Families try to prevent boys playing girls' sports

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At the beginning of her freshman year at Upper St. Clair High School, Kallan Piconi had plenty of decisions to make. Which classes would she take? Which clubs would she join? Most importantly, which fall sport would she play?

Kallan, 15, had played soccer for most of her life, before moving onto lacrosse in the winter. But last fall, she chose to play field hockey instead of soccer. Because of Kallan's experience with lacrosse, another stick game, she was a natural. One of the few freshmen to make the varsity squad, she lined up as a defender at 5 feet, 7 inches tall and 110 pounds.

On Sept. 11, Kallan's mother, Eden Piconi, arrived at her seat for the game at Peters Township, ready to watch her daughter compete. Quickly, Mrs. Piconi saw something in the action that jarred her: Running up and down the field with the girls was a boy wearing a kilt and a Peters jersey.

At first, Mrs. Piconi wanted answers. How was this allowed? But, as the season progressed, and Kallan was confronted with more boys, her mother couldn't deny the small thrill of watching her stop those young men from scoring goals.

On Oct. 8, Upper St. Clair hosted Woodland Hills, a team that featured three boys. One of them stood out to Kallan. He seemed to be able to do whatever he wanted on the field. When he struck the ball, the sound was different. This made her want to stop him even more.

So when Austin Suprak brought the ball into the defensive zone, Kallan geared up and sprinted toward him, hoping to beat him to a spot on the field and impede his progress.

Austin, then 17, had joined the field hockey team for his senior season. Having played only ultimate frisbee in high school, he wanted to try something new. Being a novice, he had to look at the ball to control it, which had made him susceptible to running into girls. Standing 5 feet, 8 inches tall and 140 pounds, Austin was not imposing for guy standards, but he considered himself a good athlete.

When Kallan and Austin met, she lowered her head into him. She went flying backward to the turf, while he continued on with possession of the ball. After the play was dead, Austin turned around to see Kallan lying on the ground. It was the only time he collided with a girl who didn't get right up. He worried about her.

"I felt bad," Austin said. "None of the girls I ran into, I never did it on purpose."

Kallan rose, feeling fuzzy, and asked out of the game. She'd feel fuzzier. She did not go to school for a few days. She saw a pediatrician and a neurologist. She was diagnosed with a concussion. She did not go to school for three weeks and was instructed not to read books, watch TV or send text messages. The field hockey season came and went. Lacrosse started without her.

While her daughter faded away from her first semester of high school, trapped in their two-story, red-brick home, Mrs. Piconi started on a mission. She called athletic directors, asking that original question: How were boys allowed to play on girls teams? How was this safe? Look at what happened to her Kallan.

"I just didn't want to let him score," Kallan said. "I didn't want to let him of all people get by me. I wanted to prove myself."

Title IX gone wrong?

Eden Piconi's search for information led her to Mary Grenen, the mother of one current and two former Fox Chapel Area field hockey players.

Mrs. Grenen and her husband, Jim, both attorneys, were in the midst of a yearlong quest to enact change at the state level by helping to author a common-sense bylaw that would disallow boys from playing on girls teams.

At the heart of the matter was interpretation of Title IX, the federal civil rights law passed in 1972 that prohibits sex discrimination in education. For Mrs. Grenen and Mrs. Piconi, this felt personal.

Each of them grew up as Title IX was first making an impact. Unlike their mothers, they had the chance to play sports, and they took advantage of the opportunity to become more well-rounded. Mrs. Grenen, who graduated from high school in 1981, looks back on her time as a high school athlete in track and field fondly. Mrs. Piconi, who graduated in 1988, competed in physical sports like field hockey and lacrosse. Sports helped shape them as women headed off to college.

"It made a huge difference," Mrs. Grenen said. "Girls who play sports learn to interact on a team level, learn how to work within an organization, which I think helps in all fields. It gives you something in common with other people. It just provides so many examples of how the world works."

Title IX requires that a school which receives federal money permit a member of an excluded sex to try out for a single-sex team only if "the athletic opportunities of the excluded sex have previously been limited" and, "even if they have been limited, exclusion is permissible if the sport is a contact sport."

Mrs. Grenen contends that, since boys' opportunities have not been limited and field hockey is a sport in which contact happens quite often, boys playing girls field hockey is a violation of Title IX. To Mrs. Grenen, there is also the simple fact that, every time a boy takes the field, there is a girl who is not getting a chance to play, which is clearly against the purpose of Title IX.

For Mrs. Piconi, it is more of a safety issue. Although the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association -- as a voluntary nonprofit corporation that does not directly receive federal funding -- is not subject to Title IX, the organization's mission does include promoting a safe and level playing field.

Could a girls' field hockey team that includes boys be safe?

"It's a terrible idea, in regards to concussions," said Robert Cantu of Concord, Mass., one of the leading national experts on head injuries. "And probably not a good idea in regard to muscular-skeletal injuries. In any sport in which head contact is possible, it would be a very, very bad idea."

Dr. Cantu said girls have a higher incidence of concussions than boys because girls have weaker necks. A blow to a girl's head imparts greater rotational forces and therefore a greater chance for a concussion.

PIAA's hands tied by court

In fall 2011, faced with the prospect of another season watching their daughter, Rose, play field hockey against boys, the Grenens had finally had enough. They wrote to the PIAA, which invited them to come to its offices in Mechanicsburg and give a PowerPoint presentation. At the meeting, in January 2012, Mrs. Grenen figured that she would have to persuade the PIAA to be on her side. But in the middle of the meeting, someone interrupted her.

"You're preaching to the choir," a man said.

