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If co-ed youth sport is a Pandora’s Box, then Game On

January 15, 2014 – 10:55 AM

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By Laura Pappano

Much of the modern life has evolved — and at breakneck pace — but too many adults in positions of power continue to enforce a maddeningly old-fashioned mindset when it comes to young female athletes and co-ed play.

I was recently contacted by a mom whose third grade daughter – eight years old – was first allowed to join a community youth basketball team with boys and then tossed off the roster. May I repeat: This is third grade.

The reasoning?  The organization’s board chair, this mom wrote, “informed me that the majority of the board members were of the opinion that girls should not be allowed to play with boys. He stated that although this is just 3rd grade, allowing them to play now opens a ‘Pandora’s Box’ of issues and makes it more difficult for them to disallow it in the future.”

Obviously, Pandora’s Box was flung opened a long time ago. You can also bet that all the young Pandoras growing up today have no intentions of shutting it.

Earlier this week in Pennsylvania, U.S. Middle District Judge Matthew W. Brann ruled that the Line Mountain School District could not bar 12-year-old Angie Beattie from the middle school wrestling team. Beattie, who has wrestled since third grade – may we pause to recognize that starting early gives girls a chance to develop skills to compete successfully? – earned a 5-3 record last season in club wrestling.

The frustrating thing? The school district’s arguments against Beattie sound like the arguments against 3rd grade co-ed basketball – and like the arguments that have been struck down in previous court cases. School officials argued that letting girls wrestle boys presented psychological, physical, and moral risks.

School officials back in 1996 reached for the same argument when Tiffany Adams of Wichita, Kansas wanted to wrestle on the Valley Center High School team. The court ruled that while student safety was, indeed, an important goal that Tiffany was no more in need of protection than any other qualified student who wanted to wrestle.

The ruling includes a message that school officials in Line Mountain (and board members barring a girl from 3rd grade basketball) might well heed. The notion of “protecting” qualified girls but not boys, the court said, “suggests the very sort of well meaning but overly paternalistic attitude about females which the Supreme Court has viewed with such concern.”

The most striking part of the court ruling, though, was the finding that barring Tiffany from the team denied her the ability to develop her skills as a wrestler and this had caused her “irreparable harm” and violated her constitutional rights. Wow.

It’s a point school officials and recreation board chairs ought to think about next time they drag out the tired claim that they are “protecting” girls by excluding them.

Better to let them know that Pandora has her uniform on – and she’s ready to play.

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