A student-athlete required hospitalization after suffering an injury to her face during a field hockey game Thursday between two Massachusetts high schools, and the incident is renewing a debate about co-ed sports.
As reported by Boston ABC affiliate WCVB, Dighton-Rehoboth School District superintendent Bill Runey said in a letter to families that a shot taken by a male member of the Swampscott High School team left a female player with "significant facial and dental injuries," including the blunt-force extraction of two of her teeth.
"While I understand that the [Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association] has guidelines in place for co-ed participation under section 43 of their handbook, this incident dramatically magnifies the concerns of many about player safety," Runey wrote.
Swampscott Public Schools athletic director Kelly Wolff identified the player who took the shot as a four-year varsity player and co-captain. Wolff emphasized the male player "has the exact same right to participate as any player on any team," WCVB's Peter Eliopoulos reported.
The MIAA issued a statement in which the organization also expressed concern for the injured player while summarizing the association's view of the legal situation.
"Massachusetts General Law was originally enacted to protect students from discrimination based on sex, and later expanded to protect students based on gender identification. As a result of this law, and consistent with the interpretive guidance offered by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, athletic opportunities must be afforded to students in accordance with their identified gender, not necessarily their birth-assigned gender," MIAA officials wrote.
Runey said he understands the law but believes more consideration should be given to player safety in co-ed competition.
"For any male athlete that's participating in a female sport, there are zero restrictions. So I'm looking for the MIAA to facilitate some conversations to have some middle ground in terms of player safety," Runey said.
WCVB published superintendent Bill Runey's entire letter as follows:
Dear DRRSD School Community,
Last night, a female field hockey player for the Dighton Rehoboth Regional High School girls’ field hockey team sustained significant facial and dental injuries when she was struck in the face by a shot in the third quarter versus Swampscott in an MIAA state playoff contest. The shot was taken by a male member of the Swampscott girls field hockey team. This injury required hospitalization. The player, her family, teammates, and coaches remain in my prayers.
While I understand that the MIAA has guidelines in place for co-ed participation under section 43 of their handbook, this incident dramatically magnifies the concerns of many about player safety.
In speaking with a representative of the MIAA this morning, she shared that the MIAA handbook has a legal note explaining how the Massachusetts Equal Rights Amendment makes the participation of males on female teams legal. I understand that the Mass ERA legislation is voluminous; and therefore, is very difficult to modify in total. However, seeing the horror in the eyes of our players and coaches upon greeting their bus last night is evidence to me that there has to be a renewed approach by the MIAA to protect the safety of our athletes. In years past, there were provisions in girls’ volleyball that, although boys could participate, they could not play on the front line because their ability to spike the ball created a higher level of risk. I have been told that those restrictions were deemed illegal and no longer exist. Athletics has come so far in the realm of safety, but the equipment and the training that our athletes are receiving in today’s day and age requires us to be more thoughtful about all of our rules and policies regarding safety.
To be clear, I have the utmost respect for the abilities of female athletes. I am the father of three and all three were very successful in their high school athletic careers. My two daughters remain in the athletic realm today due, in large part, to their positive experience in high school athletics. We have a responsibility to preserve that positivity for all of our athletes today and in the future.
The MIAA's full statement, as reported by WCVB:
The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association has been made aware of an injury that occurred during a field hockey tournament game played Thursday.
First and foremost, our concern is for the health and recovery of the injured student-athlete, as well as of the well-being of all affected student-athletes, coaches and administrators from both schools.
The MIAA supports our 383 member schools and all student-athletes as we strive to create a welcoming, safe and belonging atmosphere for all participants. In doing so, the association and member schools must adhere to all federal and state laws to assure equitable opportunities for students of different sexes or genders.
The following is a chronology of the basis of the MIAA’s adherence to federal and state law.
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination based on sex in school programs, including athletics. Title IX does not require schools to offer identical sports for boys and girls, but an equal opportunity to play.
Massachusetts schools must also comply with the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which is part of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights and Constitution. The ERA states that “equality under the law shall not be abridged because of sex, race, color, creed or national origin.” The ERA was applied to school athletics in 1979 in the matter of Attorney General v. MIAA, 378 Mass. 342 (1979), a case which schools continue to follow today. ERA also has been applied in such a way as to allow for mixed gender teams. The court determined that a blanket rule prohibiting boys from playing on girls teams, where there was no equivalent boys team, violated the ERA.
As a result of this 1979 ruling, the MIAA amended its rules to state, “A girl may play on a boys’ team if that sport is not offered in the school for the girl, and a boy may play on a girls’ team if that sport is not offered in the school for the boy.” Boys have been competing on girls’ teams, and girls have been competing on boys’ teams, for more than forty (40) years.
(Please refer to the Legal Note in the MIAA Handbook for further explanation.)
Massachusetts General Law was originally enacted to protect students from discrimination based on sex, and later expanded to protect students based on gender identification. As a result of this law, and consistent with the interpretive guidance offered by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, athletic opportunities must be afforded to students in accordance with their identified gender, not necessarily their birth-assigned gender.
We respect and understand the complexity and concerns that exist regarding student safety. However, student safety has not been a successful defense to excluding students of one gender from participating on teams of the opposite gender. The arguments generally fail due to the lack of correlation between injuries and mixed-gender teams.
The MIAA will promote activities that provide lifelong and life-quality learning experiences to students while enhancing their achievement of educational goals.