(Image: Enzo Giordani)

Why divide youth sports teams by gender anyway?

The debate around girls playing in boys’ sports teams has resurfaced. Just let them play, says Madeleine Chapman.

When Pennsylvania beat Tennessee in the opening round of the 2014 Little League World Series, it made the news. The Pennsylvania pitcher, who pitched a shutout, was congratulated by world famous athletes and invited to appear on late night talk shows. They went on to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the only Little League player to have such an honour, and won a 2015 ESPY award despite not having the fastest pitch and not advancing past the second round of the tournament. Why? The pitcher, Mo’ne Davis, was a girl.

She wasn’t the first girl to play in the LLWS and she won’t be the last, but she was the only one to become a national sensation. What set Davis apart was that she was a pitcher, which meant you couldn’t ignore her. Boys would step up to the plate and be struck out. By a girl. Girls were prohibited from playing little league baseball at all in America until 1973. Today, it’s not a common occurrence but girls at the LLWS are no longer cause for a media furore. Except when they pitch a shutout. I believe this is what’s known as ‘progress’.

Mo’ne Davis was an exceptional baseball player. Here in New Zealand, Dayna Stevens is an exceptional footballer. But after three attempts by her school, Glenfield College, for dispensation, Auckland College Sport has rejected her request to play in the boys First XI.

Currently, Glenfield College has a girls team in the C grade, effectively a social team. They regularly struggle to field a full squad. When Stevens, a New Zealand under 20 rep, plays for them, she dominates to such a degree that the games become a farce. In one game, she scored 18 goals. Her request was to join the boys’ team, also in a C grade (though a higher quality game). Auckland College Sport reasoned that she couldn’t play in a league with boys because she might get hurt, and it would hurt women’s sport as a whole.

“By putting a girl in a boys’ competition, you’re actually saying the girls’ competition is not important,” said Jim Lonergan, chief executive officer of Auckland College Sport, in a profoundly backwards statement. Stevens wanting to play in a team that’s more at her level isn’t saying the girls’ grade she’s currently in isn’t important, it’s saying the grade isn’t good. Which, if she can score 18 goals in one match, is almost certainly true.

Mo’ne Davis pitches in the Little League World Series (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

To be clear, Stevens is good enough to play in the boys’ First XI. That’s not an issue. The boys in the team and the coach would welcome her abilities in the squad. That’s not an issue. The other teams in the girls’ grade she currently plays in would rather she played for a better team. That’s not an issue. So what is the issue? Auckland College Sport insist that disallowing her to play would not impact her opportunities. They’re right, she can still play for her women’s club team and age group rep teams. But is “it won’t make her worse” a good enough reason when allowing her to play will actively help and improve her game?

Sophie Devine holds the record for the fastest international twenty20 half-century (18 balls) and has been a White Fern since she was 17. She also played in the boys’ First XI at Tawa College. Devine remembers it wasn’t easy getting dispensation from Wellington College Sport because there was a girls team at the school too. “I had to get an exemption even in third form to play in the junior league. It was a real effort, we had to go through College Sport and Cricket Wellington to get the right people to say it was okay.”

Another reason given for the rejection of Stevens’ request was that the girls’ team, which she helped set up as a year 10 student, would fold without her. “Where sports can simply place a talented young woman into a male competition of the sport it can act as a disincentive to the investment needed into the true development of female sporting experiences and opportunities within a secondary school experience,” said Lonergan.

This sense of responsibility to help build women’s sport was also put on Devine as a young cricketer. “I was told a lot that I owed it to the girls’ team to play with them and help them improve the standard. And I get that but should it be up to the young athletes to do that?” If a school kid made the All Blacks, no one would suggest that he shouldn’t play because he owed it to his school to continue playing for them and helping them with their game. Exceptional young girls are made into ambassadors for women’s sport whether they want to or not. Sometimes they just want to compete and that’s all there is to it.

Like almost every exceptional female athlete in this country, Devine and Stevens grew up playing against boys. In any age group and nearly any sport, the top male team will be better than the top female team. It’s why elite sports are gendered in the first place. As much as I want to say that girls could take on boys in any sport, I know it’s simply not true. But there are certainly a few girls who could hold their own, and more, in the boys leagues. And those girls should be allowed to play. Simply because if we want to be producing world-class athletes, we need to be pushing kids to play at their best, with the best. Until we are able to have competitive girls’ leagues in all sports and enough girls playing them, the best ones have no choice but to hone their craft among the boys. As Devine well knows, it’s all about skill.

“If the person isn’t up to the standard then they shouldn’t play. That was always something I was happy with. If I’m not good enough, drop me. It was as simple as that.” But is it that simple? Dayna Stevens and Sophie Devine may well have been too good for the girls team and good enough for the boys team, but flip the script and things get pretty complicated. Should a boy who is at the same level as the girls’ team be allowed to play with them? For what it’s worth, I say yes.

Dayna Stevens and Sophie Devine (Image left: Enzo Giordani)

Thanks to a patriarchal history that requires more nuance than I can muster, a lot of societal activities and achievements are unnecessarily gendered. Why are there separate acting awards for men and women? What about male acting is different from female acting? Why is baseball a ‘boy sport’ and softball a ‘girl sport’? Can girls not throw overhand? There’s a lot of nonsensical segregation and youth sports is no different. Why shouldn’t all youth sports be mixed? If you’re good, you play in the top leagues, and if you’re not so good you play in the lower divisions. The top league will heavily lean male but it would at least allow for everyone to play in a division to which they’re suited. If that means some boys find themselves in the minority among a team of girls, well what’s wrong with that? As athletes get older, the elite teams will naturally separate into men and women because that’s who the competition is, while at the same time social sports for adults goes back to being largely mixed.

Devine stopped playing in boys’ leagues was when she was representing the country as a White Fern. Sadly there’s not a lot of inbetween. “It’s a reflection on what’s available for girls. If you want the better girls to improve, you’re going to have to try find competition where you can. You’ve got to play to the best standard you safely can and if that’s in the girls league then awesome, and if that’s in the boys league then you do that.”

What this whole issue boils down to is…who cares? These controversial cases aren’t changing elite sports. They’re almost always concerned with lower grade teams and girls just wanting to get a bit more quality competition. For those wanting to be professional athletes, elite training is often done together anyway, boys and girls, men and women. You may compete against your own gender but if you’re the best you train with the best, whoever they might be. For everyone else, sport is social. Who cares if a girl is in the boys’ fourth XV rugby team. Who cares if there’s a boy in the Senior B netball team. Who cares if you’re a man and getting outplayed by a woman in your division six indoor netball game. These aren’t high stakes situations and shouldn’t be treated as if they are.

Stevens is asking to play for a boys’ team that is in the C grade. She’s not asking to win a premiership. She’s not asking to be allowed to play for a team that’s far too good. She’s not going to ask to trial for the All Whites. She simply wants to play with others who will help improve her game. Just let her play.


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