Hey, that’s a girl!

Co-ed sports what are the rules?

When young children first start out playing sports, boys and girls play on the same team.  As they grow older, the teams are divided -- one league for boys and the other for girls—based on physical nature and the disparity between male and female speed, strength and agility. Often, athletes accept the gender division, but what about those rare and brave individuals who insist on leveling the playing field, like your daughter who may want to play on the girls football team?

Andrea Humphreys has been coaching soccer for more than a decade and believes when children are young there is no distinction in ability based on gender. “Boys are not yet stronger, faster, or more physical,” says Humphreys, who coaches both boys and girls ages eight to sixteen for East Hudson Academy and John Jay High School soccer teams.

“All children are basically on an even playing field,” she says. “Boys and girls under ten years old are typically of equal ability, in terms of speed, strength, and coordination. You may find some girls are quicker or stronger than boys at this age. I think the athletic ability demonstrated by young children is not gender specific.”

As youngsters grow older, their bodies and minds develop differently and the gap widens in terms of the physical nature of the game. Hence, the division of teams and leagues into one for boys and one for girls. “Although I have seen many strong, aggressive and speedy female athletes, who are incredibly competitive, I feel male athletes play quite physical, and their extra strength could become a safety issue to the female athlete,” says Humphreys. “There are rules and regulations in the local school’s athletic division and the town recreation departments that regulate gender and team sports for youngsters aged eight to eighteen. 

School rules and regulations
The Hudson Valley school athletic departments follow the handbook of the New York State Public High School Athletics Association (NYSPHSAA), the governing body of interscholastic sports for 768 New York schools. The handbook states that a school’s athletic division for junior and senior high schools can have mixed competition: a combination of male and female pupils participating on the same interschool athletic teams.

“These guidelines afford equal opportunity for girls and boys to participate successfully in a balance of programs and competitions,” says Jim Osborne, director of the athletic department at Orange Ulster BOCES. Students involved in mixed competition are placed on teams at appropriate levels based upon their  medical history, maturity, fitness and skills.

The handbook indicates if a team is organized for one gender yet members of the opposite gender are also members, the team is classified as either a male or female team and continues playing in the same type league. Conversely, if a team formed for one gender is composed of a majority of students from the opposite gender, separate teams can be formed.  Therefore, the majority of children can participate and not have an adverse effect on any one gender.

Chris Townsend, athletic director of Newburgh Enlarged City School District, says this division is normal for sports like golf. However, the Kingston High School boys wrestling team has had girls on its team, but Kingston’s athletic director Glen Maisch says there are not enough females participating to create a girls team.

In mixed competition, a boy cannot try out for a girls team. Although in 2007, Kyle Ray defied the odds, endured name calling and served as a setter on the girls’ varsity volleyball team at Horseheads High School in Western New York. Head coach Patti Perone understood that based on state education department rules regarding mixed competition and Title IX’s legal precedent, she had no choice but to let Kyle play on the girls’ squad. Most of her fellow coaches supported her decision.

In order for a boy or a girl to crossover, the student needs approval of a panel – the superintendent of schools, school and family physicians, physical education teacher and Section IV Mixed Competition Committee – and needs to take a fitness and performance test, get a physical, and submit medical history before trying out for the sport.

Daring girls
Two able-bodied female athletes have matched strength successfully on a boy’s team. In 2009, Julie Horn of New Windsor was the first girl to score a goal for Newburgh Free Academy High School varsity boys’ ice hockey team.

“Julie’s skills as a figure skater and watching her brother play ice hockey attributed to her ability to be a successful ice hockey player,” says Townsend. “Prior to Julia, three girls have played on the boy’s ice hockey team in the district.”

Shorna Brown didn’t believe wrestling was for boys: she had been around the sport most of her life and her father was the varsity coach of the Kingston High School boys wrestling team. As a freshman she joined the boys’ varsity team and excelled at the jayvee level garnering a 3-5 record at 130 pounds.

Supportive parents and her strength and dexterity helped her remain on the team throughout high school. A 2008 graduate, Brown ranked seventh in the United States Girls’ Wrestling Association. Brown, now 18 and in college, placed 11th in the United States Girls’ Wrestling Association national tournament and second at the USGWA state championships.

“A few parents didn’t like it; and surprisingly the boys were less resistant,” says Brown.
“This is a grueling sport and any athlete who is tough enough to participate in wrestling practice and be competitive should be allowed to participate,” says Maisch. “There are not many boys who can do that and fewer girls.

Town rec rules
Unlike local schools which follows the NYSPHSAA handbook for all interscholastic sports, town recreation departments govern their gender-based rules and regulations by the specific club or league. According to Peter Hoff, director of LaGrange Recreation, the town recreation department only supplies space for clubs and leagues to play.

Chris Downs, spokesperson for the Little League International Baseball and Softball, says there is no split in baseball and softball teams as players get older. However, there is an option to play on a co-ed or non co-ed team.

Eileen Varrone believes her 12-year-old daughter’s basketball skills and strength will increase when she is playing on the boys intramural basketball team at the Fishkill Recreation Center. “Briana is a bit intimidated; however the boys are respectful and don’t bicker about speed,” says the Fishkill resident. “Plus, she is learning how to be more aggressive, which will help her during the junior high school tryouts.”

Although Varrone is satisfied with her daughter playing on an all boys basketball team, she does hope more girls will sign up so there is an alternative. “Despite the sport, there are always safety concerns, but the lesson is to understand what it takes to work on a team,” says Varrone. Whether its strength, speed, skill, or the love of the game, division of sports based on gender affects boys and girls equally.

Read more about the benefits of sports for your kids.

Angela Batchelor is a freelance writer and an adjunct instructor at Dutchess Community College.