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Sandy Banks

Coed Athletics? Kids Themselves Are Leveling the Playing Field

October 03, 2000|Sandy Banks

When she steps onto the football field next week, it won't matter much to Brenda Kramer whether her Trailblazers win or lose, whether she snatches a flag to stop a play or loses hers to a boy on the other team.

It won't matter that it took weeks of negotiations, rounds of conference calls and threats of lawsuits to resolve this grown-up battle, to win permission for a 9-year-old girl to play with the boys in a game she loves.

Win or lose, score one for the kids.

Our cherished perceptions--that little girls don't play Barbies and football, don't put on glitter nail polish before taking to the basketball court, wouldn't wear a spandex miniskirt to a Britney Spears concert, then strap on shinguards for a soccer game--die hard. For many of our children, these notions have scarcely existed.

Officially, the battle has been fought and won. Girls around the country have pushed for the right to grunt and sweat alongside boys on the gridiron. Now, most every local park and rec center offers coed leagues for flag football. Even high school teams have been forced to make room for girls on their tackle football squads.

"They try out, and if they're good enough, they make the team," said Lincoln High coach Gabriel Cotero, who has one girl on his roster this fall. Last year, the East Los Angeles team included four girls, including student body president Luisana Cruz, who played running back on the varsity squad.

But tradition dies harder in some quarters, and Brenda's request to play on her fourth-grade team at Sierra Canyon School in Chatsworth confounded officials at the private school, as well as the independent school league that guides the school's athletic program.

It was, after all, the first time in 23 years a girl had pushed to play on a boy's team. The school offers as many sports for girls as it does for boys, including basketball, soccer, softball and volleyball. "We've had some great [girl] athletes over the years," director Howard Wang said, "but never one who wanted to play football."

No one was sure what the league--a loose-knit collective with no governing body--would allow. On its books was an ancient rule forbidding girls to play on boys' teams--and vice versa--but no one could recall it being either challenged or enforced.

The rule, coaches said, had been intended as a backhanded attempt at fairness, an effort to protect girls from unfair competition: Letting a girl on a boys' football team would open the door to disaster, by allowing boys to infiltrate girls' games.

But our kids had changed the rules.

"We forget these kids have come up playing alongside each other on the playground all their lives," says Mike Silva, assistant elementary principal at Campbell Hall School in Studio City, which has had a handful of girls on its flag football teams over the years.

"When we first had girls who wanted to go out for the football team, we were a little surprised. But the kids weren't. They were like, 'Duh . . . well, of course they want to play. They're great athletes. Why shouldn't they?' "

Brenda was bewildered by her school's explanation: If we let you play football, what would happen if a boy tried to sign up for the girls' volleyball team? We'd have to let him play.

"And, so . . . ?" Brenda wondered. "What would be wrong with that?"

This tall, funny, bespectacled girl--who regularly outshines the boys at recess, no matter the field of play--couldn't fathom the notion that boys are so athletically superior that the mere presence of a boy would give any girls' team an unfair advantage against an all-girl opponent.

"That was when," said her mother, Joanne Kramer, "I knew we had to challenge them . . . that I couldn't look my daughter in the eye and tell her she couldn't play football because some mysterious, hypothetical boy might one day decide to go out for girls' volleyball."

*

Still, Kramer pushed the issue with some reservations. Her daughter has always been one of the girls, yet she's loved sports all her life. She plays soccer, softball,basketball, and now flag football, alongside her older brother, on a team in a local park league.

"I couldn't help but worry, 'Is this going to hurt her socially? Is it going to make the girls make fun of her? Is it going to make the boys think she's odd?' "

Then she went into her daughter's bedroom one night and found Brenda's collection of Barbie dolls lined up across the floor, surrounded by mounds of silky hair. She'd lopped each doll's tresses off above the ears. "I want them to look like they can play football," she said.

And Joanne Kramer knew that the bigger worry was this: "Do I want my daughter to think that there are some things you will not be allowed to do, no matter how good you are, just because you're a girl?"

In the wake of Brenda's breakthrough, another little girl from the fourth grade has defected from the girls' basketball team to give football a try.

Score one more for the kids.

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