Archive for May, 2012

The “Inescapable Problem”: Remaining Active in Sports After the Last Game

By Doug Abrams

Sooner or later, all youth league, high school, and collegiate athletes confront what writer James A. Michener called “the inescapable problem” – the need to readjust when their playing career ends.  The end comes sooner for some athletes than for others, but it comes — about 70% of youth leaguers quit playing by their early teen years, only a few high school players reach the top college ranks, and even fewer collegians ever reach the pros.   

The athlete may get cut from a higher-level team, suffer a serious injury, or graduate from school.  Other extracurricular pursuits may replace time spent playing, or family responsibilities may beckon as career obligations consume time once spent on play.  For players who continue in less formal community leagues into their twenties or thirties, physical skills diminish.

I often talk with my former youth hockey players about the “inescapable problem.”  Sometimes the conversations come years after the players graduated from high school, when they are in their thirties or forties and they tell me how much they still miss playing.  Many have not laced up their skates for years.

My former players’ ears sometimes perk up when I tell them that they can return to competitive hockey immediately if they really want to.  Without tryouts or windsprints, without having to shed the few extra pounds, and without seeking pointers from The Twilight Zone or Back to the Future.   I tell them that they can stay active by working with today’s kids as a youth league coach or official.

Time and Change

An old proverb advises that “all good things must come to an end.”  For most people who love playing in youth leagues or in high school or college, sports is a “good thing.”  When the cheering stops, some players move to new pursuits without looking backward. But other players find it difficult to let go because sports has become such a big part of who they are.

In his perceptive book, Sports in America (1976), Michener emphasized a person’s needs for continued physical exercise throughout adulthood, often in carryover sports such as swimming, jogging, aerobics, racquet sports, or in “over-40” or “over-50” leagues in a variety of games.  I too tell my players about the value of a healthy lifestyle rich in physical activity, but I also tell them something more.    

I tell them that if an athlete does not want to leave the sport, the last game does not necessarily have to be the “end.”  Indeed the athlete can view the last game as a new beginning in the sport, as I did when I turned to youth league coaching after my last collegiate contest.  The transition to coaching or officiating usually means enlisting in a local youth league, recreational or high school program, which adults can do regardless of whether their child participates.  Most adults devote some time to volunteer community service, and coaching or officiating for the younger generation is ideal for an athlete whose background and experience can help make a difference.  Officiating was never my cup of tea, but I coached youth hockey coach at all age levels for nearly 35 years after I played my last collegiate game, and I never felt that hockey had ended for me.

The transition from player to youth coach or official takes planning because time — a person’s most valuable commodity — is limited for most adults who also have obligations to family and employment.  Despite their best intentions, many adults simply cannot make the considerable time commitment needed to be a head coach or full-time official in youth leagues, particularly if their own child does not play on the team.  But many of these same adults can enlist as assistant coaches or part-time officials.  Leagues and teams can appreciate the services of a man or woman who candidly promises less-than-total availability, and then delivers.

Assistant coaches normally do not shoulder the heavy burdens of planning practices, arranging road trips, and maintaining direct relations with parents.  Depending on their background in the sport, a former player can sometimes volunteer as a specialty coach, such as a pitching coach in baseball or a goalie coach in hockey.  In some leagues, qualified officials are in such short supply that a limited schedule can also find a warm welcome. 

When an adult turns to youth coaching or officiating, the players come first.  As writer Thomas Wolfe said, “You Can’t Go Home Again.”  Coaches agree to teach from background and experience, not to try in vain to relive the “good ol’ days” vicariously through the kids.  The coaches had their day; today belongs to today’s kids.

 Conclusion:  “Can This Really Be the End?”

“Oh, momma, can this really be the end?”  

Bob Dylan asked this question in his hit song, “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.”  I tell my former players that when an athlete plays the last game and faces the “inescapable problem” of what to do next in sports, the answer to the question is really up to the athlete.  By sharing their background and experience in the game while setting the right example, youth coaches and officials can postpone the end of their sports careers for as long as they wish.