The PIAA had been discussing the issue for years, but it felt that its hands were tied because of a Commonwealth Court order that was nearly four decades old.

In 1973, the PIAA had a bylaw which stated, "Girls shall not compete or practice against boys in any athletic contest." The attorney general asserted that this provision violated the new Pennsylvania Equal Rights Amendment, which stated, "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania because of the sex of the individual."

In 1975, Commonwealth Court entered an order that declared the PIAA bylaw unconstitutional, saying, "The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association is hereby ordered to permit girls to practice and compete with boys in interscholastic athletics ... ."

At the time of the order, few girls-only sports were offered. The order was meant to give girls who wanted to play sports offered only for boys the opportunity to do so. As the years passed, and more girls teams were created, the order began to be interpreted so that boys could also play on girls teams if the sport was offered only for girls -- which had the opposite effect of the order's original intent.

The only way for the PIAA to change the interpretation of the order was to have the case reopened -- a task that would take legal man-hours and resources that the PIAA didn't feel it had. Basically, the PIAA needed people like the Grenens to fight the battle, and the organization would be glad to offer its support.

"It could be a large expense, and we still don't know the outcome," said Bob Lombardi, the PIAA executive director. "The Grenens have provided a great opportunity because they are attorneys to work on this."

Key to the Grenens' hope for reopening the case was a 1985 interpretation of the Pennsylvania ERA that said the ERA "does not prohibit differential treatment among the sexes when that treatment is reasonable and genuinely based on physical characteristics unique to one sex."

In fall 2012, the Grenens filed a petition with Commonwealth Court to reopen the 1975 case. The court granted the request -- a huge victory and likely the only hope to change the status quo.

On Feb. 26, the Grenens, the PIAA and representatives from the attorney general's office will meet in Harrisburg for a status conference. The Grenens and the PIAA's hope is that they will agree on a common-sense bylaw that will outlaw boys playing on girls' teams while staying in accordance with the ERA.

"We're hopeful of making a modification of the injunction to promote a fairness doctrine for both boys and girls that takes into consideration rules changes, societal changes and participation changes since 1975," Mr. Lombardi said. "I think that's a fair way to say it."

Long-term effects

Kallan Piconi's three-month absence from sports, mandated by her doctors, ended earlier this month when she was cleared for contact by her pediatrician. After the long layoff, she said she is even more excited to play the games she loves.

Kallan will start practicing soon with the lacrosse team and expects that she will play field hockey again next year. She just hopes that it will be without boys. Her mother, of course, agrees.

"As a kid you don't realize how dangerous things are," Mrs. Piconi said. "All adolescence is kind of figuring out what is dangerous. When I was a young kid, I wasn't afraid of anything. It's up to adults to make the wise decision for them."

Austin Suprak is currently competing on the Woodland Hills swim team and may try rugby in the spring. He hopes to play sports in college. Even after discovering that his collision with Kallan had given her a concussion, he said he thinks boys should be able to play on girls field hockey teams.

"It should still be allowed," Austin said. "I thought it was a cool experience, playing on a team with girls. Then again, I understand why they complain about having boys on the team. Boys tend to be rough when they play a sport like that."

At Woodland Hills, which has boys playing field hockey because some years they haven't had enough girls to field a team, two boys are looking forward to the chance to play again next season.

Eric Stanko was a freshman goalie last fall. He had played roller hockey in the past and wanted to try it out. He would be disappointed if boys are no longer able to play.

Brandon McClelland is a sophomore who joined the team in the middle of the season. He plays baseball and wanted to play ice hockey, but because the school didn't offer ice hockey, he decided to try field hockey. He liked it so much that he hopes he can fit it in along with football in the fall.

When Brandon joined, Austin told him about the collision with Kallan. Brandon, who is 6 feet tall and 165 pounds, wanted to avoid that kind of physical contact with the girls. But in a game against Oakland Catholic, he was unable to stop his momentum and ran over a girl. He helped her up and apologized, and, to his knowledge, she was OK.

Because of the countless hours put in by the Grenens, collisions like that one and the one that injured Kallan Piconi may not happen for much longer. And nobody feels better about that than a 22-year-old woman named Erica Kotchey and her parents, Debbie and Ken.

In 2006, Ms. Kotchey was the captain of the Fox Chapel Area junior varsity field hockey team. She took a hit to the head by the stick of a boy playing for Penn Trafford, and her life has never been the same.

Ms. Kotchey had dreams of playing field hockey in college. It was a foregone conclusion she would at least attend a four-year university. But, because of the brain damage she sustained because of the hit, she had to be home-schooled for the last two years of high school. The migraine headaches and mood swings she experienced were too intense for a traditional classroom environment.

Ms. Kotchey's friends disappeared once it was clear she wasn't coming back. Her mother got her through home schooling, and she enrolled in nursing school in March 2010. In February 2012, she graduated, and now works as a nurse in the operating room at UPMC St. Margaret. Her life is back on track, but she still has to take medication for her weekly migraines, and her memory loss has continued.

"I'm just totally different from what I was before," Ms. Kotchey said. "I'm a more reserved kind of person."

The Kotcheys have moved on now, but they'll be closely following the developments of the Grenens' efforts in Harrisburg next month.

"We went back to the school and said, 'Hey, how are you letting a boy play a girls sport?' " Mr. Kotchey said. "They come back and say, 'It's Title IX.' If a girl wanted to play football, that's totally different. The girl put herself in harm's way. You're putting all the girls in harm's way by doing this.

"It's totally, totally wrong. And I'd like to see that what happened to Erica doesn't happen to anybody else."

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J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough.


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