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Girls Willing to Fight for Right to Play Football, But Struggles Remain

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Copyright 2013 The Columbus Dispatch
All Rights Reserved


The Columbus Dispatch (Ohio)
September 3, 2013 Tuesday
NEWS; Pg. 1A
705 words
Girls hang tough;
Despite taunts and hurdles, more than 100 girls play on Ohio school football teams
Charlie Boss, THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

The coach had two thoughts on girls interested in trying out for Hamilton Middle School's football team: They typically don't last past two weeks, and he doesn't deal with softies.

Bailee Thevenin wasn't daunted. She only wanted to be treated the same as the rest of the team.

The 12-year-old, who has participated in youth leagues since she was 7, kept pace with the boys during conditioning sessions and practices over the summer. At the start of camp, she was slated to be a third-string tackle for the seventh-grade team.

Last week, she played her first game, helping beat Bloom-Carroll Middle School 54-0. She was the starting offensive tackle.

"I studied my plays and learned my position," said Bailee, who also earned a starting role as a defensive tackle but gave up the position to another player. "I got hit a lot, but I got right back up."

More than 100 girls play on Ohio football teams, according to the Ohio High School Athletic Association. Locally, teams in South-Western, Worthington and Fairbanks schools in Union County have girls participating.

Even so, girls across the country -- and in Ohio -- are still struggling to play with the boys.

Recently, the Liberty Union-Thurston school board in Fairfield County denied a 12-year-old girl's request to play on her middle-school football team, saying that nothing in federal law promises girls the right to play contact sports.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio criticized the district's decision, and officials eventually agreed to allow Makhaela Jenkins to join her male peers, citing concerns about spending taxpayer dollars to defend the district if a lawsuit ensued.

Some schools' leaders still think it's inappropriate or unsafe for girls to play sports with boys, said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, senior director of advocacy at the New York-based Women's Sports Foundation.

"Whereas 10 to 20 years ago, the girl might not have complained about it," she said, "now, the complaints are pretty loud and backed up by (supporters) that say how healthy this is for both boys and girls."

More than 11,000 girls nationwide play on boys football, baseball and soccer teams when their schools don't offer teams for them.

Hogshead-Makar said girls in high school and college currently have 20 percent fewer athletic opportunities than boys -- more than 40 years since the federal Title IX law was enacted to give girls and women an equal opportunity to play sports.

Many girls get their first taste of football in youth leagues, but few continue with the sport through middle school.

Those who do, however, size up with their middle-school teammates because girls develop physically earlier than boys, said Bruce Brown, executive director of the Ohio Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association.

Lauren Absten is 5 feet, 3 inches and weighs just over 100 pounds. She refused to let her size stop her from playing with boys on Jackson Middle School's football team.

"When people said I couldn't play football, a stubborn part of me wanted to show them that I could," said Lauren, 12, who had played flag football for four years. "I wanted to show that girls can do anything a guy can do just the same."

She generally plays defensive and offensive end but pulled duty as defensive tackle in practice, where she pushed a teammate to the ground.

"I think he was surprised," she said.

At Hamilton, Bailee wasn't keen on returning to football after a youth football coach told her male teammates that they needed to "wear a skirt" if they wanted to play with her, said April Thevenin, her mother. The boys began to resent her, and Bailee would run laps in tears, she said.

But during football sign-ups this year, a group of male classmates urged her to join.

"She's pretty good," said seventh-grader Jeff Mendenhall, 12, who helped persuade her to join. He also plays tackle.

Their football coach, Tony Pratt, said Bailee is a fast study whose game has rapidly improved since the summer.

At 5 feet 6 inches, Bailee is the smallest among the linemen.

But she wants to make history at Hamilton Township High School. She hopes to be the first girl to make the school's football team.

"Cheerleading isn't for me," she said. "I've always liked to play rough."

cboss@dispatch.com

@cvrboss

Photo
(1) Eamon Queeney / Dispatch Photos Hamilton's Bailee Thevenin, left, blocks a Bloom-Carroll player. (2) Hamilton Middle School seventh-grader and offensive tackle Bailee Thevenin high-fives friends and family members after a game. (3) Bailee Thevenin puts on her football pads outside the women's bathroom before practice.
September 3, 2013

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