citing "the past history of discrimination against female athletes coupled with the fact that the physical size, speed and power of male athletes could create a hazard to the health and safety of female participants."
"We feel very strongly about this," says Dick Balderston, a former high school athletic director and the current executive director of the association, also known as the Lancaster-Lebanon League, in which some girls' field hockey rosters include boys. "It's not a major issue right now, but we don't want it to become one. This came to a head because of the problem we anticipate with girls' lacrosse — but not boys' lacrosse — becoming a league-sanctioned sport next spring. Some athletic directors think boys will want to play girls' lacrosse rather than club sports." Other girls' sports that fall under the recommended ban include volleyball, basketball, softball, tennis, cross country and track, assuming no counterpart team is offered for boys.
The Lancaster-Lebanon League's move is a bold one. "Many leagues have not even stepped into those deep waters, saying 'Let's leave that up to the individual schools,' " says Melissa Mertz, assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, the only state association in the country to have a permanent court-ordered injunction barring it from establishing any rules or regulations regarding boys playing or practicing on girls' teams, and vice versa. "We will not get involved one way or another."
The Lancaster-Lebanon League claims it and its member schools would be on safe legal ground, thanks to Williams v. School District of Bethlehem, a decade-old case in which the U.S. Court of Appeals declared the district's policy prohibiting males on female teams constitutionally valid. Lancaster-Lebanon appears to be only the second league in the state to give its blessing to such a policy. Last year, the Berks County League made a similar recommendation, and so far, 13 of its 19 schools have policies barring boys from girls' teams.
Balderston says his league also considered recommending a ban on girls participating in such boys' sports as football and wrestling, but then decided to leave that decision up to individual schools. In May, Garden Spot High School in New Holland, a member of the Lancaster-Lebanon League, was expected to adopt a policy against any student-athletes participating on teams with members of the opposite sex. "I think it's a little shaky," admits Todd Reitnouer, the school's athletic director and an early proponent of barring boys from girls' sports. "If there's a lawsuit, there's no case law to support the policy of keeping girls out of boys' sport. But what we're hoping to do is set a standard for other schools, so everybody is playing on the same level."
"When a girl goes out for field hockey, she thinks she's going to be competing against other girls," Balderston says. "When she goes out for wrestling or football, she knows what she's up against. I think the board's rationale in only recommending against boys playing girls' sports is that boys are physically stronger than girls. So when a boy goes out for a girls' sport, he tends to dominate, and that boy is probably going to take a girl's slot on the team. But in order for a girl to make the wrestling or football team, she has to fight for a spot — and may not get it. We're just trying to protect girls' sports."
While no high school in the country offers a field hockey team for boys, at least 56 boys played interscholastic field hockey during the 2002-03 school year, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. So did 61,055 girls. But participation numbers aren't necessarily the point; tradition is.
Originally considered far too dangerous for female participation, field hockey became popular in mid-19th century England with women whose previous introduction to sports included the socially acceptable outdoor activities of croquet and lawn tennis. According to the U.S. Field Hockey Association, the game eventually became known as the only team sport considered proper for women. Field hockey was introduced in the United States in 1901, and its traditions are still revered today — particularly in the Northeast.
"It's always been a girls' sport, and some folks feel very strongly about that and don't want to see that change," says B. Elliot Hopkins, editor of the field hockey rules book for the NFHS and a former assistant executive director of the PIAA. "It's traditionalism. People in eastern Pennsylvania live and breathe field hockey. They see it as an opportunity for girls to get college scholarships and represent their country in the Olympics. They want to keep it pure. But are boys really going to ruin the sport of field hockey? No. As a matter of fact, we probably need more boys so we can develop stronger men's Olympic teams."
Reitnouer agrees, but contends that they should play against other males. "If there are boys who really feel strongly about playing field hockey, there are other avenues," he says. "They need to start by playing against men on men's club teams."
"From a participation standpoint, if a young man wants to play field hockey, philosophically, we would be in support of him — as presumably would the state association and the school," says John Gillis, an assistant director of the NFHS.
Realistically, accommodating boys in sports traditionally played only by girls can be a complicated proposition. There are, for example, practical matters to consider, such as rules and uniforms. While field hockey rules themselves don't give boys a distinct advantage, boys who play girls' lacrosse aren't subjected to the physical contact that is part of the boys' game, and boys who play on girls' volleyball teams enjoy the advantage of a lower net. And although donning field hockey kilts has become a more acceptable proposition for boys, as skirts are now male fashion statements in some social circles, other schools without participation policies have used uniforms to discourage boys from playing on various girls' teams. Witness the small group of boys who wanted to play on the girls' tennis team at one Pennsylvania school but changed their minds when the coach made bloomers part of the official uniform.
No wonder the whole notion of boys playing on girls' teams strikes many people as odd, if not unfair, to both sexes. Last fall, senior Josh Davis and his freshman brother Jarrod Davis became the first boys in Anne Arundel County, Md., to play high school field hockey. Although two opponents of Meade High School's varsity field hockey team canceled matches, using the argument that boys competing with girls pose both a physical threat and an unfair advantage, the Davis brothers played the entire season until the Maryland Public Secondary School Athletic Association banned them from the state's open-format field hockey tournament, which is designated as a girls' event.
"To say that there was not a concern by coaches in our county probably is not a valid statement," says Marlene Kelly, coordinator of athletics for Anne Arundel County Schools, which oversees 12 high schools. "But we needed to reassure people that this was an unusual circumstance. Boys wouldn't be playing on a team at a school where 20 or 30 girls are being cut from the program each year."
Indeed, the Davis brothers filled two of 12 roster spots on Meade's varsity team, which likely would not have even been able to take the field without them, Kelly says, adding that the boys didn't dominate the team or cause an increase in injures to opponents.
But that didn't stop Anne Arundel County Schools from adding a new policy to its athletic handbook for the 2004-05 school year prohibiting boys from playing any gender-specific sports, including field hockey, softball and volleyball — meaning Jarrod Davis will not be allowed to suit up for field hockey at Meade this fall. Girls, however, are still permitted to participate on boys' teams. Kelly expects little, if any, repercussions. "I think it's a policy that's fair and equitable for both boys and girls," she says.
It remains to be seen if other counties in Maryland will follow Anne Arundel's lead, as only one other boy has played field hockey in the state during the past 15 years.
To those who contend that such bans are an overreaction, listen to Hopkins recount his firsthand experience of boys playing girls' sports. "My daughter used to play high school field hockey in Pennsylvania, and she competed against guys," he recalls. "One game, this guy kept running past her — very quickly. She couldn't keep up with him and position her body to slow him down. He left her in his wake. Her team lost big. It was ugly."
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