Come to think of it, the decision whether to begin coaching or officiating also reminds me of inspirational lines from “Forever Young,” another song by Dylan (who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President Obama earlier this week):

“May your hands always be busy/ May your feet always be swift/ May you have a strong foundation/ When the winds of change shift/. . . .  May you stay forever young.”


[Source: James A. Michener, Sports in America, ch. 9 (1976)]

Concussions Continued…Will You Let Your Kid Play Contact Sports?

As predicted a few weeks ago, sports parents are now beginning to have to confront this question: with all of the recent research about the long-term dangers of concussions ino playing contact sports, will you let your youngster play football…soccer…lacrosse…ice hockey…baseball?

I felt it was time to revisit this all-important topic since in recent weeks more and more well-respected football types are coming forward with their views. Example:

o Kurt Warner, former Super Bowl champ, has suggested he’s not sure he would let his son play football because of the concussion issue.

o Tom Brady, Sr. — Tom’s Dad – -says that in light of what he now knows about concussions, he’s not sure he would have let his kid play football.

o Bart Scott – current NFL linebacker —  says “I don’t want my son to play football I play football so that he won’t have to.”

You get the idea…

My brother, long-time pediatric neurologist Bob Wolff at Children’s Hospital in Boston, says he’s not at the point yet to ban kids from playing contact sports…but he’s headed in that direction. What Bob suggests is greater teaching of the proper techniques of how to tackle with one’s shoulder and not lead with the head or helmet….that kids need to be taught how to strengthen their neck muscles…and that there should be a reduction of full-contact drills during the course of the football season.

These suggestions are fairly easy to implement, and should be done, but of course, will not totally get rid of the concussion issue. Hence, there is this lingering concern about whether it’s even worth taking the risk.

Then, right on the horizon, is the issue of whether schools will start to insist that parents sign waivers that they won’t sue the coach or school district if their youngster is injured with a concussion. Insurance costs for football and ice hockey are already sky-high, so the liability question is one that is not going to go away.

But as one caller suggested today – and he said he was a pediatician – he had just seen a young patient who had become a swimmer in order to get away from contact sport and concussions. Sure enough, the young swimmer banged his head into another swimmer who happened to be in the same swim lane but going in the other direction. Yikes!

As mentioned, amateur sports are just getting more and more complicated.


The Power of “Thank You” (Part II)

By Doug Abrams

Three weeks ago (before spending two weeks with the Southhampton field hockey appeal), I had mixed feelings about discussing the topic of “thank you’s” in youth sports. I wondered whether most parents really needed a pep talk about why they should be sure to thank the men and women who coach their children.  But then I remembered my decade as president of a youth hockey program, when I had seen too many devoted coaches go unthanked by good parents who I knew were appreciative.  On balance, a gentle reminder seemed to be in order.      

Go figure.  I had mixed feelings, but of all the columns I have written on Rick Wolff’s blog in the past year or so, the “thank you” column drew the greatest response from my friends and former players, and even from people I have never met.  Reactions to the column reaffirm that writers cannot always predict what will strike a chord. 

The mother of a player I coached in the early 1970s emailed me within a day to say that “Thank-you’s are like smiles — you can never give too many!”
A player I coached at a summer hockey camp in the 1980s agreed that “you cannot say thank you too many times!”  Rick Wolff cut to the essence of the issue: “Too few parents ever understand that the vast majority of coaches are volunteers — and would love to get a pat on the back.”  

Perhaps the column made an impression because, amid the coarseness that marks so much of youth sports these days, many parents do want a more respectful sports environment for their children and their families.  And because expressions of gratitude still do work magic in and out of sports.

Products of Our Past

My parents taught that magic early, and my first professional mentor reinforced the lesson shortly after I graduated from law school 35 years ago.  My siblings and I learned to say thank-you when someone did us a good turn; in our house, thank-you’s soon became a race as we kids would remind our parents that we had beaten them to the punch by already saying it.    

