Gender Equity

By John Engh

The discussion about sexual identity and gender equity in sports, and whether boys and girls should be competing against each other, is as complex and tricky as ever. And it has not become easier as society continues to debate sexual and gender identity.

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As the father of an 18-year-old gay son who has been very comfortable with his identity for quite a while, I see how competing against other children can be a complicated issue to navigate. A recent article in the Denver Post about the Colorado state high-school wrestling tournament raised some interesting points for all those who oversee sports programs for children and teens.

How To Treat A Lady
A high school wrestler by the name of Brendan Johnston forfeited two matches and gave up his shot at placing in the state tournament because he did not want to wrestle a girl. Johnston did this not out of protest, but because it went against his nature to “… treat a young lady like that on the mat.” This hit home with me for a number of reasons. As a high school wrestler myself (30 years ago), I never would have wanted to compete against a girl in that sport. For me, the uneasiness of all the physical contact, coupled with the mental anxiety, wouldn’t have been worth it—even for a title. I distinctly remember discussing this possibility with the coaches of our high-school and club teams, and we were all glad not to have had to deal with the issue at the time.

Johnston stated that wrestling was important to him, but there were “more important things to me than my wrestling.” And for me, this is the takeaway from the story, as well as what our message to children and coaches should be: sports are a part of life, not the entirety of it.

Of course, we want everyone to have equal opportunities, but sometimes that can be difficult to accomplish. Should persons, no matter the gender, have the opportunity to prove themselves in a sport they are passionate about without being judged? Absolutely. Should others be able to decide not to compete, and also not be judged? Again, absolutely.

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A Cultural Transition
It seems that, culturally, we are in a transition period. Should there be gender identity in sports at all? Let’s say that question is to be continued. But, at the same time, it is important to understand that some sports are a better fit for this discussion than others. I don’t know how many athletes feel uncomfortable competing against someone of a different gender in mostly non-contact team sports like baseball, soccer, and basketball. The same could be said for individual sports like track and field, golf, tennis, swimming, etc. If someone is better, that person wins. But for sports requiring close physical contact, that becomes an entirely different story.

The discussion then really revolves around appropriate contact and fairness.

The wrestling meet I referenced involved high-school students, but this is an issue that youth-sports administrators will likely face at some point during their tenure, if they haven’t already. So let me state a position: When children are younger than 10, it is almost always appropriate for girls and boys to play and compete against each other. But after adolescence, there are certain sports that should be separated by gender or by sexual identity. As the discussion continues, sports for children will evolve as well.

Weighing In
Here are some other views on the subject. What’s your take?

Rance Gaede, Recreation Superintendent for the City of Tamarac (Fla.) Parks & Recreation: All of our youth sports are coed from U6 through U18. Our program philosophy has always been to stress the importance of making sure the kids have fun. We also feel that sports are a great training tool to show kids how best to adapt to society as they age. Sports are often used to teach teamwork, fair play, overcoming adversity, celebrating victories and milestones, and learning from defeat and mistakes. Part of the learning is also how to adapt to a variety of teammates. We gear our sports and their respective rules based on age, not gender, allowing all kids to play in an even environment.

Lisa Licata, Senior Director, Professional Administrators, for the National Alliance for Youth Sports: Since I live youth sports in every aspect of my life these days, having two high school-aged girls who play various sports for their schools and community, this is a topic near and dear to me. Both girls participate in a co-ed recreational soccer program (ages14 to 17). This age division has grown in numbers the past few seasons. This year there are nine teams. The teens love it. We even have some teens who sign up who have never played on an organized team. The other kids loop them in, teaching them the sport. There is no high-level coaching, just good old-fashioned rec play—the girls are trying to take it up a notch to compete against the boys, and the boys are “trying” to impress. As a volunteer coach, and now sitting on the sidelines as a youth-sports parent, I have not witnessed any problems. There have been no issues with boys and girls playing together, and no additional injuries. I actually have witnessed more compassion, camaraderie, and joy! Since these kids go to various schools, have differing backgrounds, and have huge disparities in skill levels (some play for their schools, and others have never played on a team), the experience has only been positive. Maybe those who are so adamantly opposed should chat with kids who are participating in some of these programs!

John Engh is executive director of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla. He can be reached via email at jengh@nays.org. To join more than 3,000 communities by starting a NAYS Member Organization, visit www.nays.org, email nays@nays.org or call (800) 729-2057.