A one-hour conference call produced healthy dialogue, but no decision, between the MIAA’s Volleyball Committee and the association’s Blue Ribbon Committee Thursday morning regarding a potential rule change that would allow boys playing on girls’ teams in the fall season to attack and block on the front row.
The two sides agreed that more discussion is necessary, and thus, if there are changes to Rules 83.5.1 or 83.5.2, they will not be implemented until 2021.
“We all recognize we are in a challenging position related to this issue and we all want what is best for our student-athletes,” Milford athletic director Peter Boucher, a member of the volleyball committee.
In the MIAA Handbook, Rules 83.5.1 and 83.5.2 state that a boy playing on a girls’ team (only if the school does not field a boys’ program) can not play the ball in front of the 10-foot line, nor participate in an attempted block. The current rule has been in place since 2007 to reduce injuries to girls caused by boys’ attacks — the same argument voiced by the Volleyball Committee focusing on safety to keep the status quo.
The Blue Ribbon Committee argued the rule’s wording needs to be changed to make it gender-neutral. They cited the need to take into consideration transgender and non-binary student athletes based on Title IX regulations and Massachusetts law. In a ruling released Thursday that may impact eligibility in the future, the US Education Department determined that Connecticut’s policy allowing transgender girls to compete as girls in high school sports violate the civil rights of athletes who have always identified as female.
The defining difference between girls’ and boys’ volleyball is the height of the net, with 7 feet, 4 ¼ inches for girls and 7-11⅝ inches for boys. Those heights, noted Carole Burke, a 45-year official who is a rules interpreter for the volleyball committee, are recognized globally to account for the physiological differences between males and females.
An average male attack is 40-50 miles per hour with a jump serve approaching 80 mph. A typical female attack is about 30-40 mph and their jump serves are about 50 mph.
“It must be considered that the 7.5 inches of a lower net directly affects the downward trajectory of an attacked ball," said Burke, who helped write the current rule. “And, that a male athlete, jumps on average four inches higher than a female athlete, together with the innate strength of a boy, if the modifications are removed, it opens the door to repeating the injuries of the past.”
Injuries, volleyball committee members listed, include broken fingers, separated shoulders, detached retinas, and concussions.
Andover coach Jane Bergin, the coaches’ representative on the volleyball committee, said USA Volleyball has “established rules that align to reflect physiological, anatomical maturation changes dictated by puberty.” The rules reflect that although boys reach a plateau of muscle strength increases two years earlier than girls (13 and 15), boys continue to make more gains in relationship to girls. Bergin wondered if a rule change would hinder more than half a century of Title IX progress for girls and women.
“If this scenario comes true, could this be the possibility that we have violated this young woman’s Title IX rights as stated within the Women’s Sports Foundation mantra and as personally discussed with their professionals?” said Bergin, who coaches both the girls’ and boys’ programs at Andover.
According to MIAA participation data, 27 boys across 19 schools played on girls’ volleyball teams during the 2018-19 school year. In 2017-18, that total was 31 boys across 17 schools.
While safety remains a priority for both committees, the Blue Ribbon Committee made clear a rule change would have to comply with state law that requires equal participation and wording the rule in an inclusive way.
“When we’re talking about students that are non-binary and students that are beginning transitioning . . . have you given any thought to those students and how we’re differentiating boys and girls and labeling those students and the effect that has on them?” said Westborough athletic director Johanna DiCarlo said.
Erin Buzuvis, a Blue Ribbon member who is a professor at the Western New England University School of Law, said "our state law and even federal law to somewhat lesser extent injects a lot of skepticism on state organizations and state governments making distinctions between and among the sexes. If you’re going to justify doing that, you’re going to have to have a really compelling reason and it has to be very thoughtful.
Further discussion will continue at the Blue Ribbon’s first meeting in the fall.
"If there’s a better rule that can be written that can pass muster in court . . . I have to believe that the members of the Blue Ribbon Committee would be supportive of that,” said committee member Pam Gould, superintendent of Sandwich schools.