Sole Male On All-girl Team Barred From State Playoffs Aclu Takes Up Case, Charges Sex Discrimination

October 31, 1990|By Rick Belz | Rick Belz,Staff writer

Could boys be playing on the same team with girls next year in sports like volleyball, field hockey and softball?

Doesn't seem likely. Or does it?

This fall, a male student played on a Cecil County field hockey team.

That precedent, in the opinion of at least one county authority, could mean big changes are in the making on the high school sports scene.

"I think we are on the edge of something big happening," said Don Disney, executive director of health, safety and physical education for the Howard County schools.

The player, Robert Abbott, who is a student at Bohemia Manor High School, sought an injunction to be allowed to participate in the state playoffs. The injunction was denied last week in federal court in Baltimore, and Bohemia Manor was to start playoffs this week without Abbott.

The Cecil County school board opened Pandora's box when it ruled last summer that Abbott could play during the regular season.

Executive secretary of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association (MPSSAA) Edward F. Sparks said the Cecil board was threatened with legal action if it didn't let Abbott play.

The school board let him play, and an uproar followed.

One Harford County school, Havre de Grace, refused to play Bohemia Manor, and the MPSSAA Executive Council, basing its decision on a recommendation from its field hockey committee, ruled that any team refusing to play Bohemia Manor would suffer no penalty.

"Schedules were made on the basis that these were all-girls teams," Sparks said.

Teams within Cecil were forced to play Bohemia Manor, although some of them did not want to.

When Bohemia Manor qualified for the regional playoffs, the MPSSAA invited the team to play -- without Abbott.

The American Civil Liberties Union took up the boy's case, saying he was being discriminated against strictly on the basis of his sex.

"We never denied that," Sparks said. "We felt we had to preserve a sanctuary for the girls, and that boys are a definite threat to take over a sport like field hockey, or especially volleyball."

In the past, girls have been allowed to participate in wrestling, but Sparks thinks that is a different case.

"Girls are no threat to take over wrestling," said Sparks, a former football and wrestling coach at Howard High School.

When Abbott showed up in court, he wore a full field hockey uniform -- including a kilt.

But U. S. District Court Judge Frank A. Kaufman refused to grant the injunction that would have permitted Abbott to participate in the state playoffs.

"We feel fortunate to keep him out of the playoffs," Sparks said. "The MPSSAA is 100 percent against allowing boys to play field hockey. This is the first time a case like this has happened in my memory."

It seems like long ago, but in the late 1970s, I recall the case of a Mount Hebron male who pushed the county school administration to be allowed to play softball on the girls' team. His request was not allowed. And in those days, students did not go out and seek injunctions, so the case was dropped.

If the ACLU is involved, however, there's a good chance that this case won't be dropped, and a possibility that the court's ruling might be reversed.

SOCCER CASE

Another legal case almost certainly will affect the county sooner or later.

A Bowie soccer player has played this season only because he was granted an injunction against the MPSSAA, the governing athletic organization for county public school athletics statewide.

Bowie's Mark Jonas, a national team player, decided to miss Bowie's first game this season against Oakland Mills so he could practice with the national team. That decision left him in the same boat as three county players a year ago.

Steve Sietsema and Todd Haskins, Howard players, and Brian Bailey of Hammond were all national team players who last year faced disqualification from high school competition if they missed a practice or game to play with the national team.

The regulation prohibiting such activity is stated clearly in the MPSSAA bylaws. The trio circumvented the ruling when the national team came here for a practice, allowing the three players to continue their local high school practices uninterrupted. But the situation was unsettled for a long time.

As far as I know, the trio did not consider an injunction. They all simply would have opted to play for the national team had they been forced to choose.

That would have ruined one of the finest, most exciting soccer seasons ever for Howard, and left a lot of fans not knowing how great Haskins really was. He would not have become National Gatorade Player of the Year.

And the county is bound to have future national team players, as the national soccer federation continues its quest to develop the finest players it can in hopes of one day building an Olympic medalist team.

So what happens to Jonas is important to the future here.

Right now he is eligible to play, and the injunction will stay in place only as long as his current case against the MPSSAA ruling is alive. It's currently proceeding through various steps of appeals.

His latest appeal, to the MPSSAA appeals committee on which Disney was one of seven members, was denied last week.

"The rule is clear," Disney said. "And it's a good rule, but I support an amendment to the bylaws that would define the national soccer team and create an exception."

The problem with such an amendment is that a lot of counties may never imagine themselves having national team soccer players, and so will vote against it, Disney thinks.

Ratification of an amendment requires a majority vote of the delegates present at the annual legislative meeting of the MPSSAA.

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