From left, Fairley Pilaro, her son, Keeling Pilaro, and his...

From left, Fairley Pilaro, her son, Keeling Pilaro, and his field hockey coach Kim Hannigan are all smiles after attending a hearing that decided whether Keeling could remain on the Southampton girls high school varsity field hockey team. (May 15, 2012) Credit: Newsday/Karen Wiles Stabile

Saturday marked the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the federal legislation that has helped provide female student athletes the same opportunities available to male ones. Statistics showing the stratospheric increase in girls' participation in sports over the past four decades speak to the law's broad success.

Certainly, Title IX has succeeded at Southampton High School. Less than half the school's student body is female, yet 53 percent of its athletes are girls. During the fall season, there are more sports offered to girls than to boys.

So who should Title IX defend today?

It should continue to prohibit sex discrimination against any person who wants to participate in a federally funded program -- including athletics, particularly when there isn't a comparable sport available for an athlete's own gender.

I suspect many readers are tired of hearing about my son, Keeling Pilaro, and his desire to play what incorrectly is considered solely a girls' sport -- just as I tired of having to justify why he should be allowed to play field hockey. But, before the controversy fades from memory, it's important to realize that this isn't an issue of whether boys should be allowed to play on girls' teams or whether Title IX should exist. They are and it does.

Any member of Section XI, the athletic governing body of Suffolk County High School sports, who has opposed a student's opportunity to play a sport when there is no equivalent for the child's gender must not understand what Title IX is about and whom it supports.

The double standard becomes clear when you consider that, nationwide, more than 1,500 girls were on high school football teams last year. They weren't all kickers. Eric Ollikainen, a high-school football coach in Vancouver, Wash., told ESPN, "I never expected to have a girl be my middle linebacker, but my job as coach is to get the best 11 on the field, and she's one of my best."

Late last month, Annie Park, a junior at MacArthur High School in Levittown, won the Nassau boys high school golf championship because she had been given the opportunity to play the sport she loves. She played on the boys team because there was no girls team.

If budget cuts in schools are necessary and programs are deleted or can't be expanded, that should not limit the opportunities for students like Annie and Keeling who are willing to pursue their dreams even if they have to play on teams of the opposite gender. Annie wasn't playing her best just so she could beat the boys -- she was playing her best because that is what an athlete is supposed to do.

Healthy competition is a good thing, and when there is an exceptional player like Annie involved, it tends to raise the whole level of play. Matt Lowe, Annie's biggest rival, told MSG Varsity that Annie's scores are going to raise the level of competition.

Keeling, on the other hand, was initially barred from playing field hockey by Section XI's Mixed Competition Committee not because he was a health and safety risk, but because the committee determined he was too good. This was obvious discrimination. Keeling's skill wasn't obtained because he has a Y chromosome. He became skilled through hard work and practice. He used these skills to play the game the way it was meant to be played -- with finesse. Many of his teammates and opponents claimed that the level of their game was raised when Keeling was on the field because he made them want to play better and work harder to succeed.

High school is a place for learning, and kids should be encouraged to learn as much as possible. For most athletes, high school is the end of their athletic experience. Less than 4 percent of high school athletes go on to play in college, and even fewer make it professionally. Kids such as Annie and Keeling should be encouraged to achieve their athletic goals in high school, because we never know how far they will go.

Come fall field hockey season, Keeling will be just another player, on the field or on the bench, and part of a team playing a sport they all love. The point of Title IX is to ensure that every student athlete, boy or girl, can have that chance.


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