A 15-year-old La Mesa girl’s bid to play football on the Helix High School junior varsity team was rejected Thursday by the Grossmont Union High School District Board of Trustees.
On a 4-1 vote, the board refused to change a district policy that prevents girls from participating in certain contact sports, telling sophomore Karen Davis that football is a dangerous game and that the risk of injury is too great to allow her to play.
“I think there is a disparity between the strength of boys and girls at this age, and I am very concerned about the potential for injury,” said Trustee Ken Whitcomb, a former football coach. “Girls are more likely to get hurt. I don’t believe they belong on the football field with boys.”
Karen, who has argued that, at 5 feet, 11 inches tall and weighing 155 pounds, she is bigger and stronger than many boys who play on the junior varsity team, burst into tears after the vote and said she was a victim of “blatant discrimination.”
After the meeting, Karen said she intends to take the district to court and “fight this as long and as far as I have to.” Karen’s mother, Marleen Davis, said she is confident her daughter will win a legal challenge and plans to begin hunting for an attorney immediately.
Only one trustee, Board President Betty Pengelley, sided with Karen on the issue. Pengelley, the only woman on the board, said that although she believes it is “very unwise” for girls to play tackle football, her “feminist instincts” tell her that “girls, like boys, should be permitted to attempt whatever they wish to.”
“Football is a dangerous, rough game,” said Pengelley, who played sandlot football as a youth, “but I’m pretty well convinced that if there are provisions to protect the boys from injury, to make the game as safe as possible, then those provisions would protect girls as well.”
Pengelley’s colleagues disagreed, however. They noted that allowing a junior to play on the junior varsity team would go against the school’s “athletic philosophy,” which encourages first-year players who are juniors or seniors to make the varsity team or not play at all.
“If we let Karen play on the junior varsity team next fall, when she will be a junior, it would disrupt that philosophy,” Whitcomb said. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that.”
In addition, Whitcomb has argued that a girl’s presence on the football squad would pressure male competitors to “ease up, not play as hard as they should.” Or, he said, “they’d gang up on her and tear her up. Neither is fair to her or the boys.”
Several members also have expressed fears about the district’s liability should Karen be seriously injured on the field. But Marleen Davis says that argument is a smokescreen, because Karen, like other team members, would presumably be required to sign a waiver releasing the district from any such liability.
“Obviously, these people simply aren’t ready for women in a lot of fields,” Marleen Davis said. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s total discrimination. I raised my children to be independent, and if Karen wants to challenge the district on this, I’ll back her all the way.”
Under the board policy, girls are prohibited from participating in contact sports--football, wrestling and boxing. District officials say the policy is legal under Title IX, the federal law passed in 1972 that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex by schools that receive federal funds.
But an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in San Diego said the district still could be in trouble.
“If this is the only chance she has to play organized tackle football, and if she can make the team under some objective criteria, then there is no legal reason that she should be denied the right to participate,” attorney Greg Marshall said.
Karen asked the ACLU to take her case, but the organization refused. Marshall said a shortage of available attorneys and the fact that the ACLU is involved in a similar suit involving the right of boys to play softball accounts for that decision.
Karen, an avid football fan who has thrown the discus for the track team, said she realizes the risks of the game and is willing to face them.
“I may be a girl, but there a lot of boys a lot more wimpy than I am who are allowed to play football, and the board knows it,” said Karen, who hopes to play left tackle on the defensive line. “They just don’t want me out there. They won’t even give me a chance.”
Karen is not the first San Diego County girl to attempt to join her male peers on the gridiron. In 1980, Mary Ellen Wiley landed a position as backup punter on the Coronado High School football squad. She punted once in a game.