Mixed Competition: Investigating the hurdles facing girls who want to join boys’ teams

Mark Fernandez, Staff Writer

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“One of the beautiful things about our sport is that no matter where you start in terms of physical ability or athleticism, you have just as much opportunity as anybody else to be great,” Jamie Berg (12), co-Captain of Wrestling Team, said.

Jhanae Ottey (9), the only girl currently on the Varsity Wrestling team, felt drawn to the sport. “In Middle School I stopped by one of the [wrestling] meets and I was amazed,” Ottey said.

But when Ottey joined the wrestling team this year, she discovered that the process for girls was far more complicated than that for boys. “I had to run a mile and do push-ups and paperwork.” Ottey said.

The run and push-ups were part of a physical fitness test that is one aspect of how girls at the school qualify to try out for teams that traditionally consist of boys. For most students, trying out for a team is a simple skill-based process, but it becomes much more onerous if you want to play on a sport not offered for your preferred sex.

Under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, girls must be allowed to try out for boys teams if there is no equivalent sport offered for girls. However, the process by which female athletes join a male team is different in every state. The process in New York State is mandated by the Regulations of the Commissioner of Education, Director of Athletics, Health, and Physical Education Robert Annunziata said. According to the  New York State Public High School Athletic Association’s (NYPHSAA) which explains the  Commissioner’s Regulations on “Mixed Competitions,” the tests create an opportunity so that “no student shall be excluded from such competition solely by reason of sex.” Even though the school is part of the New York State Association of Independent Schools (NYSAIS), they must abide by the Commissioners Regulations if they want to play teams that are not in NYSAIS.

Ottey is not the first female wrestler in the school’s history. Eleanor Lewis and Akeyla Todd both had successful careers as varsity wrestlers. However, Lewis and Todd joined the team without any formal testing process, Varsity Wrestling Coach Gregg Quilty said.

Lewis and Todd didn’t have to take the test simply because it wasn’t enforced in years past, Annunziata said. The school began to follow the policies because as NYSAIS has grown, “More schools are following the Commissioner’s Regulations and Horace Mann is required to follow those regulations,” Annunziata said.

Even though Ottey is the only girl on the wrestling team, she feels welcomed. “We are all friends.” Ottey said.

“We welcome anybody, at anytime, anywhere,” Quilty said.

Liam Futterman (10), Ottey’s teammate, hasn’t noticed a change on the team since Ottey joined. “I thought she could have had some problems fitting in as the team was really close, but she has fit in great so far,” Futterman said.

Quilty has ensured that Ottey is wrestling a variety of partners; he had her wrestle every member of the team near her weight class at some point. To make sure that Ottey has the opportunity to wrestle both females and males, Quilty has also entered her into an all-girls tournament.

“I think it is really exciting,” Ottey said.

As co-captain, Berg has been impressed with Ottey’s dedication to the sport. “You can see that whenever Jhanae steps into the mat, she is looking to win dominantly, and that’s something we can all relate to,” Berg said.

Annunziata is aware that the Commissioner’s Regulations may create confusion and a double-standard for female athletes. “So joining wrestling, as an example, there may be a boy who can’t meet any of those standards, but because they are a boy the process does not apply to them,” Annunziata said.

“There is definitely an inequality there,” Athletic Trainer Amy Mojica said.

Mojica is a member of the three-person committee panel that “provides a comprehensive assessment of your child’s [the student’s] emotional and physical maturity (including height and weight); as well as athletic abilities, physical fitness, and sport-specific athletic skill in relationship to other students at that level,” according to a letter that Mojica sends to parents of prospective mixed-sport athletes. The committee also consists of School Physician Dr. Adam Cohen and another member of the Athletics Department that changes depending on the sport.

The process also requires that the athlete complete a physical fitness test specific to their sport. According to the Commissioner’s Regulations, the final requirement is that every year the athlete has to redo the test to make sure they are still fit to be on the team.

“If you don’t pass the fitness test, it doesn’t mean that you fail,” Mojica said. “It just gives a gauge on the person’s fitness. It’s just a piece of the puzzle.”

Only certain sports require panel review, depending on state regulations, Mojica said. “They should all be in the same boat..there’s room for more consistency across the board.” Mojica said.

“If we’re going to have a test to see if people should wrestle, it should examine their desire to win and willingness to work hard,” Berg said. It should not be dependent on gender.”

Even though Mojica thinks there is room for improvement, she still believes the tests are useful. “I think it makes sense,” Mojica said. “I think it’s an important thing for safety to have some sort of consideration, and a moment where you are saying ‘hey, you know, if we are going to have mixed competition, are we making sure that this is a safe opportunity, and are we making sure we are considering everyone involved?’” Mojica said.

Two current students have been deterred from joining an athletic team because of the school’s adherence to the Commissioner’s Regulations.  “A part of why I didn’t end up joining was because of this process,” Jayla Thomas (11) said. Thomas wanted to join the wrestling team, but the test led to her quitting, as she missed the first practices because of it and fell behind, she said.

Other schools in the NYSAIS league have females on their traditionally male teams as well. Ingrid Simpson-Santaro, a Fieldston freshman, played on the football team last fall after completing the same NYPHSAA process as Ottey. “It is kinda obvious they are just doing it for girls who wants to play male predominantly sports,” Simpson-Santaro said.

This didn’t stop Simpson-Santaro, as she went through the tests, which were “pretty simple and quick,” she said. Originally people thought she was trying to prove a point, but she was just doing it because of her “love for the game,”  she said. Like Ottey, Simpson-Santaro doesn’t believe she is treated any differently and has felt very welcomed on the Fieldston football team. “ The coaches made sure I had the same opportunities as the other guys,” Simpson-Santaro said.

Alecia Daley-Tulloch (10) had planned to try out for football at the school like Simpson-Santaro had done at Fieldston. “I thought it was going to be simple; put my name on the sign up sheet and I was in, like the boys had to do,” Daley-Tulloch said.

Once Daley-Tulloch understood the process required to join the team, she was taken aback.  “How can a city, or a school, or the coaches at the school, claim they believe in everyone,and tell us we can do anything we put our minds to but still tell us we are not equal to our peers,” Daley-Tulloch said.

“I would be upset if we had a qualified wrestler, but they couldn’t do it [join the wrestling team] because of the test,” Quilty said.

“Wrestling is a sport for everybody,” Berg said. “The mat, rules, and your preparation are the same no matter who you are.”