When boys want to play with the girls

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.

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  1. Bern
    Posted May 21, 2012 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    Well Played. The reason the Title IX crew wasn’t all over the Paige Sultzbach situation in Phoenix is that these teams play in a Charter School league that doesn’t accept federal dollars so Title IX does not apply and cannot be enforced. If it hadn’t been for that they would have filed an OCR complaint so fast your head would still be spinning.

    There are many field hockey stories similar to these primarily coming out of the NE. Seems the net effect of them is to further highlight the illogical and unfair double standard being driven by Title IX. Only serves to harden the position of those that were already aware of the problems with the law.

  2. Katharine
    Posted May 24, 2012 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    My first reaction on hearing about this was ‘where are the boys’ teams?’ I looked at the US team website and couldn’t seem to find any reference to the men’s national team at all. Yet there presumably are male teams elsewhere for members of a national team to come from.

    My own feeling about this kind of issue is that a kind of ‘common sense’, if one may use that term, should apply, and if there are no boys’ teams at the school then of course this boy should be allowed to take part on the ‘girls’ team, just as the converse should apply. As you say, these are exceptional cases and in the longer term, if more boys would want to play the sport, then the obvious thing to do is start boys’ teams. Isn’t this where the help of a governing body comes in? I also feel that in the case of youngsters, including teenagers, it is most appropiate to be regarding sport as essentially recreational, even if they are taking part in competitive tournaments. Therefore, the hard and fast rules that might be considered more applicable in adult competition, where a disparity in physical strength might come into play more, should be relaxed. Being in the UK, where male and female competitors in what I suppose I should refer to as ‘field hockey’ do seem to be treated more or less equally, particulary with reference to the upcoming Olympics, which is to say it is a sport for the most part under the radar in terms of the mainstream media, the disparity just seems odd.

    As a footnote, I remember a few years ago a boy on my local news who was the only boy on a primary school netball team, which was seen as technically against the rules at that time, the fact of netball really being a female sport, with little if any male participation meaning the above alternative, form a boys’ team, was therefore much less likely. I never found out what actually happened to him, but I would love to know. His situation thus involved another layer of difficulties which clearly await some further examination.

  3. Posted May 25, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    Appreciate Wendy’s point of view on this issue. Really appreciate Wendy’s last 5 paragraphs in this post, which relate her feelings as a child in playing sandlot sports with boys, which she contrasts with the feelings she had when playing in an all-female environment.

    My childhood playmate was an older girl who lived three houses down the street from me. Winnie was my equal as an athlete and we competed fiercely against one another. I didn’t like to get beat by Winnie, but I also didn’t like to get beat by anybody, male or female. When I coached my daughter’s youth teams, I would honor Winnie and her impact on my athletic career by educating the girls about athletes like Winnie, who didn’t have the same opportunities as they do now. Many of the girls had no idea about Title IX legislation and the positive impact it’s had on opportunities for women in all areas of life.

    I’ve coached kids in a co-ed environment and I’m not a fan of mixing the sexes if there are other alternatives. There are exceptions to every rule. My first co-ed basketball team featured a girl whom I still help to coach in track and field. She just happens to be the best female athlete I’ve ever coached and is nationally ranked in the 400m. She seamlessly fit into a male dominated team, but a few others could have benefited from being in an all female environment for the reasons proffered by Wendy.

    “With other girls, I experienced the cultural space to play sports and to be female, and to finally feel comfortable being both at once.”

  4. Brian Kleczek
    Posted May 25, 2012 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    I found this article to be interesting since I was the one who tried out for the girls field hockey team in South Kingstown RI back in 1991. I feel Keeling Piro should be able to play as there is no male team to play a sport he loves just like I love field hockey. I wish Keeling well and support him in his quest. I would testify on his behave as someone else who has fought for our rights. I feel in todays world my case would be a sexual harassment case as I was being denied because of gender.

    Brian Kleczek
    South Kingstown RI

  5. Posted May 30, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

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  6. Bern
    Posted June 5, 2012 at 11:02 am | Permalink

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