Boy, 14, barred from girls field hockey team

December 09, 1990|By Pam Belluck | Pam Belluck,Knight-Ridder News Service

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- At 14, John Williams eats, sleeps and breathes field hockey.

He knows that the middle of a field hockey ball is made of "highly compressed sawdust." He knows which player on the team had to have stitches in the chin and which player got a broken finger. And he knows how to do an aerial dribble, "but if I do it in the house, I'll break something."

Not bad for a guy who spent the entire season on the bench. That wasn't his choice. It wasn't because he was injured or because he wasn't good enough.

It's because he's a boy.

Girls can play on the boys football team at Liberty High School in Bethlehem, where John is a ninth-grader. Girls can play boys soccer. If they want, girls can go out for boys wrestling.

If there were a boys field hockey team, girls could play on it. But no boys are allowed to play field hockey at Liberty. Field hockey is considered a girls sport.

"We are clearly picking him out because of his sex -- we don't deny that," said Andrew E. Faust, an attorney representing the Bethlehem School District. "You have to open your eyes and acknowledge that there are gross physical differences between girls and boys. If we allow boys to compete, they will dominate the positions for interscholastic competition. We are not willing to surrender girls field hockey positions to boys."

What that boils down to for John is the dashing of a dream.

He has hopes of playing in the state championships and eventually trying out for the Olympics, where the United States has a men's field hockey team. His family can't afford to send him to private school, so the closest alternative is 65 miles from dTC home at Drew University in Madison, N.J., where a group of former Olympians practices on Sundays.

"Basically what they're saying is it's OK to discriminate against guys, but it's not OK to discriminate against girls," said John, a wiry boy with a Pink Floyd T-shirt and longish, reddish hair, a hank of which is perpetually slipping down his forehead into his ++ eyes.

"It's not fair."

With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, John and his parents have filed suit against Bethlehem School District, charging that the athletic policy violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution, the Pennsylvania Equal Rights Amendment and Title IX, a law that ties federal funding of schools to equal opportunity for students.

The case has big implications for school sports in Pennsylvania, where the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association now has no rule on whether boys can play on girls' teams. There are no boys-only field hockey teams in the state, but several schools allow boys to play on girls' teams.

Courts in other states have sometimes sided with the boys and sometimes ruled against them, said Christina Rainville, an attorney with Schnader, Harrison, Segal & Lewis, who is representing John.

It is also an example of how efforts to end traditional discrimination against girls have some schools bending over so far backward that they are openly and admittedly discriminating against boys.

And the case has ruffled the otherwise unobtrusive life of the Williamses, a family that has lived in "Beth-lem" for more than three generations, much of that time in the small single-story white house around the corner from the car wash.

John's parents both work in industries that are traditionally geared toward one sex. His father, Wayne, is a steelworker at Bethlehem Steel; his mother, Sarah Anne, is a nurse who works nights and comes home just in time to take John and his 12-year-old brother to school.

"This is the first time we've been to court hopefully it's the last time," said Wayne Williams, who attended Liberty High School, as did his wife and two of John's grandparents.

"But people have been pretty good about supporting us," he added. "I work with a bunch of quote-unquote hairy-chested steelworkers, they have a really macho image. I thought they were gonna say, 'Oh, your son wants to be a girl' and all that junk. But, most of them say John should have a chance to play what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander."

An honor student and dedicated clarinet player, John started playing field hockey in middle school with the guys as a way of formalizing his street hockey skills. He tried out for the Liberty team in August and was picked to be starting goalie on the junior varsity team.

But after John attended 10 days of practice and picked up his uniform, school officials told him he was off the team. Another boy who also made the team switched to a private school, in part because Liberty wouldn't let him play field hockey.

"I would've even worn the kilt if they told me to and if I could get it on," said John, shrugging his lanky 5-foot-9-inch body. "But I was kind of glad goalies wear sweat pants and don't have to wear kilts."

Faust said Liberty officials were not acting out of concern for the girls' safety and had no complaints from parents or girls on the team.

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