In most states, when it comes to girls and boys competing in high school sports, never the twain shall meet.
But that is not the case in Massachusetts, ironically because of a state law designed to accomplish in its own way the same goal of Title IX: End gender discrimination in sports and provide a level playing field for girls.
In 1976, Massachusetts passed the Equal Rights Amendment to the state constitution. Three years later — acting on a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union — the state Supreme Judicial Court cited the amendment in declaring that boys could not be prohibited from playing on girls’ teams when a school does not offer a team for boys in the same sport.
“We’ve never agreed with the ruling. We fought it all the way up to the state supreme court, and we’ve gone out of our way to try and mitigate the effects of it,” said Paul Wetzel, spokesman for the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, the agency that administers school sports.
The SJC ruling has since been challenged several times, but never overturned.
Girls have long competed with boys in sports such as field hockey, swimming, volleyball, and gymnastics, and lately girls have started popping up on boys’ wrestling teams, prompting the establishment of girls’ wrestling programs at some schools. This winter, the first MIAA-sanctioned girls wrestling championship will be held.
Nowhere has the interaction been thornier than in field hockey, where court rulings, proposed rule changes, and concerns for player safety have dominated the discussion.
The number of boys competing statewide has hovered between 15 and 35 per year in the past decade, according to the MIAA, but some of the boys were dominant, game-changing players.
Special rules that would have limited the participation of boys were approved by the MIAA field hockey committee but voted down by the agency’s executive board in June 2011.
In September 2012, a complaint was filed with the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which is responsible for overseeing Title IX. The complaint, filed by parties that the Boston branch of the Office for Civil Rights declined to identify, charged that the MIAA was discriminating against girls by allowing boys to take slots on teams that would have gone to girls who were subsequently cut from those teams.
Wetzel said lawyers for the MIAA and federal officials have been negotiating in an effort to resolve the complaint.
“Our position is basically that MIAA rules don’t dictate who gets to play,” Wetzel said. “We leave that decision to the district, the school, and the coach.”
Two women from different eras disagree when it comes to the presence of boys in the sport they both love. Northeastern field hockey coach Cheryl Murtagh played field hockey at Bishop Fenwick in Peabody in the mid-1970s and went on to become an All-American at the University of New Hampshire. Jaclyn Torres was an All-Scholastic field hockey player at Andover High who is beginning her college career at Brown this fall.
Torres said she did not have a problem competing against boys. In her sophomore year, Algonquin Regional, based in Northborough, was playing an undefeated South Hadley team in the state semifinal. Two of South Hadley’s best players were boys: Ben Menard, the leading scorer in Western Massachusetts that year, and his brother Chris.
Algonquin won the game, but Andover beat Algonquin and captured the 2010 state title. Torres said she would have welcomed the chance to compete against the Menard brothers.
“It would have been cool to have had the opportunity to play against them,” said Torres, who said she thinks the presence of boys on a team can spur female teammates to greater heights.
“I think it could be a positive . . . they can push the girls to work even harder,” she said. “They can help a team to play tougher.”
Torres said girls with speed and strong stick skills could easily turn the tables on bigger, stronger boys.
But Ben Menard also was involved in an incident in the 2010 Western Massachusetts final against Longmeadow that resulted in injury to a female goalie, and there have been other examples of where physical play or the speed and power of a boy’s shot have caused problems.
Murtagh is a product of a time when there were far fewer opportunities for girls, and she is loath to see boys take slots that might have gone to girls who were instead cut from a team and never had the chance to play.
She also worries about the physical aspect and the possibility of injury.
“I worry about injuries because of how hard [the boys] hit the ball,” said Murtagh. “There’s a lot more physical play where boys are involved.”