Boys playing with, and against, girls in high school field hockey has been a controversial topic in Massachusetts for more than four decades.
While a solution might not be right around the corner, the MIAA Field Hockey Committee took a first step Friday afternoon. During a virtual meeting, the committee voted 11-1 in favor of a rule change proposal that potentially would create 7-on-7 boys’ field hockey as a separate sport.
Sherry Bryant, the MIAA liaison to the committee, presented the proposal as part of the association’s rules change process. Any rule changes proposals must be submitted to the MIAA by Monday (June 1) in order for the change to take effect by July 1, 2021.
“It’s certainly not an overnight thing,” Bryant told the Globe, regarding what is expected to be a long process involving input from various groups across the sport and the MIAA.
The proposal and vote came up shortly after a presentation by the Massachusetts Coalition to Preserve Girls Field Hockey. The coalition also has been advocating for some form of change to the current system in which boys are allowed to play on girls’ teams in MIAA field hockey, as has been the case since the 1979 court ruling in “Attorney General v. MIAA.”
King Philip coach Lisa Cropper presented on behalf of the coalition, which includes 24 current and former coaches, officials and parents. One of the two proposals for consideration also was the creation of a 7-on-7 boys’ field hockey league under the umbrella of the MIAA.
“We want to return the opportunities for fair play, and for safety,” Cropper said.
The coalition cited several factors in its proposal — including diminished playing time and educational opportunities as girls are displaced by boys, as well as safety and competitive imbalance. Somerset Berkley, with a pair of boys on its roster, won the Division 1 state championship each of the last two seasons.
“If we are trying to provide girls full access to fair competition and educational opportunities — for instance, leadership roles — if the boy is stronger, the boy is faster, he is going to get that role,” said former Reading coach Mim Jarema, who is a member of the coalition. “Are we diminishing the access to fairness and opportunities? Is there any way to address that?”
The coalition’s other proposal for consideration included rule changes to the current girls’ field hockey structure that would place limits on what boys could do during competition.
Erin Buzuvis, a professor of law at Western New England University and a member of the MIAA Blue Ribbon Committee, cautioned that any such rule changes could be in violation of Massachusetts laws. The Blue Ribbon Committee, which met Thursday, also is considering issues with boys playing as members of girls’ volleyball teams.
Bryant, who also serves as chair of the National Federation of High Schools field hockey committee, said her subsequent proposal was separate from the work being done by the coalition, but something she has been exploring for a while.
“I had spoken to our chair [Rockport coach Mary Ryan] in our last committee meeting, and mentioned to our group that I was looking to do that, after seeing how the most recent season unfolded,” said Bryant, adding the MIAA has taken similar approaches when it added wrestling and ice hockey as girls’ sports in the past.
While her proposal passed nearly unanimously, it didn’t come without some questions or concerns. Peter Elenbaas, the assistant principal at Lincoln-Sudbury, said this might not be a good time for schools to be adding a sport given the budget uncertainties as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. He also wondered whether there is enough interest to sustain field hockey as a separate boys’ sport.
Oakmont principal Dave Uminski countered there may be more boys interested in playing field hockey if it were classified as a separate sport.
“This is not going to force schools to do anything, but we need to start somewhere,” Uminski said.
Added Belchertown athletic director Jennifer Gouvin, “I think it’s the right thing to put the proposal through and see if we can build off of that.”
Bryant said while there have been many attempts to address the issue in the past, “this felt like the right time” to go forward with the proposal. The details remain to be hashed out, although much of the structure would fall under NFHS rules governing the sport, barring any modifications.
‘“It’s going to take a little bit to grow. We certainly know we have that passionate group in that coalition. We’ll make a plan, we’ll start some informal meetings. We’re advocating for passing the rule first, to at least get it on as a sanctioned sport.”’
Sherry Bryant, MIAA associate director
“It’s going to take a little bit to grow,” Bryant said. “We certainly know we have that passionate group in that coalition. We’ll make a plan, we’ll start some informal meetings. We’re advocating for passing the rule first, to at least get it on as a sanctioned sport.”
Jarema and former Duxbury coach Terry Vandewater both told the Globe later Friday evening that, while there will be a lot of work to be done down the road, Bryant’s proposal is a good starting point.
“Getting [Friday’s] meeting in time to get the proposal in for the June 1 deadline all works out,” Jarema said. “Sherry deserves credit for that.”
Said Vandewater: “I think with the proposal it gives the female athletes who are talented a level playing field, and the male athletes a level playing field. It’s a win-win situation.”
The field hockey committee also addressed several format changes in conjunction with the NFHS switch earlier this year to four 15-minute quarters, rather than a pair of 30-minute halves. There also was discussion regarding alignments for the statewide tournament, and whether the sport’s 204 teams are a better fit for three or four divisions. The committee will address that further at its next meeting scheduled for June 15, after getting more feedback from member schools.