Girls feeling like washouts on coed swimming teams

Posted: February 11, 2005

The freshman girl swimmer steps up onto the starting block for a race. All 5 feet, 2 inches and 100 pounds of her body are limbered up and ready to go.

Her times are fast enough to beat most girls. But she won't win this race - because she's racing a boy almost twice her size.

All season long, hundreds of girls in South Jersey find themselves in a similar situation: racing against boys who are stronger and faster - and who beat them consistently.

As Delran High swimmer Kelly Rosenzweig puts it: "When you race against a 6-foot-tall boy full of muscles, and you're a small girl, you know right away you aren't getting first."

South Jersey is home to a practice rarely ever seen anywhere else in the nation: coed high school swimming. Though many of these teams are mostly female, the state athletic association chooses to classify these teams as boys' teams.

And therein lies the beginning of a tale of how about 350 girls on 27 coed teams in South Jersey are deprived of an equal opportunity to participate in the sport - precisely what those who championed the 1972 federal Title IX legislation sought to eliminate.

The problem is not just that these girls have to race against boys. These girls lose out on concrete opportunities, such as restricted competition at the state championships, and more intangible ones, such as publicity and recognition. And some girls interested in swimming may never try out, turned off by the prospect of competing against boys.

"Most swim teams are girls only or boys only. So the fact that these girls are deprived of sex-appropriate competition is even more insulting," said Kristen Galles, a Washington lawyer who specializes in Title IX cases.

So, at a time when the WNBA and Serena Williams can grab headlines, and when women's professional sports are increasingly visible, inequities between high school boys' and girls' sports are still present in South Jersey. Pennsylvania high schools have never had coed teams.

"You look at high school sports across the country and just don't see this happening," said John Gilles, director of the National Federation of State High School Associations.

The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association classifies the coed teams as boys' teams under the theory that Title IX prohibits boys from participating in girls' sports. Of the 58 South Jersey swim teams, 27 are coed.

"If we just had girls' teams, then boys wouldn't be able to swim on them. And that wouldn't be fair," said Carol Parsons, NJSIAA assistant director.

Across the country, one or two girls may compete on a team traditionally dominated by boys (or vice versa). But only in South Jersey do girls consistently compete against boys in a sport where most schools traditionally offer separate teams.

Coed swimming in New Jersey - it has existed in South Jersey since the 1970s - remains intact largely because no one has challenged the state athletic association about the legality of girls racing boys.

"To tell you the truth, the only reason we haven't had a lawsuit about this is that no one has ever brought us one," Parsons said. But, Parsons said, the rules are written by swim coaches who have "the best interests of the sport in mind."

Title IX violations on the high school level are only beginning to be challenged in courts. In the past, the focus has been on colleges, partially as a result of the revenue that college sports generate.

"High schools are not always organized enough or just not interested enough in a hard-nosed look at whether they are providing equal opportunities to girls. And New Jersey isn't providing them," said Jocelyn Samuels, a lawyer at the National Women's Law Center in Washington.

And parents and coaches who want to question whether female swimmers are getting a fair break worry that asking too many questions will endanger having any swim program at the school.

"It seems like it's either coed or nothing," said Pat Hafner, whose daughter, Kate, swims on the Cinnaminson coed team. "The school talked about cutting swimming a while back, so I don't say anything."

Why are there coed teams at all?

Schools that have small enrollments or few students interested in swimming often have just a boys' team. But girls also compete on the team - and often outnumber the boys, as they do at Schalick High in Pittsgrove, where 15 girls swim on a "boys' team" that has six boys.

Girls do have the chance to qualify for the state individual girls' meet. But in 2000, the NJSIAA swimming committee forbade girls on boys' teams from competing in the relay races that are part of this meet. The committee wanted to avoid having boys trying to compete on girls' relays.

At the state swimming championships last year, four girls from Cinnaminson High were barred from competing.

Their 200-yard freestyle relay team featured two of the best swimmers in South Jersey. The team met the qualifying time for the state meet early in the season, and that time would have placed them in the top five.

Instead of fighting for a title in the pool, Kate Hafner remembers watching from the sideline.

"It just stunk to see other girls swim a race I know we could have maybe won," Hafner said.

This relay rule is the example that many coaches point to for evidence that the NJSIAA's rules are unfair to female swimmers.

"The relay rule is a symptom of a much larger problem. It's hard for a teenage girl to fairly compete with a teenage boy," Schalick coach Linda DuBois said.

Federal courts have ruled that, under Title IX, schools have no obligation to provide opportunities to the historically well-represented gender, usually boys.

"Legally, you could turn these teams that are 70 percent girls into girls' teams as long as you made sure that other opportunities were open to boys," Galles said.

Few in South Jersey advocate kicking boys off teams in order to create all-girls teams. Yet some parents, coaches and swimmers say that the present system shortchanges girls. "We'd definitely be a lot happier if we could beat the best girls instead of losing to OK boys," said Kate Zoog, a Cinnaminson swimmer.

Staying out of the controversy, the state Department of Education said that the NJSIAA is a nonprofit association and solely administers high school sports rules.

"We don't deal with their Title IX issues unless a complaint is filed against us," said Richard Vespucci, spokesman for the department.

The state has dozens of anti-discrimination laws designed to protect students, Vespucci said.

Still, Donna A. Lopiano, director of the Women's Sports Foundation, said: "If [equal participation] is not happening, then it's a violation. The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association rules cannot discriminate against girls."

Is splitting the coed squad into two teams the answer?

"It's hard to split if you don't have the pool time or the money or the coaches to do it," said Tim Cammarota, athletic director at West Deptford, whose coed team split this year.

Bill Howton, coach of the Atlantic City girls' team, said it's about competition. "Many coaches know that if they split and have two teams, they're going to lose. They might be more concerned with winning than making it fair," he said.

Clearview junior Laura Mills is the product of a coed team that has since split. "We definitely have to work harder, since we don't have the boys swimming for us," she said.

Coaches also worry that they will be unable to attract enough swimmers. But at Clearview High School, more than 40 girls tried out for the team. And the boys' team is reinvigorated, attracting boys no longer worried about losing to girls.

As for the remaining coed teams, in the absence of legal action, coaches and athletic directors may have the greatest chance to change the practice.

"The question is really whether the schools are willing to put equity before winning," Samuels said.

Contact suburban staff writer Nikki Usher at 856-779-3234 or nusher@phillynews.com.

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