In 1976, I began my legal career as law clerk to Judge Hugh R. Jones, whom the New York Times later called the “intellectual leader” of the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. Soon after Judge Jones died in 2001, I wrote a remembrance in the Albany Law Review.  When I read the remembrance again last month after ten years, I saw that I really wrote about the “power of thank you.”

I recalled Judge Jones’ uncommon courtesy, not only during my two-year clerkship, but also during the 25 years that I knew him.  “Above everything else,” I wrote, “a Hugh R. Jones clerkship taught that to be a good lawyer, one must first be a good person. Whenever someone walked into the Judge’s office while we clerks in the outer chambers were attending to other matters, his greeting gave no hint whether the visitor was the Chief Judge or the janitor who emptied the wastebaskets; Judge Jones gave everyone the same warm welcome. . . .  Even his most ordinary requests were punctuated with ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’”

Judge Jones’ most enduring lessons,” I concluded, “were unrelated to doctrine.  He taught us how to perceive law and its place in human experience. He taught us how to think and reason. Most important, he taught us how to live.”


* * * *

Judge Jones lettered in basketball and tennis at Hamilton College in the early 1930s.  He loved sports and understood teamwork in his personal and professional life, and his timeless lessons resonate in today’s youth sports.   I repeat what my column three weeks ago suggested to sports parents about recognizing their children’s coaches:  “Shaking hands and saying thank you takes very little effort, but recognizes a job well done.”   I won’t write about thank-you’s again, but reactions to Part I of this column show that the point was worth making.

Winning is Not the Pathway to Success? A New Approach from Canada

Something very curious is happening in the Land to the North.

Clearly Canadians are just as competitive as we are when it comes to excelling in sports. But very quietly, our friends are taking a different approach when it comes to developing young athletes in sports.

According to a recent account in the Globe & Mail, Sport Canada – which is the governing body for 56 national sports bodies – is adopting extensive Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) programs.

That translates into a real shift at the youth level in Canada where won/loss records are now going to be viewed as less important, team rosters can be shifted throughout the season, kids are encouraged to play a variety of sports, and so on. The idea is that Sport Canada wants to provide the best possible environment for each child to compete, and winning at all costs at the younger ages is not necessarily what’s best.

This sea change in youth sports will take some time to settle in, especially with strong traditional team sports like ice hockey, baseball, basketball, and so on. But Canadian authorities are buying into the philosophy that only by allowing a kid the chance to develop their passion for their sport AND to allow them to develop over the long run will they be able to reach full potential. They point to comparable programs in countries like New Zealand, Chile, and many others.

One of the main misconceptions, the LTAD supporters believe, is that overspecialization in one sport actually becomes detrimental in the long run. One Canadian study of 180 Olympians showed that they didn’t specialize in one sport until they were 14 or 15 – -not when they were 8 or 9, as too many parents would believe. The study also revealed that most of the Olympic athletes competed in the Games in a sport that they did not specialize in when they were 8 or 9.

Working from this new mindset of looking at the bigger picture, the Canadians are convinced that this is the way to go. In short, allow kids to have fun and chase their passions when they’re young…don’t specialize before 14….and then sit back and see what develops.

Y’know…this approach sure seems like a refreshing way of running youth sports.

The Amazing Case of Jabari Parker, the Nation’s Top Basketball Prospect

This week’s cover of Sports Illustrated boldly proclaims that 6’9″ junior Jabari Parker of Simeon Career Academy in Chicago is not only the nation’s  best prospect in hoops, bu that Parker is the best prospect in the game since LeBron James.

That’s a pretty strong claim.

So I called up the writer of the article – Jeff Benedict — who’s a good friend and an author of mine – and Jeff came on the radio show this AM to talk about this kid. And sure enough, Jeff verified that all the hype is legit, that there are some pro scouts who even say that Parker is more advanced at this age than James was as a senior in HS.

