Saturday, May 12, 2012

The State Champion 2nd Base(wo)man

A little over a year ago, I wrote about the state championships in wrestling in the state of Iowa and the brouhaha that ensued when a boy defaulted a match rather than wrestle a girl. Now the sport and the state have changed, but we’re back at the same dilemma. This time, it’s baseball in Arizona.

Paige Sultzbach (shown at left) plays second base for the baseball team at Mesa Preparatory Academy. Her team went undefeated through the regular season and advanced to the state finals in the Arizona Charter Athletic Association, winning the crown when Our Lady of Sorrows of Phoenix forfeited the game rather than take the field against a team that included a female player. Predictably, there have been howls of outrage and derision from the Usual Suspects. One particularly strident voice is that of Lynne Maatz, director of public policy for that well-known high school athletics organization, the American Association of University Women: “The very idea that such stereotypes are so strong, they'd actually forfeit a game simply because a girl was on the field. That's ridiculous. Does she have cooties?”

Meanwhile, over at CraveOnline, the headline reads, “Sexist Arizona Private School Forfeits Championship.” You get the picture.

All that said, what ultimately happened is probably about as good as it’s going to get, at least in the short term. Mesa Prep won the title. Our Lady of Sorrows took what they believed to be a principled stand, based on the belief system of the Society of Saint Pius X, a group of priests who objected to the reforms of Vatican II and subsequently split from the mainstream Catholic Church.

Here’s their rationale for the forfeit:
This decision is pursuant to school policy which rules out participation in co-ed sports.

This policy is consistent with the traditional approach to education. As a Catholic school we promote the ideal of forming and educating boys and girls separately during the adolescent years, especially in physical education.

Our school aims to instill in our boys a profound respect for women and girls. Teaching our boys to treat ladies with deference, we choose not to place them in an athletic competition where proper boundaries can only be respected with difficulty.
Anachronistic? Yeah. Ridiculous? Maybe. And that’s the thing. The differences between this case and last year’s wrestling story are two-fold, and they cut in different directions. On the one hand, this is a private school and, as such, they get to set their own rules. Want your kid to be able to play for the state championship regardless of who’s on the other team? Send him somewhere else. It’s sad for the OLS players who might not agree with the policy, but they’re not there under duress. I’m no expert in Catholic education, but I’d be willing to bet that somewhere in a city the size and demographic profile of Phoenix, there’s even a Catholic school that thinks that “forming and educating boys and girls separately during the adolescent years, especially in physical education” has its limits.

On the other hand, this is baseball: not a contact sport (although of course there may occasionally be a tangle of players on a play at second base). Moreover, this was a decision made not by athletes themselves, but by someone else—either the school or the sacred brotherhood in charge. Indeed, it’s kind of difficult to find out anything about the school or how it’s run. Very few schools these days don’t have a website, but plug “Our Lady of Sorrows Phoenix” into a search engine, and all you find (other than a zillion stories about this fracas) is an appeal for money. No info on the school itself, no guiding principles statement, no “how to enroll.” Just a plea based on the rationale that “Whether you live in Phoenix or may someday visit, there will be a proper and beautiful traditional Catholic church for the benefit of your soul—and everyone else's.”

And whereas it may be true that recent events ultimately worked out about as well as could be expected under the circumstances, it’s also true that:

• Mesa Prep deserved the right to play for a title they’re now forever going to feel like they backed into.

• Sultzbach, who graciously sat out the two games with Our Lady of Sorrows during the regular season out of respect for her opponents’ beliefs (how many of us would have been so mature?) is well within her rights to want to play in the championship game, and, with only 11 players total, her team needs her.

• There is no girls’ softball team at Mesa Prep, so this is the only avenue available to Sultzbach if she wants to play a sport that employs a particular athletic skill set she seems to possess.

• Our Lady of Sorrows does seem to be mired in some previous century; their attitude is somewhere between quaint and patronizing.

• The players on the OLS team probably aren’t really thrilled, either: my guess is that they’d rather play against eight guys and a girl than not play for a state title.

There was an interesting interview on the ESPNW site with Mesa Prep coach Christopher Estilow. He says that the reason Paige hadn’t played in the two previous games against Our Lady of Sorrows was that “we played on their field, at their school”; he points out that the situation gave more playing time to the boys who had lost playing time because of her presence on the team. He saw it as an opportunity to improve as a team, while implicitly suggesting that of course his starting second baseman was going to play in the championship game.

Estilow is apparently new to his position, and didn’t find out about OLS’s policy until “a day or two before playing them in our first official game of the season.” Next year, Mesa Prep is moving to a different conference, joining the Arizona Interscholastic Association, so this may be a one-off problem, at least for a while… until someone else in the ACAA has a girl on the team or, hypothetically, until that conference approves an initiative by Our Lady of Sorrows athletic director Gerry Violette to keep the sexes segregated in athletics.

I just wrote that Our Lady of Sorrows has an absolute right to impose whatever rules it chooses on its own students, but then I deleted that sentence when I realized that isn’t true. They can’t order a firing squad to punish a kid for being late to algebra, for example. Where in the spectrum from the truly silly to the ethically fraught this particular manifestation of authoritarianism falls is, of course, a matter for debate.

What isn’t, is this: one of the traditional arguments for high school athletics is the preparation for the real competitive world to follow. Fifty years ago, that world may have been almost exclusively male. Today, no. It doesn’t strike me as too wild a flight of fancy that it probably does more good to have boys compete with girls than to enforce a separation that cannot endure outside carefully circumscribed parameters. Still, single-sex education isn’t an inherently outrageous idea, even if it does seem to be a bit too much of a throwback to an earlier and not necessarily enlightened time.

It may become increasingly difficult for OLS to schedule future games—any competitor would rather play than win by forfeit (which, of course, would be an easy strategy if all one wanted to do was to pad the won/lost record), and opposing schools aren’t likely to be willing to limit opportunities for their own girls just to get to play those one or two more games. But that’s a problem for the folks at Our Lady of Sorrows to deal with: down the road, it’s likely that they’ll need to conform, at least to the extent of allowing their teams to play against co-ed teams, or their athletic program will wither on the vine. Until then, however, their mid-20th century view of high school sports will make headlines only when there’s a Paige Sultzbach around. May there be many.

1 comment:

jdscottphd said...

As a (for the moment former) youth league umpire who has worked for nearly a dozen different youth leagues (public and private) in two different states, this issue strikes home to me. I agree with much of what you say - yes, the school has a right to follow its beliefs, even at the expense of the children it is supposed to be providing athletic opportunities for. I'd add to this, however, that they have been competitive IN THAT LEAGUE for the entire year; they ALREADY compete in a co-ed league. If they truly followed their principles, they would have backed out of the entire organization, or boycotted the previous games with Mesa Prep (because, after all, the girl may have been needed if a teammate got injured). To pull this "boycott" only for the championship game - thereby spoiling the entire season for not only those two schools, but all of the players who competed in the league that season - is clearly self-serving. They likely raised a lot of money to support their team, those games usually involve quite a bit of travel and sacrifice of time on the part of parents (Phoenix is a huge metropolitan area), and all of that went for naught because someone thinks that a 13 year old girl doesn't belong on a baseball field with boys. So, I join the hue and cry. "We're principled when it costs us the least financially and makes the biggest impact on others" is not an effective "Christian" position.