Ruling on Girls in Football Too Late for Hopeful

Times Staff Writer

A 15-year-old La Mesa girl denied the right to play tackle football for Helix High School should be allowed to join boys on the gridiron, according to an advisory ruling by the state legislative counsel.

Karen Davis, who fought unsuccessfully in the spring for the chance to try out for the school’s junior varsity squad, must be permitted to play football with boys “if no equivalent opportunity for females exists,” said the opinion, written by Deputy Legislative Counsel Jana T. Whitgrove.

The ruling, requested by Assemblyman Larry Stirling (R-San Diego), is advisory only. But Grossmont Union High School District trustees, who voted 4-1 in May to reject the 5-foot-11, 155-pound girl’s bid for a spot on the team, say they are taking the ruling seriously and will reconsider their action within a few weeks.

“I expect the board will decide that its decision was based on bad legal information, and that it’s time we changed our policy regarding the rights of girls to play contact sports,” said trustees’ President Betty Pengelley, the only woman on the board and the only member to initially side with Davis.

Despite the favorable opinion, Karen, a junior this fall, said she has “pretty much given up” her dreams of donning pads and helmet and playing defensive tackle at Helix High.


“When they told me ‘no’ last spring, I got pretty discouraged and upset so I didn’t work out all summer,” Karen said in an interview Tuesday. “Besides, the guys have been practicing together for weeks, and I could never make it now.”

And how about next year?

“Next year, I’ll be a senior, and I’d have to play varsity. But there’s no way I’d have enough experience to do that, so I’m kind of stuck. Instead, the coach is going to let me help out with sports medicine, taping the guys and that sort of thing,” she said.

Although disappointed, Karen said the ruling made her feel “sorta vindicated” and “super happy for the next girl who comes along and tries to play.” She called the legal opinion--and the policy change she expects the board will approve--"a victory for all women who are tired of being discriminated against.”

Karen’s quest for gridiron equality began in May when her plans to join the football team were tackled by a district policy preventing girls from participating in certain contact sports--football, boxing and wrestling.

Arguing that she is bigger and stronger than many boys her age, Karen charged that the policy represents “blatant discrimination” and should be changed. Only Pengelley agreed; the other board members said they believe Karen and other girls have no place on a football field because they face a greater risk of injury than boys.

Denied the right to play what she describes as “the greatest sport there is and the only one I like,” Karen vowed to sue the district. But those plans fell through.

“The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) was too busy for me, and the costs were too high,” Karen explained. “Also, we realized that I’d be out of school and unable to play by the time the case was over.”

So Karen, who hopes to someday own a professional football team, decided to “put the thing behind me” and enjoy the sport from the sidelines. Then came the legislative counsel’s ruling, which was a total surprise to the young athlete.

“I had no idea someone was looking into my case,” Karen said. “Maybe if I’d known I would have practiced and tried out.”

The legal opinion, dated Aug. 28, cites the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as well as the state educational code in finding that “the governing board of a high school district may not validly prohibit a female student from participating in the district’s football program if no equivalent opportunity for females exists.”

Pengelley was not surprised. “I suspected this day would come. I’m just glad it didn’t take a lawsuit by Karen or another girl to prompt us to reconsider the policy,” she said.

Pengelley predicted the board would reverse itself and open contact sports to girls who can make the teams. But another trustee, Fred Andrews, said that the ruling had not changed his mind, and that he would again vote to bar girls from the district’s football program.

“The legislative counsel has been wrong before, and I’m not so sure we wouldn’t win in court,” Andrews said. “Football is very damaging to everyone’s health, and because of their physiology, girls simply stand a better chance of being hurt.”

Meanwhile, Karen is learning how to treat sports injuries and planning to cheer for her boyfriend, Pat Reynolds, when he and his Hoover High School teammates play a pre-season scrimmage Friday. The avid sports fan also plans to write a book about her battle over the right to play football.

“I’ve got a lot of other things going, and at least I’m still involved with the team,” Karen said.

And yet, when she walked by the field the other day and saw her male buddies in uniform running, blocking and tackling in preparation for a big game this weekend, “I wished I could be out there,” she said.