But beyond the basketball, what’s remarkable about Jabari is that he’s African-American and brought up as a Mormon. That, of course, is extremely rare. His Dad, former NBAer Sonny Parker, married a woman who is of Polynesian descent and who is Mormon. Jabara was raised as in that faith, and is quite dedicated to his beliefs.

In fact, as he turns 19, under Mormon faith, he’s supposed to volunteer to go on a two-year mission. But as Jeff Benedict pointed out, that’s not always necessary, as famed Mormon athletes Steve Young and Danny Ainge didn’t go on missions. Jabari will most likely finish HS next year, play a year of Div I college basketball, and then turn pro. He’ll probably postpone his mission until his active career is done.

But beyond that, this is a young man who is humble, polite, sincere, down-to-earth, and also a very good student. Jabari grew up in a tough part of Chicago, but he’s a living testatment to the time and care that his parents put into his total upbringing. Congratulations to him and his family. I only wish we had more stories like this one from the world of sports parenting.

Book Review: The Most Expensive Game in Town

One of the nice benefits of having been involved as an advocate in the world of sports parenting for more than two decades is that lots of publishers and authors send me their books to review.

Each year, I tend to accumulate a number of either just published books or galleys of books that are soon to be published. To that end, over the new few months, I will attempt to review as many of these books that I can, as I know how difficult it is for aspiring authors to get their books any notice from the media.

Let me start with Mark Hyman’s THE MOST EXPENSIVE GAME IN TOWN: The Rising Cost of Youth Sports and the Toll on Today’s Families. Mark is a top-rate investigative journalist, and in recent years, as he’s turned his focus to the world of sports parenting, he does a wonderful job in detailing the patterns of how our society has become so obsessed with their kids in athletics.

I recall first meeting Mark a few years ago when I believe he was working for BusinessWeek, and he had contacted me to interview me about the current issues in sports parenting. In any event, Mark clearly has great passion for this topic, and it shows in his writing.

THE MOST EXPENSIVE GAME IN TOWN is chock full of anecdotes, studies, and research into what has happened in recent years with sports parenting, and it’s clearly worth reading — especially for those parents who are just starting out with their little ones in sports.

However, for those of you who have youngsters already in the sports parenting pipeline,  there really isn’t anything new here that you probably haven’t already encountered. That is, you already know that travel sports are very expensive, that road tournaments can be very pricey, that corporate sponsors of Little League like Kellogg’s on ESPN do it because of the TV ratings involved, not because of altruistic reasons, that expensive private coaching and specialty camps have become the norm, and on and on.

Don’t get me wrong. Mark does an excellent job in providing this kind of overview, and his book presents all the facts.  I only wish that more sports parents took the time to read his book and many of the other similar sports parenting books that try to cover the same points.

The problem is – and this is very vexing for all of us who care about kids who play sports these days – very few sports parents, educators, coaches, or athletic administrators ever seem to dig into these books. The last book that was a true national best-seller about youth sports dates back to Bill Geist’s LITTLE LEAGUE CONFIDENTIAL, and that book first came out in the 1990s.

Bottom line: THE MOST EXPENSIVE GAME IN TOWN is a nicely-written and thoroughly well-researched book that will truly verify your concerns and worries that the cost of sports parenting has skyrocketed out of control.

Why Civil Rights Were at Stake in the Pilaro Field Hockey Case

By Doug Abrams

Fourteen-year-old Keeling Pilaro will play field hockey for Long Island’s Southhampton High School again next season after all.  On Tuesday morning, his continued participation was approved by a close vote of an appeals panel of Section 11, which supervises Suffolk County’s high school sports.  The ultimate issue was whether Title IX would permit him to play on the girls’ field hockey team because his high school does not field a boys’ team in that sport.  “Title IX,” of course, is Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the landmark congressional statute that prohibits gender discrimination in “any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

The Pilaro case attracted national, and indeed international, attention as a so-called “reverse discrimination” case, which saw a boy assert rights under a mandate that Congress designed to produce gender equity by overcoming barriers historically imposed against girls and women.  Gender-discrimination challenges by boys and men are actually quite common in American law, but these challenges raise eyebrows, even when (as often happens) the male challenger wins in the Supreme Court or the lower courts. 

