Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Connecticut Boy Calls State Field Hockey Policy Into Question

The Hartford Courant recently profiled a middle school field hockey player in Avon, Connecticut, named Blake Armistead. Though he has been allowed to play on the girls' team in middle school, the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference does not allow boys to play on high school teams. So Blake, who learned the sport in his native Australia, a country where many boys and men play field hockey, is going to have to give it up. The CIAC justifies the policy with arguments about gender equity; if its rules allowed Blake to play, boys would take away opportunities for girls, who are already underrepresented. Others quoted in the article question the safety of allowing boys and girls to play together.

The legal status of policies excluding boys from girls' sport has been covered in prior posts (see here and here). It would likely be upheld under Title IX's regulations governing separate teams, but Title IX is not the only source of nondiscrimination law applicable to this situation. In 1979, the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts, for example, struck down a similar exclusionary policy for violating the state constitution's equal protection clause. The court's analysis addressed many of the same objections raised in Blake's case. The court was not persuaded by arguments about safety, because a policy excluding boys for safety reasons is based on generalizations about boys, and is not narrowly tailored to address safety concerns. Some boys are large and may pose a safety threat, but then again, so are some girls. Sex is not a perfect proxy for size; if you want to exclude people whose size poses a safety risk, exclude people based on size, not sex (see also a related prior post here).

The court in Massachusetts also rejected the argument that the policy was justified to preserve athletic opportunities for girls. Schools and conferences can figure out for themselves how to avoid discriminating against male field hockey players on the basis of their sex, and simultaneously offer balanced athletic opportunities for girls and boys. For example, if so many boys wanted to play field hockey that girls are losing out, the appropriate response is to add or reallocate athletic opportunities so that there are enough opportunities in field hockey to accommodate both sexes.

Interestingly, the Hartford Courant article points out that in Massachusetts, the number of boys playing field hockey is extremely low: 26 out of ~8000 players. Perhaps due to the low numbers, or perhaps because people have gotten used to it, the presence of male field hockey players is not very controversial any more. The article does not say whether Blake and family plan to challenge the CIAC's policy, but if they did, it would be interesting to see whether the reasoning of the Massachusetts court, or the experience of the CIAC's Massachusetts counterpart over the last 30 years, holds any sway.