Youth Sports Mess

July 31, 1991

It is sad how adults keep messing up youth sports. This time the game is slow-pitch softball for girls 13 and 14 years old in Baltimore County. Managers of three all-girl teams refused to play for a county championship with a fourth "all-girl" team -- that includes four boys.

"Safety for our girls" is why coaches from Parkville, Lutherville-Timonium and Catonsville forfeited their teams' tournament games against Turners Station, the team with boys. Those boys were apt to be stronger and thus a danger to the girls, the coaches reasoned. "Racism" was an unfortunate reply from the Turners Station manager and coach, whose all-black team was the tourney's only minority contestant. A better response would have been that the boys played all season, nobody was hurt and no one protested.

Except for vague "safety" reasons, recreation and parks department rules don't prohibit boys from playing on girls teams or vice versa. Charles L. Fisher, the county's deputy director of recreation and parks, points out that the policy was born in 1977 of earlier U.S. legislation requiring equal opportunities for male and female athletes -- law that has been a bonanza for girls of all ages.

To that end, it's not uncommon in many communities for children -- especially those in "clinic" or instructional leagues -- to learn and play on teams that include boys and girls. At puberty, however, it's obvious to parents and most experienced coaches that many boys grow stronger and generally more aggressive. And it's just as obvious that with only an occasional exception, competitive boys and girls both prefer to compete with their own gender. But it is not common for one team in a league sport like girls softball to have nearly a majority of its playing members of the opposite gender.

These Baltimore County players and those next year -- let's remember, the kids are the ones who are really important -- can benefit from several things, now that this season has ended so dismally:

* First, a clearly stated policy on team make-up, allowing for some gender exceptions, that is clearly stated when teams are formed, not discovered at tournament time. Mr. Fisher guarantees a policy review before next season.

* Recreation councils should look into co-ed teams for kids. Adult co-ed softball leagues abound, with special rules addressing the mix of genders.

* Stop making pop-off accusations of racism. That's a cop-out in this case, because the 13-14 girls softball ranks countywide exclude neither minority players nor teams. Through sports, children learn not only athletic skills, but other lessons that serve a lifetime. Racism shouldn't be one of them.

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