Gym Class Heroes -- Making It Better For Girls Who Just Wanna Play Football

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Gym classes, like the one above, have their ups and downs, especially in middle school. Jane McManus found some familiar themes in a PE story her daughter told her. But this time, a forward-thinking teacher rewrote the ending.

My daughter got off the school bus and came straight to find me in the office upstairs. In gym class, her teacher, Ms. Rivie, asked the students to pick which sport they wanted to learn: football or soccer. She picked football, and persuaded two of the girls in her sixth-grade class to join her.

"That's great, Charlotte!"

But I could see by the look on her face that what happened next was not good. One of the boys said that girls couldn't play football, then made a "Real Housewives" comment about the trio and laughed.

"It's not OK," she said.

I nodded. Middle school still is just a few coals short of hell.

This is 2015, and my confident Charlotte, whom we've been filling with girl power since she was just hours old, had stumbled upon the same roadblock I'd encountered in the days when the words "Title" and "IX" were still a punch line.

When my daughter told me about what had happened, I felt 11 all over again. I'd played with boys growing up -- with neighborhood kids on hastily assembled football teams, or baseball games where the big rock was second base and a smaller rock was third. By the time I was in college, I played in pickup basketball games where I was often the only woman. I played regularly in local men's games until after I had kids.

Over the years I've run into that kid in Charlotte's gym class. Not that exact kid, but the one who wants to publicly disrespect the lone girl without having any idea of her skill level. Who wants to exclude a girl just for being a girl.

That was always the kid I wanted to beat the most.

Maybe that's the feeling that fueled some of my career decisions. I love sports, but I love an equal playing field as well. Over the years I've moved from straight beat writing to finding stories I care about -- opportunities for women in professional sports leagues, and where those leagues stand on issues like gender-based violence.

Pushy parenting has never been our style. When they were in elementary school, I asked my kids whether they wanted to join the local flag football team. They weren't interested. They liked rock climbing, tennis -- like my husband -- and lacrosse, and we've let them follow their own interests.

And they do other things. Charlotte was the only girl who played saxophone last year in the jazz band and wants to go into science.

You know that whole thing where we tell our girls they can be anything they want to be, and then we watch the way women in the public sphere are treated? I wanted to instill idealism combined with an awareness of the challenges ahead. You don't want to saddle your kids with the vestiges of your own baggage, but you want to prepare them for the world.

Yet, after pushing over obstacles in my own career and devoting many hours to thinking about gender and football, the issue walks in and grabs an after-school snack in my own house.

After pushing over obstacles in my own career and devoting many hours to thinking about gender and football, the issue walks in and grabs an after-school snack in my own house.
Jane McManus

So gym class.

Rivie was a college athlete, running track at SUNY Cortland, where I covered many a Jets training camp, and before she taught physical education to my daughter. She told the boy that if he didn't want to play with girls, he wouldn't be able to play in the game because at this school, everyone is welcome to play. She then took Charlotte aside and told her she was better than a lot of the boys.

"I have to tell you," Rivie said during a phone call, "the girls did really well."

(Yes, I fact-checked my own daughter. This week, they'll be learning how to play quarterback.)

I shared Charlotte's experience on my Facebook page and got comments from friends all over the country about daughters who played flag football and girls who starred on local teams. Another friend said her middle-school-age daughter had to push to be included in the lunchtime soccer games at her school.

There are two girls playing tackle football in our district, and Rivie told me that last week a seventh-grader asked what she could do to try out for the modified boys' team next year.

"We really have come a long way," she said.

But a friend of mine raised this point: In the past 40 years, we have revolutionized the way we raise our girls. They grow with higher expectations and redefined gender roles. But have we changed the way we raise our boys?

It's hard for me to know because I have two girls, and many of my friends have discussions about fairness with their kids: boys and girls. Clearly, on many middle school fields you can still encounter the boys of my own childhood -- and probably a lot of fart jokes.

But here's what's different -- Rivie is on the job, and she's supported by administrators committed to fairness and inclusivity. So this week, I diagrammed a few basic plays so she could see how the action evolves, and Charlotte is excited to refine her spiral.

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