The Newest Pioneers

When girls want to play on boys’ teams, many things can happen, ranging from unwelcoming teammates to lawsuits. In this article, those who have been there give their advice.

By Lorraine Berry

Lorraine Berry is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 12.5, August/September 2000, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1205/pioneers.htm

Last year, your girls’ soccer team won its district championship and almost beat the top-ranked team in the state. The team has several outstanding players including one who takes deadly shots from 35 yards out. One day, this player comes to your office. She has a question. It turns out that she has always wanted to play football, and this coming season, the team is without a kicker. She wants to know whether she can try out for the team, and, if she can, whether you will support her.
At the University of Colorado, female Katie Hnida made headlines as a back-up kicker last year. In 1995, Heather Mercer was briefly a member of the Duke University football team after kicking a winning field goal during the annual Blue-White scrimmage. And, according to the most recent NFHS statistics, nearly 800 girls play football on boys’ prep teams.
So, while your soccer player’s request to join the football team may not be your idea of a fun challenge, it cannot be brushed aside. There is a growing trend to allow girls to compete on boys’ football, wrestling, and even baseball teams, which is only gaining in momentum.
In this article, athletic directors and coaches who currently have girls playing on boys’ teams give tips on how to handle this situation, along with opinions on its pros and cons. We’ll also detail the legal aspects.

Equal Rights
The first question most athletic directors have on this subject is: What are the girl’s legal rights? Must she be allowed to try out for and participate on a boys’ team? According to Title IX, in non-contact sports, such as golf and tennis, girls must be allowed to try out for—and if qualified, participate on—a boys’ team, if there is no comparable girls’ team. However, Title IX specifically exempts contact sports, such as football and ice hockey, from that requirement.
Even these seemingly straightforward rules have created controversies, though, as courts have had to rule on what constitutes a contact sport and what makes for comparable teams. For example, a court in West Virginia ruled that baseball and softball are not comparable sports, so a girl was allowed to try out for baseball even though the school offered softball. But in Illinois, the courts rebuffed a girl who wanted to play on the boys’ basketball team instead of the girls’ team in order to face tougher competition. And although some states allow boys to play on girls’ teams in certain situations, the courts have generally looked on that differently than girls playing on boys’ teams.
Title IX notwithstanding, several courts have ruled that girls do have the right to try out for any boys’ teams under a different legal precedent: the Equal Protection Clause from the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. This clause’s modern interpretation essentially guarantees all persons, regardless of gender, equal protection under the law.
“There have been cases bringing suit alleging that not allowing girls to try out for boys’ teams is a violation of the Equal Protection clause,” says Neena Chaudhry, Counsel with the National Women’s Law Center. “It seems to me that the standard for gender under the Equal Protection clause is that the state has to show some important objective as to why it doesn’t want girls to play with boys. I’m not sure what that would be. The traditional argument is, ‘Oh, girls could get hurt.’ But that seems a little outdated and patronizing. If girls want to play, if they’re able to play and if they take the same precautions that the boys do, then it shouldn’t be a problem.”

