NEW YORK – Alison Rogers raced across the field, a touchdown-saving tackle in her line of sight.
It was her favorite moment of the season she spent playing middle school football. Rogers, a cornerback from Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, brought a boy to the ground and a crowd to its feet.
“All of the parents went insane,” she said.
Now Alison can’t get on the field at all.
The issue isn’t her ability to compete with boys. It’s whether she should be allowed.
New York state rules governing mixed gender competition require an extra physical fitness performance test for girls, clear in their intent but not in their application. Alison, 13, declined to repeat it this year and has been prevented from rejoining her teammates.
The dispute has highlighted an unusual tension between bureaucratic rules designed to protect students while giving girls the chance to play traditionally male-dominated sports.
“The school and the coaches know who I am. They knew who I was in seventh grade, they know that I’m athletic,” she said. “It just seems unfair that I should ever have to take any of these tests, that any girl should have to take any of these tests.”
It’s not entirely clear whether she does.
Her school may be following the Commissioner of Education’s regulations to the letter, or may be protecting her more than necessary.
“I think no one wants to be the one that is actually saying the girl can’t play, but everyone’s kind of agreeing that she can’t,” said Brett Rogers, Alison’s father.
He doesn’t blame Fieldston, believing the school enjoyed having Alison on the team last season and would’ve liked her to play again.
“Alison shows as much promise as any other middle school football player,” athletic director Gus Ornstein said. “We would love to have her on the team again this year. We understand her desire to challenge this rule and fully support her efforts.”
State officials did not comment about the reasons behind the rule, but according to the Commissioner’s guidelines, “The purpose of the regulation is to preserve the health and safety of students while assuring that students of both sexes have opportunity to participate successfully in interschool competition.”
It adds: “When the physical abilities of the individual are deemed by the panel to be short of or exceed the physical abilities of other team members, thereby creating a hazardous condition or unfair advantage for that student or other members of the team, denial of participation would be appropriate.”
Alison is a black belt in taekwondo and participates in roller derby, so her parents were neither surprised nor concerned when she said she wanted to play football.
“Right up her alley,” said her mother, Christine.
First, Alison had to submit to a review by a panel that includes the school physician and a physical education teacher, and potentially a physician, which evaluates her health records. The fitness test includes a mile run, pull-ups, push-ups and a shuttle run. To pass, a student must be in the 50th percentile of the President’s Council Fitness test.
Once approved by the panel, the student is free to try out. Fieldston has a no-cut policy for its middle school football team, so Alison was placed on the squad and spent the season as a backup cornerback and running back, getting into most of the games.
But she balked when her coach told her that if she planned to play again, she’d need to go through the whole process a second time. The panel’s decision applies only to that specific sport and season, and another review is required the following season.
However, the guidelines do not stipulate that the fitness test has to be repeated. The panel could evaluate previous scores, for example — though Ornstein said he inquired to the state and was told all parts of the process were required.
Dr. Jordan Metzl, a sports medicine physician at New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery who is not involved in Alison’s dispute, said boys and girls generally have roughly equivalent strength until puberty, when boys become faster and stronger. But he said he wouldn’t apply a test by gender.
“I think maybe thinking about it, a better way to think about that equation might be, these are the standards we have for strength, body weight, speed, pushups, whatever, and you have to be able to do this kind of exercise or this kind of test to qualify to play,” he said, “and I’m not sure that gender separation makes as big of a difference as developmental separation in terms of strength.”
The Rogers said they lobbied school and state officials for answers, and found portions of the rulebook online but were rebuffed in their attempts to get a copy to study themselves. They tried to contest the rule and sought to appeal, but never figured out where to take the fight.
“I don’t think that they’re trying to prevent girls,” Christine Rogers said. “I think they have a procedure that’s not clear and they have no interest in making it clear and no interest in it being challenged, so they’re making it very difficult for us to even challenge it.”
Though Fieldston is an elite private school, its conference follows the public school rules so its members can schedule games against those teams, so Alison’s parents understand the school’s caution.
But there is frustration that a girl who played on a team has to prove her fitness to do it again just because of her gender, while a younger boy who has never even played the sport before could suit up just by passing a routine physical.
“I think to say that since you’re a girl you still have to take a test, regardless whether you’re good enough or not, because we have to make sure you’re fit enough,” Alison said, “that just doesn’t make sense.”