Going Co-ed?

By Staff

Coaching Management, 14.5, April 2006, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1405/bbcoed.htm

Last season, one player on the New Brighton (Pa.) Area High School girls’ volleyball team stood out from all the others, but not because of great serves, precision passing, or a propensity for wicked spikes. Middle hitter Pietro Pezzella stood out from the rest of the team for a much more obvious reason—he was a he.

Pezzella was one of two boys who competed on girls’ high school teams last year in the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League (WPIAL). Neither school involved has a boys’ volleyball program, though officials from the WPIAL and the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) say that even if they did, there’s no rule prohibiting boys from playing on girls’ squads.

New Brighton Head Coach Stacy Lovra says having a male player wasn’t as big an issue as one might expect. “None of the girls on my team or any of their parents ever came to me and complained, and we didn’t cut any players this year so he wasn’t taking a roster spot from a girl,” she says. “I discussed it with my athletic director and we decided that since there wasn’t a rule against it, it wouldn’t be fair to discriminate against him.”

Most other coaches in the league agreed. When Lovra announced at her section’s preseason rules interpretation meeting that she would have a boy on her team, there was very little reaction. Only one coach ever approached her during the season to ask about it, and she simply explained there was no rule to keep him from participating.

Lovra admits that Pezzella may have raised more eyebrows had he been an impact player. A 5-foot-8 senior with no volleyball experience, he mostly sat the bench and rarely made plays to help the team. In fact, his presence more often gave a boost to the opposition.

“When he would come into the game, it would fire up the other team,” she recalls. “He was pretty rough skillwise, but that didn’t matter—they would get pumped up thinking they had a chance to block a guy, or hit against a guy, and it made them play their best.”

The issue of boys competing on girls’ teams turns the gender-equity intent of Title IX on its head. While the law has traditionally been used to increase athletic opportunities for girls and women, its language is not gender-specific, saying only that no one should be excluded from participation “on the basis of sex.”

The PIAA leaves it up to individual school districts to decide whether they will allow cross-gender participation. Districts that have policies prohibiting it usually cite the physical differences between high school age boys and girls, or the fact that males competing denies opportunities to participate for females. Many state associations have rules banning boys from competing on girls’ teams, while in other areas, such a rule exists only for contact sports.

The Women’s Sports Foundation argues that boys should not participate on girls’ teams at the high school level, even if girls are welcome on boys’ teams. Its position statement says, “Because sport participation opportunities for girls have been historically limited, girls have a right to participate on boys’ teams if there is no girls’ team in the same sport. Since the opportunities for boys have not been historically limited, boys do not have these same rights.”

The issue has wound up in court recently in a few states. In January, a Wisconsin high school student unsuccessfully tried to force the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association to allow him to join a girls’ gymnastics team. And last September, a Michigan middle school student sued Ann Arbor Public Schools for not allowing him to play girls’ field hockey at his school.

The Women’s Sports Foundation’s position statement can be found by entering “coed participation” into the search engine at: www.womenssportsfoundation.org.