Kansas religious-based school called out for removing female ref

It was an act of solidarity, twenty-plus teenage boys standing up to say that if Kara couldn't play, they wouldn't play at all. Kara Dowell never saw herself as an activist. She was 14. Four years have passed and she's now a senior in high school, trying to scrimp enough money together to go to junior college, pondering a job switch to Pizza Hut.

Reporters call, and she's suddenly back in 2004, the day she became a local celebrity when a private religious high school in Kansas refused to play White City because it had a girl on its football team. A bench-warming girl, mind you.

A hundred and 10 miles from White City, Michelle Campbell sits at her home in tiny Ozawkie, Kan., also not activist, also uncomfortable with her newfound celebrity. She was on "Good Morning America" on Monday, and splashed all over the local papers.

Three weeks ago, she was just another referee in Kansas, getting paid $40 a game, sometimes less, content with a meal ticket and occasional bottle of water. Now Dr. Phil is calling.

"I'm like, 'What does Dr. Phil think he's going to do for me?'" Campbell said. "Are (they) going to put me on stage with somebody from a Catholic denomination?

"I'm drawing the line at Dr. Phil."

Dowell and Campbell's connection is St. Mary's Academy, a school planted on 465 rolling acres roughly 25 miles west of Kansas' capital. On Feb. 2, Campbell arrived at St. Mary's to officiate a boys basketball game, laced up her black tennis shoes, then was sent home because the school didn't want a woman refereeing boys.

The decision has rankled hoops junkies and dumbfounded women's rights advocates. For Dowell, it isn't much of a surprise. Four years ago, St. Mary's forfeited a football game because of the possibility of having to tackle Dowell.

"I'm just kind of irritated that it would happen again," she said. "I thought that was kind of over with … You wouldn't think a school could be that way."

Nobody, from the Kansas State High School Activities Association to the referees to the boys who showed up to play a late-winter basketball game, is certain of St. Mary's policy on women and athletics. Darin Putthoff, a ref who was supposed to work the game with Campbell, says a St. Mary's official told him that having a woman in a position of authority over boys was against the school's beliefs.

St. Mary's, in a statement issued this week, denied that but also refused interview requests.

"Our school aims to instill in our boys the proper respect for women and girls," the statement says. "Teaching our boys to treat ladies with deference, we cannot place them in an aggressive athletic competition where they are forced to play inhibited by their concern about running into a female referee."

Smiling children -- boys and girls -- are pictured on the St. Mary's Web site. The school that follows pre-Vatican II Catholic teachings serves both genders, from kindergarten through the 12th grade. Women teach male students; girls participate in intramural sports. And on Friday nights, St. Mary's, like hundreds of other high schools in Kansas, plays football and boys basketball.

But St. Mary's isn't a full member of the Kansas State High School Activities Association, and competes against mostly private schools across the state. Gary Musselman, executive director of the activities association, said St. Mary's is on the association's list of approved schools, which means it can compete against other member schools. Next month, at its regularly scheduled meeting, the KSHSAA will discuss whether to keep St. Mary's on that list.

Feb. 2 started innocently with some pre-game butterflies from Campbell. She'd spent her career as a police officer, played high school and college basketball and had two years of officiating behind her. But that day was supposed to be her first calling varsity boys.

"Don't worry," Putthoff told her. "It's a small gym … and the people here are really nice."

Putthoff and Campbell carpooled to the game, and felt the eyes of the gym upon them as they entered.

"It was weird," Putthoff said. "There were a lot of people staring at us."

When a St. Mary's official pulled Putthoff aside and said Campbell couldn't officiate, Putthoff walked out, too. They were paid $80 apiece. The game went on, after some scrambling. St. Mary's was able to flag down one official from an earlier crew. The school's athletic director put on a striped shirt and served as the other ref.

It is not lost on some that Campbell's case is playing out in the shadows of Topeka, home of religious activist Fred Phelps. But Putthoff, a pastor at a Christian church, doesn't want the national media depicting this as another red-state church group running a female out of their gymnasium.

Though she's tired of the phone calls and the media blitz, Campbell says she's glad the issue was brought to light. "I wouldn't want it to happen to another official." She says she doesn't judge St. Mary's and its policies, whatever they might be.

"Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs," Campbell said. "I guess the rub with me is that it's not a belief of my own and yet I was subjected to it."

It hasn't affected her workload. By Friday night, she'll have officiated 18 games since the incident. In some gyms, Campbell and Putthoff are recognized now and get handshakes and applause from complete strangers.

Campbell would settle for just being another ordinary zebra.

"It was a sad day for the kids," she said. "If they're like any other teenagers, all they want to do is play ball. Their main concern, probably, was, 'Do we get to play basketball or not?'"

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.