First Steps
Back to the female soccer/football player sitting in your office, what should your initial response be? Due to the legal precedents previously discussed, most athletic departments choose to not fight the request. Some even welcome it.
At Vallejo (Calif.) High School, which has had several girls on its wrestling team for the past six years, Athletic Director Donna Russell takes a positive approach. “We’re real supportive of girls who go out for wrestling,” she says. “The coach really sets the tone for their success, and it’s a good situation.”
Keith DeGraaf, Head Wrestling Coach at Mercer (Pa.) High School, currently has two girls on his team. His advice to athletic directors is, “Keep an open mind. If a girl is sincere about it, I think she’s going to give you as much, if not more, effort than the boys,” he says. “If she gives you all the wrestling she can, she can be very successful.”
However, administrators also say it is a good idea to initiate some communication about the topic before tryouts start. The first discussion should be with the girl interested in going out for the boys’ team. Athletic directors who have been in this situation say they don’t try to dissuade the girl from trying out, but they do caution her about the realities of the situation.
The number one reality is that she may not have the support of other students. “Coaches can’t be around every single minute that the players are together,” says Karen Smith, Athletic Director at Berkeley (Calif.) High School, where there are girls on the wrestling team and one girl on the football team. “And throughout the schoolday, teammates run into each other. A lot of things can go on, and a girl has to have a really strong character. She has to have high confidence and good self-esteem because it’s all going to be tested.”
Another reality is that competing with boys is often harder than it looks. “Sometimes, when girls are going against bigger guys who might be faster than they are, they don’t feel good about themselves,” says Todd Kulawiak, Athletic Director and Dean of Students at Benzie Central High School in Benzonia, Mich., where girls comprise half of the boys’ soccer team and there are girls on the wrestling squad. “Trying to compete sometimes ends up being demoralizing; they don’t want to compete against guys and they wind up quitting.”
The next step is a discussion with the head coach. “In order for this to work, I think you have to have the support of everyone on the team,” says Russell. “I’m talking about administrative support, from the head coach right on down to the volunteers, that this is the law—the girls can participate, you have to give them a fair chance, and you can’t sabotage their efforts.”
If the coach resists allowing girls to try out, Russell says she wouldn’t hesitate to involve upper-level administrators. “You’d have to call in administrators to sit down and have a talk with the coach,” she says. “Sometimes, coaches just shrug their shoulders and say, ‘Oh well, I’ve got to do it.’ But that’s about the worst response we get, ‘Oh well.’”
Then, most athletic directors suggest, let her try out and do not treat her any differently than the boys. In many cases, she won’t make the team or will decide to drop out. “In the past,” Russell says, “we’ve had girls try out for baseball, and while they got through the conditioning phase, they eventually couldn’t keep up. We also had a girl try out, a while ago, for our football team. She made it through the tryout phase, but when they got to the point where they were beginning to hit, she couldn’t take that, and she cut herself from the team.”

Being Accepted
However, if she is able to stick it out through to the first competition, in many cases that show of perseverance eliminates further problems. When the coaches and players see that she is as dedicated and skilled as the male athletes, most administrators find she simply becomes another teammate.
Smith says that once the female kicker on her school’s football team became a full-fledged member of the squad, the boys forgot about her sex. “When we told the team members that we had made special locker room arrangements for her, the kids were surprised,” she says. “They said, ‘Oh yeah. She does need a place to change. We don’t even think about her being a girl.’”
As for the coach, “He says that as long as she’s kicking field goals, he’s happy,” explains Smith.
Marty Ruley, Head Wrestling Coach at Grove City (Pa.) High School, had a similar experience with his first female wrestler, Erin Tomeo. “I wasn’t all that keen on a girl wrestling on the boys’ team,” Ruley admits. “But that was what she wanted to do, and as long as she was willing to do all the things that had to be done, I didn’t have a problem with it.”
Tomeo did consistently prove herself willing to do anything asked of her, which then earned her the respect of her coach and the boys on her team, many of whom had watched her wrestle in elementary and junior high school. “There wasn’t any objection from the boys,” says Ruley. “She paid her dues, so she had every right to be there. For example, we start our practice with a three and a half mile run and she does that as well as the boys.”
At Vallejo High School, Russell also has found that it’s the girls’ efforts that allows them to be accepted on the wrestling team. “I think the girls get a lot of respect from the gentlemen on our team,” she says. “The boys wrestle against the girls all the time in practice. The girls are very tough. They put up a really good fight and they’re highly skilled.”
A similar process often takes place with opponents. DeGraaf tells the following story about the time top female wrestler Micah Kelly competed in her first high school scrimmage. “Micah was a freshman and she’s a cute girl,” says DeGraaf. “The boys had seen her when we were warming up and some of them who were wrestling in her weight class were talking to one another. I heard a lot of the comments they were making, and a lot of giggling. Other boys were asking, ‘Oh, can I wrestle her, too?’ Then, when we went to live wrestling, she was beating the snot out of them and it changed their attitudes real quick. We went back down there last year and it was a whole different story.”
However, for some first-time opponents, the situation can be difficult. “For the guys sometimes, it’s a lose-lose situation,” Kulawiak says. “They think, ‘If I lose to her then everybody tells me that I got beat by a girl. If I beat her, then everybody says, Oh, you beat a girl.’”
“I think in the beginning it was difficult,” says DeGraaf. “A lot of teams would forfeit to the girls; they just wouldn’t wrestle. They would wrestle the girls if they thought they had a chance of beating them. But if they knew they were going to get beat, they would forfeit.”

