LA MESA — At 5-foot-11, 155 pounds, Karen Davis isn't what you'd call a fragile girl.
The 15-year-old Helix High School sophomore towers over a good number of her male peers and could probably out arm wrestle many of them as well. She's quick on her feet and can bench press 130 pounds.
Davis is also "crazy" about football and has decided that, given her fondness for the gridiron sport and her physical prowess, she belongs on Helix High's junior varsity squad--specifically, on the defensive line at left tackle.
But officials in the Grossmont Union High School District don't seem to agree.
"She may not exactly be a tiny mite, but that girl simply does not belong on the football field," said district school board member Ken Whitcomb, a former football coach.
"She's a lovely lady and personally, I think she'd make a much better model than a football player," said Fred Andrews, another trustee.
On Thursday, Davis went before the board and asked that a district policy preventing girls from participating in "contact sports" --wrestling, football and boxing--be changed. It is "outright discrimination," Davis argued, to exclude capable girls from any sport they wish to play.
The board is not expected to rule on the matter until the end of the month. But several trustees contacted by The Times Friday said they already know where they stand on the issue.
"This is a tough one for me, because I'm enough of a feminist to believe that women should have the opportunity to do whatever they're qualified for," said Board President Betty Pengelley, adding that she herself enjoyed playing sandlot football as a youth. "But I don't think a 15-year-old girl is prepared to get in there and play competitively with boys, particularly not on the defensive line."
Pengelley said she fears male teammates would either "gang up" on Davis "because they felt, quite legitimately, that she didn't belong," or would "hold back and not play normally so as to protect the girl." Neither one would be fair to Davis or the team, said Pengelley, adding that she had received phone calls from parents expressing similar concerns.
Trustee Ken Overstreet said that he is "reluctant to take the legal responsibility for any injuries she or other girls could suffer in the game." Overstreet also believes that if Davis "made the team and yet sat on the bench during the season, she might still claim we were discriminating."
And Andrews, who believes football is too rough for high school boys, said "putting a girl in there with guys would be like putting a flyweight boxer against a heavyweight."
Davis, who has thrown discus for the track
team, jogs and lifts weights regularly, said that she realizes she might get "clobbered" on the field but is prepared to take that chance. What's more, she's anxious to do some clobbering of her own.
"I love football, particularly the defensive line," Davis said. "I like hitting quarterbacks. It's fun to take out your aggressions on those little, pretty boys."
A football fan for years, Davis named the Chicago Bears as her favorite team and said her leading heroes are Bears running back Walter Payton--"That's the number I want, 34"--and New York Jets defensive lineman Mark Gastineau--"he hits harder than anybody on Earth."
Davis said she particularly admires Gastineau's talent for sacking quarterbacks. The lineman was notorious for dancing a celebratory jig around fallen quarterbacks, until the National Football League outlawed such antics last year.
Although she hasn't played much football recently, Davis said she has seen a lot of action in neighborhood games in past years and doesn't doubt that she'd make the team if given a chance.
On campus, the ambitious girl's bid for a spot on the junior varsity squad has been met with mixed reactions. Her friends are supportive, but some people "think I'm doing this to be trendy, trying to be like that new movie, 'Just One of the Guys.' " (The film features a girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to make the high school football team.)
And her boyfriend? "He's all for it," Davis said. "He plays for Hoover High, so we could even play against each other at CIF (league playoffs)."
Junior Varsity Coach Dick Langston, meanwhile, was hesitant to offer an opinion, but did note, "She sure is persistent about this, and dedication is one thing we look for in our athletes."
On Tuesday, Langston is holding an organizational meeting of prospective players for next fall's team. Davis says she plans to attend the meeting.
Davis, whose mother wholeheartedly supports her daughter's efforts, has vowed that if necessary, she will take the district to court and force officials to let her play. Board members said they are confident they would win such a challenge. Pengelley said that under Title IX, the federal law passed in 1972 that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex by schools receiving federal funds, districts may prohibit girls from participating with boys in certain "contact sports."