Equal rights vs. Title IX

Norwood (Mass.) High's Will Higgins broke a girls' swimming record that had stood for 26 years when he won the 50-yard freestyle last fall. Mike Thomas

Kit Rosen grew up with a world of athletic opportunities, thanks to Title IX. But she lives in a state where equal opportunity means occasionally competing against boys.

Over the past three years, Rosen and her field hockey teammates at Longmeadow (Mass.) High School have faced a handful of opponents with at least one male player. And although the boys usually did not influence competition significantly, they did during one crucial matchup.

In the 2010 Western Massachusetts Division I title game, Longmeadow faced undefeated South Hadley (Mass.) and its high-scoring brothers, Ben and Chris Menard. Standouts in ice hockey and lacrosse, the siblings continually frustrated Longmeadow defenders, Rosen says. Still, Longmeadow played South Hadley to a 3-3 draw until Ben Menard scored the winning goal on a late breakaway, colliding at full speed with Longmeadow goaltender Corey Hedges, who suffered a concussion on the play.

Massachusetts boys have long competed against girls in sports such as field hockey, swimming, volleyball and gymnastics. But to field hockey player Kit Rosen, the law just doesn't make sense. "I don't think it's fair at all," she said. "I think boys have ample opportunities to play [other] sports."

In Massachusetts, the Equal Rights Amendment to the state constitution adopted in 1976 guarantees that equality under the law "shall not be denied or abridged because of sex, color, creed or national origin." Starting with a 1979 state Supreme Judicial Court ruling that declared a Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association rule prohibiting boys from playing on girls' teams invalid under the Equal Rights Amendment, the state's courts have consistently upheld boys' right to participate on girls' teams under limited circumstances, such as when a school does not offer a boys' team in field hockey.

As a result, Massachusetts boys have long competed against girls in sports such as field hockey, swimming, volleyball and gymnastics. But to Rosen, 17, the law just doesn't make sense. "I don't think it's fair at all," she said. "I think boys have ample opportunities to play [other] sports."

While boys potentially can displace girls from high school teams or rob them of playing time, there are also safety concerns in contact sports such as field hockey, as the Menard-Hedges collision highlights. "They play by the rules, but they just are naturally more physical," Rosen said. "It's a danger issue."

According to an MIAA participation survey, 30 boys played on girls' high school field hockey teams during the fall 2011 season. And despite past attempts to ban or limit their involvement -- including a coaches' effort last year to enact rules that would keep boys out of the striking circle in front of the net and limit the number of boys on the field at once -- the MIAA claims legal precedent has essentially tied its hands on the issue.

"Our [state] constitution says that you can make no distinction based on sex," said Roger Dowd, the governing body's longtime attorney. "That makes it tough, because this is a distinction. You're saying, 'We're distinguishing between boys and girls.'"

Representing the MIAA in 1979 before the Supreme Judicial Court, Dowd argued that allowing boys on girls' teams would put girls at a disadvantage, and he still believes that's true, he said. Similarly, former Olympic gold-medal swimmer Nancy Hogshead-Makar maintains that the Massachusetts court got the case wrong, creating a mixed-gender competition situation that's unique among U.S. states.

"Other states that also have an [equal rights amendment] don't look at it sport for sport," said Hogshead-Makar, a professor at Florida Coastal School of Law and the senior director of advocacy for the Women's Sports Foundation. "The reason why that analysis is wrong is because girls will always lose [opportunities]."

A boy's record-setting victory in a girls' swim meet last fall further spotlighted concerns about gender equity in Massachusetts high school sports. Swimming for Norwood High School, senior Will Higgins broke a South Sectional tournament record that had stood for 26 years when he won the 50-yard freestyle.

Because Norwood High does not offer boys' swimming, Higgins and five other boys competed for the girls' team last fall. And although Higgins' victory sparked an outcry that garnered national attention, Norwood coach Kim Goodwin believes Higgins and his male teammates deserved a chance to swim for the school.

"I see the physical unfairness of it all, but when you get to know the personalities and how much swimming means to them, I could never deny them," Goodwin said.

Although Higgins graduated recently, teammate Eddie Hernon plans to compete for Norwood next fall. "I swim because it's what I love to do, and it's one of the only opportunities I have during the year," Hernon said. "And when I race, I'm racing against the clock to beat myself each time."

With the number of male swimmers competing on girls' teams increasing -- 12 to 18 boys swam last fall, estimates MIAA Swim Committee chairman Ray Grant -- the MIAA's tournament management committee will vote June 18 on a proposal to stage separate boys' swim tournaments concurrently with the girls' tournaments next fall.

Although it's far from a done deal, the proposed solution would keep boys involved in the sport while maintaining competitive integrity, Grant said. "The Olympic Games separate them out, male and female," he said. "It's just a fairer way of doing things. I think that in this sport, the girls should be competing against the girls and the boys should be competing against the boys."

Among those who believe the same should be true in field hockey is Cliff Hedges, the father of former Longmeadow High goaltender Corey Hedges. Corey, who now plays for Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., suffered severe headaches for about six months after her 2010 concussion. She also received an apology letter from Menard, Cliff said.

A longtime field hockey coach and official, Cliff holds nothing against boys who want to play the sport and suggests that in a perfect world, the MIAA would offer boys their own league. But with the memory of his daughter's collision still fresh, the status quo leaves him shaking his head.

"When I officiate in Connecticut and I tell the girls that boys play up in Massachusetts, it's like, 'What?'" he says. "I don't know why Massachusetts is so different with this, why they can't just see the big picture here."