The Logistics
Even when girls are wholeheartedly accepted on a boys’ team, you’ll still need to solve some logistical problems. One of the more obvious is locker room facilities. Since visiting boys’ teams often use the girls’ facilities, it’s not as simple as telling a girl to get dressed in the girls’ locker room. One solution is to have athletes suit up while still at their own school.
At Benzie, the players dress before they get on the bus, explains Kulawiak. “And at half-time, the coach addresses the players out on the field so they don’t have to go into the locker room,” he says.
Wrestling may present the most complex challenges because of the added requirement that a wrestler weigh in before each competition. “Erin is treated exactly like every other wrestler on my team, with the exception of weigh-ins,” says Ruley. “We have a parent from the other team go in and watch her weigh in. We make sure that she has a different dressing room. At our school, she dresses where the officials dress because the other team is in our girls’ locker room. At some places, she has to dress in the restroom, but most schools make accommodations for her.”
DeGraaf has to make similar arrangements for his female wrestlers. “We just bought a new scale that’s electronic,” he says. “We can actually take the scale and put it in a room and run the cord to a readout outside the door. Then the wrestler steps on the scale and we can read the weight outside in the hall. At other schools, they send in another female to weigh her. But, a lot of times we can just take the scale out into the hallway, and she can make weight while wearing her singlet. We do not run into too many problems.
“The little things that you have to do, and all the other concerns,” DeGraaf adds, “they’re kind of minor. They take care of themselves and everything works out. It’s not really a problem as a coach.”

The Pros and Cons
Although some administrators have wonderful stories to tell about the benefits of having girls on boys’ teams, others are wary of the trend. Dr. Sandra Scott, recently retired as Executive Director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA), feels that physical differences put girls at too much of a disadvantage when trying out for boys’ teams. “If we can, we try to counsel a girl toward a girls’ program,” Scott says. “Of the girls who have gone out for the boys’ teams, sure, there are a few who have been highly successful. But most of them are not starters; they are just there.
“Years ago, I did some work examining where a girl might be successful on a boys’ team, and quite frankly, we couldn’t find, in general, a sport where that would be the case,” she adds. “For example, at the beginning we thought that girls might be very successful in competitive diving. But in talking to officials, they said that the boys could get more height in executing some of the dives because of their strength.”
Another reason Scott opposes girls on boys’ teams is because she feels it doesn’t do anything to solve the gender equity problem that necessitates girls trying to make boys’ teams in the first place. “Many of us in the leadership felt that it was an easy way out,” she says. “Instead of trying to develop a soccer program for girls, they said, ‘Okay, we’ll let girls go try out.’ But it wasn’t really helping the establishment of programs for girls. And it certainly wasn’t doing anything for participation. I think many of us still feel the same way.”
Several administrators have had experiences with girls who try out just to make a point—to prove girls can do it—and end up being demoralized by the experience. “Their self-esteem goes down,” Kulawiak says. “At the high school level, against other girls, they might be awesome, but some get shot down when they’re not able to compete against boys.
“Girls who are less experienced and less skilled still make the team,” Kulawiak continues, “but sometimes they get frustrated and they may not come back out or they may quit. And that hurts me, because if we had a girls’ team, some of these girls would get more experience, more playing time, and be able to contribute more than they are now.”
However, some coaches and administrators feel any negatives are outweighed by the positives, and that includes the effect that girls have on their male counterparts. “We have some better practices, overall, because the boys see the girls going through all this,” DeGraaf says. “I think it’s a macho thing for them. They think, ‘Well, my goodness, if they can do it, I’ve got to be able to do it.’ A lot of times, that’s actually not the case because the two girls on our team are special in that sense. Our practices are very hard, and these girls excel through practice. That pushes the boys. So, I think it’s a big positive.”
Ruley agrees. “Erin is well-respected because she gets out there and does the same as everybody else,” he says. “We’ve treated this as a positive, because it is a positive thing for her and the boys around her.”
Smith admits that the female place-kicker’s success is an inspiration to her, too. “I was surprised by my reaction as an athletic director,” she says. “I was so excited that we had a girl as a kicker. I always thought that was the best thing when I was younger. I always wanted to play that position when I was in high school, and I was not allowed. When I found out it was happening here, I was thrilled.”


