Tag Archives: gender equality

Girls in boys sports: My experience playing boys water polo

A few days ago, I read about an 11-year-old girl in Philadelphia who has been kicked off her football team because and only because she is a girl. It is a Catholic league, so technically they may discriminate as they wish. The archdiocese says they wish to prevent her injury. I was dismayed to see comments on various websites that many people agree with this decision. I have also heard similar rationales for not allowing women in combat.

First off, the obvious stuff. The girl, Caroline Pla, is 5’3″ and 110 pounds. This is above average for an 11-year-old. She has played for years and played well. There are undoubtedly boys smaller than her, so we know her size is not the issue. Yes the boys will be getting bigger, but she probably will too. Does anybody think Holley Mangold (sister of NFL player Nick Mangold), who played football in Ohio and is an Olympic weightlifter, was too small? Men and women both come in large and small. But by this logic, all men and big and strong, and all women are small and weak.

I played boys water polo in high school. It was called boys water polo, even though football was not called boys football. This was because in other states, there was girls water polo, but not in the state of Missouri. In college I also played on a men’s team. Now there is a women’s team where I live, and I play women’s water polo.

As a girl playing water polo, I was often not welcomed either. The year after I graduated high school, one of my teammates told the school paper he didn’t believe girls should play because they weren’t strong enough and could get hurt. I was shocked when I read it. I am 5’10” and 160 pounds– I was one of the tallest and fastest players on the team and the only lefty. I had a weak arm, but I did other things well. Our varsity team only had nine players. The game requires seven to play, and many of the other teams had whole lines of substitutes. We had two substitutes. But one of my teammates felt strongly enough that girls should not play on a team lacking players that he agreed to be quoted in the paper.

In high school and college I often dealt with hostility. I was once extensively groped by an opposing player in a way that had nothing to do with gameplay. (Players often say that we make “friends” when gameplay results in intimate contact.) He failed to stop even after I asked him to stop. Fortunately, much of the action in water polo is underwater and invisible to the refs, and I delivered a well-placed kick. Often opposing teams immediately pegged me as the weakest despite the fact that I was not the smallest. Players often didn’t bother to guard me as tightly. But my teammates had subtle yet obvious biases too. Even when I was unguarded, they often would not pass me the ball. One of my teammates (who was otherwise a friend) felt it his duty to yell at me every time I failed to score if I shot. When I did score, the whole pool would gasp, which was simultaneously gratifying and annoying.

Missouri had only 18 high school teams when I played, and thus water polo should have been clamoring for all the participants they could. But that was not the case. Some of the schools had reputations of being hostile to girls, without officially disallowing them. For the good of the boys and girls and the sport, realistically water polo in Missouri and many places can use anyone it can get.

Despite all this, I did and still do love water polo. I never for a moment considered quitting polo. I liked playing against bigger and faster players and testing my limits. I once played against a training mate of Michael Phelps. What pains me most I think is all the girls who never played because of the nonsense. I knew plenty of girls who would have played water polo, but they didn’t want to play with the boys. They were smaller or just didn’t care for the stigma of it. There were a couple other girls on the team with me too. Even if we formed a girl’s team, there were no other girls teams to play. Out east, I play women’s polo now. It’s awesome to be among the biggest and fastest and strongest with the girls, and I can play a different style of game. But there are gameplay merits to each game, and I wish it would just boil down to that.

Both girls and boys should be encouraged to play sports, and we should not be telling girls or boys that all boys are stronger than all girls. We should retire the phrase “throw like a girl”. Girls should play contact sports if they wish to, and they should have their own leagues too. Water polo gives me a new appreciation for the power of my own body; in this age of image obsession and eating disorders, we should give more girls the opportunity to appreciate their bodies. Why should Caroline Pla not play the sport she loves?

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