NEWTON — It’s a time-honored tradition across Massachusetts: the annual high school girls’ football game known as powderpuff.
But this week, the principal of Newton South High School canceled the popular fall event, citing a spate of injuries, concerns over sexism, and a class rivalry taken too far.
In a show of solidarity against the cancellation, many students wore the school colors Thursday, some wearing their jerseys from last year’s game.
“It’s a rite of passage for juniors and seniors,” said Lucy Holmes, a senior. “It’s very disheartening,” she said of the cancellation.
The girls’ flag football game is played the day before Thanksgiving, fresh off the pep rally for the boys’ game the next day. In a reversal that strikes some as sexist, others as harmless fun, the boys often dress up as cheerleaders for the game.
Many female students, particularly athletes like Holmes, a soccer player, seemed offended by the idea that the powderpuff game was sexist or demeaning. “Powderpuff is a celebration of women’s sports,” she said.
While the game is mostly about bragging rights, some teams practice for weeks, and competition can be fierce.
“Competition takes over, especially when there are athletes involved,” said Eric Scott, athletic director at Medfield High School, who recalled powderpuff games in Ashland, where he worked previously. “The purpose is to have fun, but it can get rough.”
That can lead to injuries, one of the reasons Newton South principal Joel Stembridge cited for canceling the game.
In a letter sent to parents Wednesday, he said injuries had occurred each of the past four years.
“Last year alone, there were three concussions and one serious knee injury,” he wrote. “A couple of years ago there were broken bones.”
Beyond the injuries, he said, the event had become divisive, driving a wedge between juniors and seniors, leaving some students feeling excluded. Before the game, groups of students would chant slogans in the halls, which some students found intimidating.
While much of the taunting was good-natured, some of it crossed the line, he said. “Adults spent a lot of time putting things back together, and I felt we could do better.”
Stembridge said many parents have written him to express their support.
At other schools, some officials echoed Stembridge’s concerns about injuries, noting that many of the girls who participate have little experience playing football.
“There are some big-time safety concerns,” said Ryan Donahue, athletic director at Stoughton High School, which plays rival Canton in a powderpuff game each fall. “It’s flag football, but it can get physical.”
James Thomas, who runs flag football leagues in the Boston area, said injury concerns can be minimized if proper rules are followed.
“These games are meant to be played with no contact,” he said. “If they are just playing backyard football, with no rhyme or reason, of course there are going to be injuries.”
Thomas said flag football is a girl’s varsity sport in three states, and is widely played at the college intramural level.
In Wellesley, powderpuff games used to be unsupervised and often involved drinking and fights. But in recent years, police have coached the girls in the weeks leading up to the game against Needham, making for a more organized event.
“We’ve had nothing but good feedback,” said Marie Cleary, a Wellesley police spokeswoman.
At Newton South, many students took news of the cancelation hard. Emily Chang, 15, saw the event as a unifying force at the school, something to rally around. “We just see it as fun,” she said. “Adults may see it differently.”
Alex Christensen, 15, said she hadn’t heard of people being pressured to play, and her friend Hadas Nahar said the whole school looked forward to the game. “It’s the one day South gets spirited,” she said.
The boys seemed to share in the disappointment. Andy Salend, 16, said all sports carry an injury risk, and students were well aware of the event’s sexist overtones.
“Everybody’s in on the joke,” he said.
Even in cancellation, the game was a rallying force, he said. “It was cool to see everyone band together to try and save it,” he said.