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Boy's Shot at Playing Field Hockey Is Blocked by Gender Rule

Education: In U.S. high schools, the sport traditionally is offered only to girls. Members of the Garden Grove team want Quan Vu to play.

October 16, 2000|MELANIE NEFF | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Quan Vu is co-captain of the Santiago High School girls' field hockey team, a title that goes to players who are loyal and inspirational and exhibit a team-first attitude.

Captains are also, quite often, stars of the games. Not Vu. You have to play to be considered a star, and Vu has been banned from competition because the California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section has ruled that you have to be a girl to play field hockey.

Vu, a boy, doesn't qualify.

"Girls can play guys' sports, like wrestling and football, but I can't play field hockey," the soft-spoken 17-year-old said after watching his team defeat Westminster on a recent afternoon. "It doesn't make sense. An athlete is an athlete."

The all-female cast championing Vu's cause agrees. His teammates, their coach, and even girls from some opposing teams are rallying behind an appeal on Vu's behalf.

Similar challenges by boys have been swiftly opposed by women's rights activists as undermining efforts to foster girls' self-esteem and equality through sports. But if Orange County's field hockey players are any indication, such thinking may be out of date.

"It's girl power," said Santiago's Rosy Pineda, who says safety isn't an issue as long as Vu and other boys stick to the sports' non-contact rules. "We want to show them we are as good as them and it makes us want to do better."

Vu, slightly framed at 5 feet 5, 125 pounds, seems an unlikely trailblazer. He says he is not out for attention and doesn't need to crash an all-girls team to find a girlfriend.

"I really like the sport," Vu said. "It's demanding and physical. I just want to play."

Recently chosen Santiago's student of the month, Vu is a member of the National Honor Society and is the Garden Grove school's senior class treasurer. He also shows up at school each weekday morning at 5:15 to work in the cafeteria.

A Garden Grove League champion wrestler in the winter and a member of the junior varsity tennis team in the spring, Vu wanted to play a fall sport, too. He ran cross-country last year, but found it boring, and he considered himself too small for football.

"Not everyone is a football player," said Vu, who was sporting a large cut above his left eye where a hockey ball had hit him during a recent practice.

Vu tried out after a friend told him of Coach Sarah Anderson's campus-wide invitation to participate in field hockey, a sport that U.S. high schools traditionally offer only to girls. He immediately took to the game's speed and challenge, never missing a practice.

Asked if being a boy gives him an advantage, Vu, in his usual soft tone, said: "An athlete has an advantage out here. Male or female."

Are the girls intimidated by him?

"Not the varsity girls," Vu said. "They all want a piece of me. Some of the girls are really rough."

A petition to allow Vu to play in games was rejected recently by Commissioner James Staunton of the Southern Section, which governs sports for more than 500 high schools in Southern California.

Staunton's decision cited a rule barring boys from playing a girls' sport "unless opportunities in the total sports programs for boys in the school have been limited in comparison to the total sports programs for girls."

In Orange County, most athletic programs include team sports played separately by boys and girls, such as soccer, basketball, volleyball and water polo. Boys' football and wrestling and girls' field hockey are the exceptions. At Santiago, there are 10 boys' sports offered and nine girls' sports.

Crossing of sports' gender lines has mostly involved girls trying to play a boys' sport. There have been several Orange County cases, for example, in which girls have successfully tried out for football or wrestling teams, with the Southern Section's blessing.

"We've had girls wrestling in our league and a girl playing quarterback," said Santiago High Principal Ginny Lombardi, who is preparing Vu's appeal. "We've seen girls making a lot of progress in this area."

Vu believes he should be given the same allowance.

"A sport is a sport," he said. "I tried out like everyone else and made the team. At the time I thought I could play. I didn't know it was restricted to just girls."

Lombardi feels the sport should be open to both genders, though she understands that the Southern Section's decision in Vu's case was based on a rule. "But maybe," she said, "things need to change."

Change won't come easily, said Katherine Darmer, an assistant law professor at Chapman University in Orange. She said the real motivation behind such guidelines is to overcome historical discrimination against girls. As a result, boys have a harder--if not impossible--burden to prove.

"Courts have really struggled with these issues," Darmer said.

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