Lost amid the recent furor over a Catholic school in Arizona forfeiting a state baseball championship game rather than play against a team with a female player was the victory of a young male athlete in New York in his bid to play with the girls.
Keeling Pilaro, 13, will be allowed to remain on the Southampton High School girls field hockey team on Long Island, at least for one more season. He had been thought to be “too good,” based largely on male physical differences, even though he’s rather small for a boy his age:
“It’s really annoying. I’m just 4-foot-8 and 82 pounds, so I don’t see why I shouldn’t be allowed to play. I don’t really care if I’m on a girls’ team or a boys’ team, I just want to play.”
This is hardly a new story. In 1991, I wrote a story for the now defunct Women’s SportsPages magazine about Brian Kleczek, who had been denied a chance to play high school field hockey in Rhode Island under similar circumstances as Pilaro. As I interviewed Kleczek over the phone, the young man was virtually in tears: “All I want to do is play the game and have fun.”
There’s not a link to that article, which includes a cartoon of a girl holding up a pleated skirt, telling her male teammate, “Yes, this is our uniform.” Kleczek and the ACLU sued the state scholastic federation, and his case reached all the way to the Rhode Island Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor. Even then, fears erupted that sex integration would eliminate field hockey as a women’s sport. As the controversy subsided, I thought those fears had subsided as well.
A few years later, I was assigned to cover field hockey at the Atlanta Olympics and found out just how much of a “female” sport it was. The U.S. women’s team set up a full-time residency camp in the Atlanta suburbs two years before the Games, with USA Field Hockey spending lavishly on what it hoped would yield a medal performance.
The American men’s team was housed in dormitory-style fashion at the U.S. Olympic Training Center near San Diego. Now, this is a very nice place with outstanding facilities, from the fields and weight training rooms to some pretty good dining hall grub. On a clear day, you can cast a glance southward and see Mexico. One day on my trip there, I spotted on a small lake nearby a solitary rower, training under the beating sun, embodying the austere existence so movingly described by David Halberstam in The Amateurs.
This is where athletes and teams go when there aren’t the resources for them.
Some members of the men’s field hockey team groused about the glaring differences in their provisions. I found that ironic, since I wasn’t the Title IX contrarian I am now. But some coached on women’s college teams to make a little money and stay involved in the sport they loved, and I admired that.
This was a team of Brian Kleczeks, rare males with a passion for what in the U.S. is an overwhelmingly female sport. The guys did get some face time in an Annie Leibovitz photo spread for Vanity Fair of athletes in little-known sports, so there is that. And while they didn’t come close to medaling, the U.S. women were even more disappointing, finishing fifth in Atlanta.
Kleczek and Pilaro are really no different than Paige Sultzbach, the baseball player in Arizona whose presence on her team prompted the aptly-named Our Lady of Sorrows to forfeit. Her school, Mesa Preparatory School, does not offer girls softball, which I’m surprised Title IX advocates haven’t jumped all over.
Yet reams of copy on her behalf continue to be written, including Grantland’s bombastic Charles Pierce, who skewered the pre-Vatican II school’s actions as “an embarrassment to sport and religion, the functional equivalent of bleeding statues and the face of Jesus on the side of the barn.”
My thoughts on mixed-gender competition are all over the place. I don’t see a problem with girls on a male baseball team and boys on a female field hockey team. There should be no fear of the predominant gender in each being “overrun” by intruders of the opposite sex, not at this age. These are rare instances and probably always will be.
There are women’s sports advocates who do contest same-sex sports because they believe it relegates women to second-class status, ironically blaming Title IX for much of this. More dubiously, they use this argument to push for sex integration at the very elite level, a topic I’m delving into in my upcoming writing project that I will be unveiling here soon.
When I played youth softball and basketball in the years just before Title IX was passed, I enjoyed the dynamic of competing with, and against, other girls. I didn’t feel as isolated as I had when I played neighborhood touch football with the boys, who reminded you of your gender on every single snap and didn’t appreciate it when you beat them.
With other girls, I experienced the cultural space to play sports and to be female, and to finally feel comfortable being both at once. Gender wasn’t an issue as we fielded grounders in practice and drove for layups in games.
For a few blessed hours a week, the stinging “tomboy” epithet wasn’t uttered in my presence. These simple acts of getting in the game were life-affirming, watershed moments that haven’t waned in the decades since.
But I don’t see the harm in the few kids who cross over, especially if there’s not an option of playing with their gender.
We’re so hell-bent on making such grand cultural pronouncements, including the desire to demolish “gender stereotypes” with more mixed-sex sports, that we forget that this shouldn’t be about what we want.