“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.