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Gender and youth sports

06/12/04 12:00AM By Brian Porto
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(Host) As teenagers head out onto the playing fields of their sports, commentator Brian Porto wonders who wins and who loses when it comes to gender equity in youth athletics.

(Porto) School is almost out for the summer, but I am still thinking about a fairness issue that arose last fall when Allen Pifer tried to join the Newport, New Hampshire high School girls' soccer team. Allen's efforts raised the question: Must a boy be allowed to try out for the girls' team when his school does not field a boys' team in his favorite sport?

The answer would seem to be yes because "gender equity" is the law in America. Still, although New Hampshire and Vermont permit girls to play on the boys' team at a school that does not offer a girls' team in a particular sport, both states prohibit boys from playing on the girls' team under similar circumstances. That prohibition kept Allen Pifer off the team.

The rule that Allen challenged permits high schools to sponsor separate teams for boys and girls. Most schools do so for fear that mixed-gender athletic competition would be unfair to and dangerous for girls, especially in contact sports. A high school can deviate from this practice only under three conditions: if it offers a sport for one sex but not the other; if athletic opportunities for the excluded sex have previously been limited; and if a noncontact sport is involved. Therefore, the boys' track coach must let a girl try out for his team when there is no girls' track team, but the football coach is not required to let a girl try out for football even though no girls' team exists. Boys, however, cannot try out for the girls', even when no boys' team exists, because boys have long had ample access to athletic opportunities.

If this seems unfair, remember that the major purpose of gender-equity rules is to increase athletic opportunities for girls, who were long denied a chance to play. Allowing boys to play on girls' teams contradicts this purpose. It could also increase the likelihood of injury to girls. therefore, prohibiting boys from playing against girls is not blatant discrimination. Still, the gap between male and female athletic performances is narrower today than ever before, as was evident when fourteen year-old MichelleWie finished ahead of 49 male professional golfers in a tournament last winter.

In this environment, New Hampshire and Vermont should at least allow boys to play on girls' teams in noncontact sports when no boys' team exists if boys would neither endanger girls' safety nor deprive girls of a chance to play. Both states should extend this rule to contact sports, too. If the latter rule had applied last fall, Allen Pifer could have played soccer because no boys' team existed, he did not keep a girl off the team, and, as a goalie, he was not a safety hazard to teammates or opponents.

I hope that when the state high school athletic associations in New Hampshire and Vermont plan next fall's games, they will consider how they can best provide access to sports for both girls and boys.

This is Brian Porto of Windsor.

Brian Porto is an attorney and a free lance writer.


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