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will athletic association’s backlash backfire in Winnipeg?

by Marianne Cerilli | October 15, 2007

When the twins sisters Amy and Jesse Pasternak, signed up to try out for the boys’ hockey team at their school, they did it with the ambition of playing hockey at a level with their athletic peers that would challenge them. The Pasternaks had played on boys’ teams, since pre-school.

But the Manitoba High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) had a rule that girls could only play on boys’ teams if a girls’ team didn’t exist. Amy played defence on the girls’ school team for one game. She scored 5 goals. In defence.

It was the first year of play for the girls’ team.

The twins felt they had been pushed out of their league, and decided to do something about it. They took their case to Manitoba’s Human Rights Commission.

On September 22, 2006, adjudicator Lynne Harrison ruled that the Pasternaks had been discriminated against based on their gender.

The Human Rights Commission ruling centred on how the quality of the girls’ school team did not offer equal opportunity for Amy and Jesse to excel. The ruling requires the MHSAA to pay the girls each $3,000 in damages and pay for a hockey school to compensate for the skill they lost by missing hockey for two seasons – the time it took for the case to be decided.

That ruling is being appealed by the MHSAA, on the claim “that if girls can try out for boys’ teams then boys can try out for girls’ teams.”

The date for hearing that appeal has not been set.

The association says it is concerned about the impact of girls trying out for boys’ teams. And shouldn’t Jesse and Amy be leaders in the emerging girls’ league, anyway?

Its arguments demonstrate that, for many people, women’s rights are not human rights.

In striving for sport excellence, should these exceptional women not have the freedom to play with their athletic peers – male or female – if they choose? Is high school sport about excellence and fair play or is about dominance and exclusion?

We know that gender segregation of sport has historically seen more money, time and attention to boys’ teams, although this is changing. If gender segregation of high school sports teams were to end, and teams were based on ability, then gender parity could guarantee equality and access for females.

This would mean there would be A and B teams at junior and senior levels with a requirement for equal numbers of girls and boys. There could be a three-four rule like in Ultimate Frizbee, where there were always both genders playing.

However, that is not what those calling for boys to try out for girls’ teams seem to have in mind. The MHSAA argued last year that girls would “take a boy’s spot” and boys would not have the same opportunity. The Human Rights Commission found that there was no evidence to support this, and said that using a rule to protect the boys’ team from girls was not necessary or fair.

But the association doesn’t seem to want to listen.

Human right are about equality and establishing equity. However, those who want to maintain a privileged position of male dominance use the argument of “same treatment” on equity issues in many walks of life – from sports to divorce court.

If we applied this thinking to pay equity, women would forever earn 30% less than men, because everyone would get the same raise.

What are the real concerns about having girls play with boys, particularly when they can excel and hold their own? How will having a few girls on boys’ teams set back any advances for girls’ sport?

As long as part of our culture’s idea of male identity is so fixed on men being different than women – and as long as this difference is seen as superior – then there will be sexism in all its forms. And, in sport, nothing will strike fear in the hearts of men who hold these assumptions more than getting their butts whooped by a “girl” in the nations’ game.

Girls’ hockey will develop even if some female stars want to play with the boys. Last year, the MHSAA argued that the best women needed to support women’s hockey. However, the association’s own testimony claimed that women’s hockey is a different game. Girls’ hockey is more about passing and skill.

So if girls play boys’ hockey, will it become more about skill than brutality?

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