Parents taking issue with forfeits when boys don't join girls on mat
Girls who wrestled for several Puget Sound-area middle schools this year easily won their matches against boys from two private schools...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Girls who wrestled for several Puget Sound-area middle schools this year easily won their matches against boys from two private schools.
The girls stepped onto the mat. Their opponents from Tacoma Baptist and Cascade Christian stayed in their seats. The referee then raised the girls' hands to signal they'd won by forfeit.
But the easy victories didn't sit well with the girls, including Meaghan Connors, a seventh-grader at McMurray Middle School on Vashon Island. Her father, Jerry, is prepared to go to court over what he considers a clear case of sex discrimination.
For years, schools in the Rainier Valley League, including McMurray, have honored the ability of the two private schools to forfeit matches rather than have a boy wrestle one of the handful of girls on the public-school teams.
League President Dan Petersen said it was the same as honoring desires of other religious schools not to compete on certain days.
He noted that wrestling rules allow a forfeit for any reason.
"I don't care if it's a religious school or not," he said. "If a person chooses not to wrestle, they don't have to wrestle."
Tacoma Baptist's superintendent did not return phone calls about the policy and the reasons for it. At Cascade Christian in Puyallup, Superintendent Don Johnson said the school "does not want to put our young men in a situation where they would be inappropriately touching a young lady."
Connors, however, believes the forfeit rule shouldn't be used to discriminate against girls, including his daughter, one of a half-dozen girls on teams in the league, drawn from schools in King, Pierce and Mason counties.
Connors, a former Episcopal president and one-time pastoral assistant for social justice at St. James Cathedral in Seattle, believes religion should play a role in public life. "But there's a limit," he said.
"If my religion says that once a year on a full moon, I had to get into a hit-and-run accident, I think the cops would take exception to that," he said. "That's an extreme example, but if you come into the public domain, you can't develop a policy that discriminates against people."
He's filed a complaint alleging the Vashon Island School District is violating Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in schools, by allowing the policies to exist. If the policies aren't changed, he says, he'll make a complaint to the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education and, if necessary, file a lawsuit.
The principal at McMurray Middle School, Greg Allison, said the school values its female wrestlers and plans to attempt to get the policies changed, too.
"We can't necessarily change a private school district's policy," he said. "But we can certainly try to influence it as best we can."
Common conflictsConflict isn't new to girls in wrestling. It has been a co-ed sport in large part because too few girls participate to have their own leagues. Critics say the sport's too dangerous for girls, especially when they wrestle against boys. And some are uncomfortable with a co-ed sport with so much physical contact.
When girls started wrestling in Washington state decades ago, they often faced forfeits from boys at public schools, said Darcy Lees, program supervisor for equity coordination at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. But that's died down, she said, because boys don't want to give up points that could help them advance to the state wrestling championship.
Still, girls don't always get a warm welcome. Meaghan Connors and teammate Sylvie Shiosaki, 13, said they sometimes get taunted at matches, as do the boys who wrestle against them.
Nevertheless, girls' participation in wrestling is growing. In Washington, 69 schools had at least one girl on their wresting team in the 2003-04 school year, and there were more this year although the figures aren't yet compiled, said Mike Colbrese, executive director of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA). The WIAA administers school sports leagues across the state. One hundred girls participated in this year's all-girls tournament, Colbrese said.
Meaghan Connors and Sylvie Shiosaki find the sport challenging, fun and not at all sexual.
"When you walk on the mat, you're not a girl, you're not a guy anymore. You're just there to wrestle," Shiosaki said.
Girls have the right to join wrestling teams at public middle and high schools, and to compete at wrestling tournaments.
Nearly 20 years ago, in a case that involved the state Human Rights Commission, Marysville High School had to pay a $500 fine and apologize to a girl on Vashon High School's wrestling team after it barred her from a tournament.
What's happening now in the Rainier Valley League, however, is not as clear cut, Lees said. Wrestling rules allow for forfeits. Girls get the points for the win. Private schools don't have to adhere to Title IX.
"I'm struggling with whether we would have any kind of authority," she said.
Considering the messageBut Nancy Hogshead-Makar, legal adviser for the Women's Sports Foundation and a gold medalist in swimming at the 1984 Olympics, said the question is whether the WIAA, an organization that includes public and private schools, is a public entity. In a recent court case in Michigan, a similar organization was ruled to be a "public actor." And that means it can't allow policies that discriminate against girls, she said.
Girls are harmed when they win by forfeit, she added, because they lose out on the experience gained in competition, which is at the heart of what sports is about.
And it sends the message, she said, that there's something wrong with them.
"What if, for religious reasons, people said they were not going to wrestle African Americans, or wrestle people of different religions?" she asked. "When you put it in those terms, you can see how the person who is not able to compete is being harmed."
The Christian schools say little about the issue.
Johnson, Cascade Christian's superintendent, said it was difficult to say whether the school's policy is religiously based because the school approaches everything from a Christian perspective. He said he probably would have no response to Jerry Connors' concerns about sexual discrimination.
"Our approach is a concern for a young man and a young lady both," he said.
Tacoma Baptist's policy was passed by its school board, Athletic Director Keith Patefield said. But he said he knew little about it because he is new to the district this year. He referred questions to the school's superintendent, who did not return phone calls, and to the wrestling coach, who is out of the country.
Meaghan Connors didn't have to endure any forfeits herself this year. As a seventh-grader, she wasn't McMurray's best wrestler in her weight class, so she wasn't on the varsity squad, the only one that officially competes at the middle-school level. Still, she came home upset when Shiosaki got forfeits. She told her father she felt degraded, like an "object of lust."
Shiosaki said three of her 11 matches this year were forfeits from boys at the two schools, significantly shortening her season. That's what concerns her mother, Lonnie, who's supporting Jerry Connors' efforts. The lack of experience handicaps the girls when they go to state tournaments or even the state's all-girls exhibition tournament, she said.
Some of the boys on McMurray's team dislike the policies, too.
"It's pretty disrespectful," said Jesse Mish, 14, who's won several state wrestling awards.
Petersen, the Rainier Valley League president, said that as far as he's concerned, the issue has been long decided.
"It's something we've dealt with and the other schools have been fine with it," he said.
Some coaches wonder what can be done short of Cascade Christian and Tacoma Baptist withdrawing from the league.
"You can't force a kid to do something his parents say he can't do," said Craig Johnson, wrestling coach at Hawkins Middle School in the North Mason School District. Still, he said, he'd like the two girls on his team to have more opportunities to compete.
The WIAA has not been asked for its guidance, and for now, it's a league matter, Colbrese said. Still, he said, he's looking into it. To him, there are conflicts among the freedom of religion, the freedom from discrimination and the wrestling rule that allows forfeits.
"I'm not sure where you come out with all those things mixed in," he said.
Jerry Connors, however, maintains private schools should adhere by public rules when they're competing against public schools in public facilities.
"My daughter's rights," he said, "are not going to be bargained away for any reason."
Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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