In the Pilaro case, plenty of eyebrows were raised among both supporters and opponents of Keeling and his parents.  In Newsday and other interactive newspaper websites, opponents argued, among other things, that (1) the Pilaros should not have hired a lawyer, (2) the Pilaros should not have said that they would challenge an adverse Section 11 ruling in court, and (3) Keeling should choose a “boys’ sport” rather than “girls’ sport.”  According to two of the more than 200 readers who have weighed in on Newsday’s website alone, “It’s pathetic that he is not playing lacrosse instead of field hockey,” and “[H]ere is what it comes down to these days, ‘if my kid doesn’t get his way, we’ll just sue sue sue.’”   

Vindicating Civil Rights

Each of these three arguments misses the point. Title IX is a civil rights statute, enacted by Congress to eradicate gender discrimination in elementary, secondary and higher education.  Indeed, Congress expressly patterned Title IX after Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination for race, color, or national origin in “any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” 

The United States was built on challenges asserted by persons who believed that official action violated civil rights granted to them by statute or the Constitution.  And yes, lawyers typically represent these challengers as they seek vindication before administrative agencies and courts.  Sometimes challengers win and sometimes they lose, but seeking to vindicate one’s civil rights under law is as American as apple pie. 

Field hockey is only a game, of course, and one youngster’s participation or non-participation at one Long Island high school may seem like no big deal in the grand scheme of things.  Surely the Pilaro case did not concern world peace, nuclear disarmament, or any of the other momentous public issues that concern us these days.  But to a 13-year-old, playing a chosen sport is a big deal.  The Pilaro case’s outcome was a big deal because Congress and the U.S. Department of Education have rightfully made civil rights challenges under Title IX — by individual women and men alike — a big deal for the past four decades.

One person’s solitary effort to secure a civil rights law’s protection may seem like small potatoes, but potatoes tend to appear larger when they are your potatoes.  I recall Wisconsin v. Yoder, a 1972 case brought by a group of Amish parents who believed that application of the state’s compulsory education act to their older teens violated their First Amendment rights to free exercise of their religion.  The state act required parents to send their children to public school until the age of 16 (unless they attended private school or were home schooled), but the Amish parents asserted that their religious beliefs compelled an end to formal schooling at 14.  The parents took the case all the way to the Supreme Court – and they won.  

What was at stake in the Yoder case?  The Supreme Court victory overturned the fine that state authorities had imposed on each parent for violating the compulsory education act.  The fines amounted to five dollars each.

Choose Another Sport?

It is no answer to say that Keeling Pilaro could choose another sport.  Of course he could, but imposing that choice does not answer the question whether Title IX’s civil rights mandate entitles him to play field hockey.  A person denied civil rights can usually find a less palatable alternative, but resolution of civil rights guarantees must come first.

When Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955, for example, she had alternatives.  She could have walked to work, driven to work, asked a friend to drive her, or taken a taxi.  Or she could have stayed home altogether.  But with the help of lawyers, she challenged discrimination and asserted her civil rights as she saw them.  We know the rest of the story as the Civil Rights Movement moved into high gear.

Nor is it an answer to dismiss field hockey a “girls sport.”  In most of the rest of the world (including Ireland, where Keeling spent his early years and learned to play), field hockey is a sport for males and females alike in local, regional and high level national competition.  Indeed, men’s field hockey worldwide is considerably older than women’s field hockey.  

Field hockey evolved as a female sport in the United States partly because of the sort of gender discrimination that Title IX seeks to combat.  When I was in high school in the late 1960s, field hockey was one of the few socially acceptable sports for the relatively few girls who chose to play interscholastic sports at all.  Without artificial turf that came only later, field hockey was a rather slow game, played on grass that was often too long and usually had the rough surfaces that characterize natural lawns.  Players did not get too dirty, and the players typically wore skirts that made them look like — well — girls.


