Hurt on Contact

When a female athlete gets injured competing against boys, is the school liable for damages? Here’s how to ward off these most recent lawsuits.

By Dr. Richard P. Borkowski

Richard P. Borkowski, Ed.D., CAA, is a sport safety consultant based in Narberth, Pa. The former Director of Physical Education and Athletics at the Episcopal Academy in Merion, Pa., his most recent book is titled The Athletic Administrator’s Scheduling Book, published by LRP Publications, in Horsham, Pa.

Athletic Management, 13.5, August/September 2001,

In 1988, an upset parent came to me during a water polo match and asked if I knew our school had a girl playing on the boys’ team! As the athletic director and purchaser of the swimsuits, and having some knowledge of anatomy, I had several retorts ready. But I replied, “yes.”

Of course, our program wasn’t the first to allow girls to compete with boys. Males and females have participated jointly in physical education classes, intramural programs, and field days for a long time.

What has changed is the number of females participating at more competitive levels in traditionally male sports, what has been termed cross-gender participation. The female half of our population has been offered a chance and they are taking it.

The inclusion process has not gone on without problems, though, one of which is injuries. When it comes to contact sports, injuries in cross-gendered situations that would otherwise be seen as a case of bad luck too often result in controversy and lawsuits.

Recent Court Case
In one such instance, a high school girl tried out for and made the boys’ wrestling team. This girl not only participated in the three months of preseason training, she was considered one of the most dedicated wrestlers on the team. She wrestled boys every day, and it was a positive experience for everyone.

However, when the girl was injured during a routine maneuver in a bout against a boy who was heavier, but well within the weight classification limitations, her parents sued the school. Wrestling a “heavier boy” was the main basis of the complaint, even though she had wrestled heavier boys for three months before this accident.

The case was settled out of court, not because the school had a poor position, but because of the strategies and economics involved in arguing lawsuits. In fact, I do not think the parents had much of a case. The boy in this case was well within the weight standards. Before the match, both coaches felt the girl was going to win. This was similar to a boy wrestling another boy of a higher weight, but still within the weight classification system.

The only sure-fire way to avoid a case like this is to not permit girls to compete on boys’ teams. However, the most recent court cases on this front say you must allow girls to compete with boys if there is not a team for girls (this actually falls under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, not Title IX). Sued if you do, sued if you don’t.

So, what is the prudent thing to do in this seemingly no-win situation? I strongly suggest that you follow what the courts have ruled (instead of what has been settled out of court) and allow girls to compete with boys. However, you must embrace the attitude that it is the right thing to do and have clear-cut policies for all involved to follow. When the entire athletic community is aware of the school’s commitment to safely allowing cross-gender participation, parents may be less apt to bring a suit against the school for any injuries that occur.

Making It Policy
Writing a policy in regard to cross-gender sports should be specific to your school. A good principle to start from is: “Sports are open to all. All genders will be treated in the same way. Girls of less strength, skill and experience will be treated the same as boys of the same caliber.”

The policy should be placed in your coaching handbook and parents’ handbook. It should also be reviewed with each group, when pertinent.

Getting everyone to embrace this written policy sometimes takes a little more work. Start by educating yourself, then educate your coaches and other administrators. Here are some suggestions:

• Read up on the most recent interpretations of Title IX and the Equal Protection Act. Find out what your state association says about prohibiting gender discrimination in educational programs. Understand that giving every student an opportunity is not only the law of the land—it’s the right thing to do.

• Understand that females want to participate for the same reasons that males participate. They enjoy the challenge, the effort, the learning of skills, belonging to a team, and the socialization and fun of sport.

• The issue of bodies touching each other in competition leads some to say it is morally wrong and leads to promiscuity. But, as experienced cross-gender wrestling coach Mike Betts, of Milan (Mich.) High School, says, “It is no more a problem than in ballet dancing.” Females have been throwing males to the judo mat for years, just as males have been spotting females in gymnastics.

• Females will and do get injured in athletics when they play against males—as they do when the compete with females. There are no statistics to my knowledge that prove females are injured more when competing against male athletes.

Special Circumstances
The above strategies and education will go a long way in helping your athletic department accept and normalize cross-gender participation. However, at the same time, you cannot pretend that this situation will not still raise questions.

When a girl decides to join a boys’ team there are steps to take to lower the chance of problems, injuries, and lawsuits. Here is a game plan:

• Review any special circumstances the girls will face. There are very few besides separate locker rooms.

• Make yourself available to the parents. The time to review policies and answer questions is before the season.

• Inform opposing schools that you have a cross-gender situation. Some feel this is unnecessary. I suggest it is a courtesy.

• Create plans for establishing a team for the minority gender. In almost all cases, females want to play on a male soccer team because they want to play soccer and there is no female soccer team.

• The coach must treat females in a special way—the same special way he or she treats the males on the team.

Participation is what coaching is about. Cross-gender participation is not a challenge, it is an opportunity. Play on!

For a look at a past article in Athletic Management on girls’ participation on boys’ team, please visit our Web site at and type “newest pioneers” into the search engine.