Sidebar - One State’s Solution
In 1978, New York’s State Education Department designed a series of guidelines for schools to use if a girl wishes to play on a boys’ team, or a boy wishes to play on a girls’ team. The importance of the guidelines is that they give an athletic director at a public high school in New York the means to determine what his or her response should be when a girl asks for the opportunity to try out for a boys’ contact sport.
One of the guidelines is based on whether a girl is physically capable of playing at a boy’s level. (Other guidelines assess an athlete’s physical maturity.) The girl is instructed to take eight tests, and, by passing five of them, proves that she is capable of meeting the baseline requirements of the sport. A boy wishing to try out for a girls’ team also takes these tests to measure whether he is significantly stronger or faster than the girls he would compete against. The state has also instituted an “exceptional girl rule,” in which a girl can try out for a boys’ team if her level of play far exceeds that of the comparable girls’ team.
The evaluation of whether the athlete can continue to play on the opposite-sex team is done on a yearly basis, and it measures whether the athlete can still compete at that level of play. “There was a situation where a boy was on a girls’ field hockey team,” says Dr. Sandra Scott, recently retired Executive Director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA). “He had played on those teams from the junior high level to his sophomore year, and then suddenly, he was bigger and stronger. Previously, he did not have an adverse effect—in fact some people did not know he wasn’t a woman, because he had a slight build and wore the kilt for that particular team uniform—but after his sophomore year, he could no longer play.”
While these rules seem to give the situation some clear-cut guidelines, Scott was, and still is, opposed to them. “When the staff of the association reviewed it [back in 1978], we were very much opposed to it,” she says. “We felt it hampered the growth of women’s sports because it said for a few, we can let them go try out for a team instead of starting a team for themselves.” Currently, there are no plans to change the standards.


Sidebar - A Kicker in Court
Recently, the issue of girls playing football has returned to the legal arena. Heather Mercer tried out to be a place-kicker on the Duke University football team in 1994. She was a freshman and did not make the team on her initial foray. In the spring of 1995, after kicking a game-winning field goal in the annual Blue-White scrimmage, she was invited to join the team by then-Head Coach Fred Goldsmith. When she showed up in the fall, however, Goldsmith informed her that she would not be allowed to play.
“Mercer's complaint was that once she made the team, they didn't allow her to meaningfully participate,” says Neena Chaudhry, Counsel with the National Women’s Law Center. “This is actually a different situation, the court held. Under Title IX, you don't have to allow her to try out for the football team, but she did, and she made it. Once she did, they cannot discriminate against her.”
In 1997, a lower court dismissed Mercer’s lawsuit, but in July, 1999, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the lower court’s decision, and ruled that Mercer could legally pursue a discrimination suit against Duke. The case is still pending.