In fact, girls in the United States often participate on boys athletic teams and (less frequently) boys participate on girls teams in sports not classified as contact or collision sports.  I found the Readers’ Comments to Newsday’s coverage of the Pilaro case to be tough reading because many missed points such as this, but also because so many comments descended into the snide innuendo that passes for public discussion whenever a newspaper covers a controversial matter these days and invites readers’ responses from the anonymity of the keyboard.  I can only imagine the content of the comments that did not pass’s Terms of Service.

As I wrote in last week’s column , Title IX has changed America for the better by helping to bring girls and women closer to the mainstream of our national life.  I am glad that the Pilaros stood up for their son in this case, however, and equally glad that they won before the Section 11 appeals panel.  I felt that fairness was on the Pilaros’ side, and that they stood an excellent chance on court review of an adverse decision.  As I said last week, Keeling “plays clean; fits in well with his coaches and teammates; holds the support of his school’s administration; and poses no safety risk to girls because, at 4’8” and 86 pounds, he is smaller than many of them.” 

Unless the safety factor changes in future years, Keeling Pilaro now gets to play his sport as girls strive to develop their own skills to meet the competition. This equation is why the United States has civil rights laws, and why — win or lose — these laws deserve robust enforcement.

Perhaps the hardest question that today’s sports parent have to confront….

I felt the time had come this AM – on Mother’s Day no less– to ask the question that Moms and Dads everywhere have to confront these days: whether it’s okay to let their youngsters play contact sports, like football, soccer, ice hockey, lax, and so on — when it’s clear that there’s real growing concern about the long-term effects on concussions.

Curiously, the phone lines were slow to light up. But after a few minutes, the calls came pouring in. Opinions, not surprisingly, ranged from “You can’t lead your life being nervous and worried about what might happen” to “I got hit over the head by an opponent with a hockey stick, and I was in a coma for two days and I still have lingering issues.”

In truth, I just don’t know what parents can say, or should say, these days. A generation ago, Moms and Dads were worried about young HS football players having serious knee injuries and many subtly pushed their boys to play a “safer” sport like soccer. Now, of course, anyone who has seen a HS soccer game knows how dangerous that sport can be, including knee injuries and concussions from headers.

The real problem, of course, is that no one knows how to prevent concussions. With football, there’s a new helmet called the Xenith which supposedly cuts down on concussions much more effectively the traditional Riddell model. But the NFL has a long-term contract with Riddell, which they aren’t eager to break. Meanwhile, according to media reports, more than 100 current NFLer’s now wear the Xenith. If I had a son playing football, I sure would check out the Xenith model.

And of course, more and more states are mandating that HS athletes undergo an imPact neurological test for all kids. That’s a good idea, but again, this kind of test doesn’t really prevent any concussions.

So what to do? I just don’t know. The best approach — at least for now — is to warn your child if their head gets banged in a a game or practice to tell the coach and to come out of the game immediately. That not be what kids (or coaches) want to hear, but as an adult and caring parent, it’s the right thing to do.


Title IX and the “Level Playing Field”

By Doug Abrams

Rick Wolff and I had another stimulating conversation on “The Sports Edge” last Sunday morning, this time about Title IX’s dramatic effect on the lives of boys and girls in sports.  Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, of course, is the landmark congressional legislation that prohibits gender discrimination in “any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”  The prohibition reaches public school districts and the governing bodies that administer interscholastic sports.

The impetus for Sunday morning’s Title IX conversation concerned a tentative decision to deny ninth-grader Keeling Pilaro’s request to continue playing on the girls’ field hockey team at Southampton High School, which does not field a boys’ field hockey team.  By all media accounts, the 13-year-old Keeling plays clean; fits in well with his coaches and teammates; holds the support of his school’s administration; and poses no safety risk to girls because, at 4’8” and 86 pounds, he is smaller than many or most of them.  According to Section 11 (which supervises Suffolk County’s high school sports), Keeling may not play next season because he has become too talented in the two years that he has already played on the high school team with the Section’s permission, and without incident.

