Who gets to play? Coed teen softball engenders debate


August 02, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

You're 14 years old and you're a boy and you want to play baseball, but there's no league available in your neighborhood. So you sign up for softball. Yeah, it's girls' softball, but it's the only game in town and the coach tells you it's not really girls' softball, it's anybody's softball, according to the rules.

Is this wrong?

You're 14 years old and you're a girl and you like baseball, but you don't want to play baseball with the boys because you want to play a game in which you can excel. So you sign up for softball. You think it's girls' softball. And you win a lot of games and you get to the county championships and you come up against a team with four boys, one of them 5 feet 9, and you don't want to play this team because the coach says you could get hurt and, besides, whatever happened to a level playing field?

Is this wrong?

That's what makes the recent Baltimore County softball championships for ages 13-14 so interesting. Three all-girls teams forfeited rather than play Turners Station, which had four boys on the team. It's not clear who's wrong or if anyone is wrong or if everyone is wrong.

I do know that, in the heat of the moment, the real issues were obscured. The coach of the Turners Station team, which is all black, said that race was central to the decision not to play her kids. That was a disservice to the youngsters, who will learn all too many lessons in their lives about racism. This case is obviously an example of gender politics, another hot topic, and to suggest that racism is at work is to suggest to young blacks that race is always the defining issue.

On the other hand, I have a problem with the forfeiting coaches who cited safety as the overriding concern. Would they have forfeited on those grounds if there were four extremely large, extremely strong girls on the other team, girls of equal size and strength of any boy of the same age? My guess is the games would have been played. I know when I played Little League baseball there were boys much larger and stronger, and no one suggested that I was in any way endangered.

The real issue is clear: Should the teen-age boys be allowed to play in what is traditionally a girls' league?

The rules, as currently constituted, say they can. The rule was put in place in Baltimore County in 1977 in response to girls wishing to play on all-boys baseball teams. If girls can play on all-boys teams -- and who's to say they shouldn't if they're able to compete? -- why shouldn't a boy be able to play on all-girls teams? That's only fair, isn't it? The idea is to be gender-neutral, right?

But it isn't as easy as that. We have coed teams -- and should have more -- for our youngest people in soccer and T-ball and other sports, because, up to a certain age, there are not significant differences between the sexes in strength and size. But, around puberty, that changes. Generally, a 14-year-old boy will be faster, stronger and bigger than a 14-year-old girl. To match them in many sports is unfair, unless the girl happens to be exceptional. Some very unexceptional boys could probably dominate a girls' 13-14 softball league or a junior high school lacrosse team.

The debate over gender neutrality is being played out elsewhere, of course. The Senate recently passed a bill that would allow female pilots to fly combat missions. On "Nightline" the other night, there was a full-blown discussion of whether women should fight alongside men in the trenches. Why should women who are qualified to fight and who want to fight be excluded because of their gender?

There was the similar argument made over the young woman who played baseball at St. Mary's College a few years back. She played, but over some loud objections, and final ly quit because the hassle factor overrode her enjoyment of the game.

If it's right for her to play college baseball with boys, why isn't it right for the four boys to play youth softball with girls? There is an answer to the question. It's because this girls' league was formed so that girls who might be unable to compete equally with boys could have a place to play. The clear solution is that there should be a league in Turners Station -- in softball or baseball -- where the boys would have an opportunity to play.

It's too bad when any kid who wants to join a league finds none available, but it's not the only issue; otherwise, why couldn't a boy cut from his high school basketball team be allowed to try out for the girls' team? What if a team of 10 boys were to form and ride roughshod through the softball tournament? Would that be fair? The fair thing is for the girls to have their own place to shine.

The upshot of this dispute was that there was no tournament. For the boys and girls who got their trophies, it was an empty victory. For the girls who were unable to play, there was simply disappointment. I wish the teams had played and then lobbied to change the rules. Mostly, I wish the girls had played the boys and they'd won. This way, everyone lost.

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