The case of Keeling Pilaro, the male field hockey phenom recently barred from the Southampton High School girls team, shows how complicated the quest for a level playing field can be.
Suffolk County's governing body for sports let Pilaro play varsity last year, when he was 12 years old, 4 feet, 6 inches, and 82 pounds. He's grown only 2 inches since, but the committee says he can't play next year, because he excelled.
Pilaro was the only boy playing high school varsity field hockey on Long Island, and learned his stickmanship growing up in Ireland (internationally, field hockey is a mostly male sport). In general in New York, a boy is permitted to play on a girls high school team if there is no equivalent male team, and he doesn't have an adverse effect on the ability of the girls to compete successfully, but it's very unusual. But Pilaro finished 11th in points on the Island last year, and was named all-conference. The governing board is saying he's too good.
So girls are allowed to play boys sports if they're skilled enough to compete -- as a few are in wrestling, football and baseball -- but boys can only play girls sports if they're not good enough to excel. That's not what equality means. Yet the idea of a hulking, speedy 18-year-old boy crashing around on a girls field hockey team won't work, either. No solution to this problem feels right.
So what's reasonable?
In 1972 Congress passed Title IX, which requires that "the selection of sports and levels of competition effectively accommodate the interests and abilities of members of both sexes." That doesn't mean everybody gets to do everything. It means girls and boys teams should be equivalent (to the extent the school population is), as should equipment, supplies, spending, travel, practice facilities, trainers, coaching, publicity, tutoring, and other support.
Nowhere is it demanded that boys and girls have access to every team or sport the other sex does, only that they have equal access to athletics, and equal support to pursue sports.
As Pilaro's case shows, at the high school level, girls should be banned from boys teams and boys should be banned from girls teams. It's the only truly fair and level way to deal with this issue.
The schools must provide appropriate athletic opportunities for both sexes, and that's enough. Boys who want to play field hockey or volleyball on girls teams should transfer their athleticism and ambition to other sports. So should girls who want to wrestle or play baseball. Better yet, the excluded gender should try to establish a team in those sports.
But the real question is why we have become so emotionally overheated about a situation affecting a tiny minority of kids. Partially, it's because we've let kids games turn into wars over plaques, honors, scholarships and wins. But it's also because this touches on all the larger issues of sexual equality. We're engaged in the difficult, necessary task of equalizing rights and opportunities for two groups so different -- men and women-- that we fight endlessly against moves we perceive as falling short of that goal, or we overshoot it. That battle doesn't have to play out on our children's athletic fields.