“Not a Denials Committee”

The Suffolk County Title IX dispute reminds me of a story that makes the rounds here at the University of Missouri Law School.  A few years ago, one of my colleagues took a special approach to his role as chair of the Admissions Committee, the four-member faculty group that determines which applicants are admitted and which ones are denied.  Like other law schools of our caliber, we have a selective admissions process, with less than half the applicants gaining admission.  Denials remain unpleasant because they affect people’s lives, but denials are inevitable in any academic admissions process.  In close cases, however, my faculty colleague always gave the applicant the benefit of the doubt because, he said, “We are the Admissions Committee, not the Denials Committee.”

School administrators and league officials should take a similar approach when they affect the lives of children in sports.  These authorities should consider themselves sports providers, not sports deniers.  

With the demise of choose-up sandlot-style play in the past generation or so, boys and girls today usually face the prospect of either playing adult-organized sports or playing no sports at all.  It is no answer to say that a player like Keeling Pilaro can simply try to “find another sport.”  Participation in youth sports is meant to be fun and fulfilling, an avocation and not a vocation.  The real question is whether the player gets to compete in the sport that engages his or her passions, and not whether the player might search for some other sport.  

Title IX helped remake America for the better, but adults administering high school sports should not exclude a student from participation except for solid reasons, when no alternative appears.  Reasons for exclusion may exist, for example, when a team’s roster cannot accommodate all players who try out, when a player lacks the requisite skills, or when a player poses a chronic discipline problem.  Under Title IX and the federal Constitution’s equal-protection law, however, talent and hard work should tip the scales in favor of a boy who plays by the rules and raises no plausible claim of physical danger to girls, but who has no other high school opportunity to pursue his game. 

[I had planned to continue last week’s column with “The Power of Thank-You — Part II” this week, but I think that the field hockey case calls for timely discussion.  Unless something else develops, I will present “Part II” next week.]

“You can’t play any more because you’re too good” – A Very Strange Case of Title IX

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the passage of Title IX, the wonderful federal law that mandates equal play for boys and girls in HS and college sports. By all measures, this has been a law which has brought only good things to sports.

But that being said, every so often a quirky situation develops and it leaves everybody scratching their head. Here’s the latest controversy involving Title IX:

An 8th grade boy named Keeling Pilaro who grew up in Ireland is challenging a New York State HS athletic board which says, in effect, that he can no longer play on the Southampton HS field hockey team because he made the All-Conference team last fall.

A few facts you should know. In most countries around the world, field hockey – which is traditionally a girls’ sports in the US – is played by boys and men. Pilaro grew up playing field hockey in Ireland, and when he moved to the US, he discovered that the only way to keep playing his sport is by being on the HS girls’ team.

Under Title IX, if there is no comparable sport (e.g girls’ basketball =  boys’ basketball), then the boy has a right to play on the girls’ team, if he can make the team.

Pilaro stands all of 4’8″ tall and weighs about 100 pounds. He is not a physical threat to the girls. By all accounts he’s a talented and clean player.

Last fall Pilaro was one of the league’s top scorers, and was named to the All-Conference team.

Section XI – the ruling body for Long Island – has ruled that Pilaro was such a good player that he can no longer play for Southampton HS.

Law professor Doug Abrams came on my radio show this past weekend to go over all the angles on this case, and I think it’s fair to say that he concluded that if Section XI continues to hold that Pilaro can not play, then Pilaro would have a pretty good case for discrimination.

There are all sorts of inequities here in a sitaution which, ironically, is supposed to be about equality. For example, in Massachusetts, boys are routinely allowed to play field hockey on girls’ team under the protection of Title IX and have done for years. And there are plenty of cases where girls have played on boys’ teams (such as wrestling, football, ice hockey, and so on).

So why is Section XI picking on this kid? And what kind of rationale is being used when you rule that a kid who has worked hard at his sport has now become disqualified because he’s become too good?

I’m sure there are lots of legal explanations here, but from my perspective, this just doesn’t make any sense.