Among the life lessons that sports teach, fair play may be the most important. But how fair is it for a boy with a big physical advantage to play field hockey on a girls’ team? It isn’t fair — yet it has been a common sight in Western Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the state, not only for field hockey but other girls’ sports, too.
The presence of boys on girls’ teams came about because of a well-intentioned Commonwealth Court ruling in 1975. It held that a Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association bylaw forbidding girls from practicing or competing against boys was unconstitutional.
In that era, girl athletes did not have many opportunities, but unintended consequences came with progress. What the court ruled as a matter of fairness then — gender discrimination was not to be tolerated — is unfair today when girls’ teams proliferate. Four decades ago, it would have seemed absurd to imagine that one day boys in kilts — bigger, stronger, faster — would join girls’ field hockey teams and be a menacing physical presence for their opponents.
Last year, in a bow to common sense, Commonwealth Court changed its mind. In response to a lawsuit, the court cleared the way for the PIAA to write a new mixed-gender rule, which it finally approved last week. The result is that boys will find it much harder to play on girls’ teams and girls will be restricted from playing on boys’ teams (with the exception of football and wrestling, which have no girls’ equivalent).
Under the new mixed-gender rule, a boy can’t play on a girls’ team if a school has the same sport for both boys and girls. If a school does not have a boys’ team in a particular sport, a boy can play on the girls team, but only if the school principal determines that he would not displace a girl on the team; if he would not, because of his size or other characteristics, pose an increased risk of harm to opponents; if he would not provide a significant competitive advantage; and if the overall boys program at the school provides fewer opportunities for boys to participate than girls.
As a practical matter, it’s going to be tough for any boy to play on most girls’ teams. While only time will tell how well the rule has been calibrated, it is a step in the right direction. As with boy athletes, girls should have every opportunity in sports, including the opportunity to flourish while playing members of their own sex. That is fair.