Girl Expelled for Daring to Join the Boys’ Basketball Team

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Most 12-year-old girls are focused on their friends, getting ready for high school, the lastest singer on the Internet and tweets, and their sports team if playing sports. Sydney Phillips was no different from any other 12-year-old around the country, and she was an avid fan and basketball player where possible. However, her New Jersey middle school decided not to dedicate any resources to a girls basketball team due to a lack of players. As a result, Phillips who still wanted to play ball decided she was good enough and signed up to play on the boys’ team instead. That’s where the problems began.

It was likely that Phillips was going to be denied a spot on the boys’ team due to gender. It was likely her parents were going to be notified of the decision as well. What no one expected was that the school would move to expel Sydney Phillips for daring to apply for the boys’ team at all, as if she had taken a weapon or drugs to school and triggered some major violation of school rules.

A bit of background is needed in this story. Phillips was attending a religious private school when she applied for the boys’ team in October 2016. St. Theresa’s School is a catholic grade school that is part of the Newark diocese. The original decision was the expected denial because the school wasn’t going to allow gender-mixed teams on sports. Phillips, however, challenged the decision because there was nothing specific as a rule banning mixed-gender sports, and her parents sued the school. However, the court overruled and dismissed the case, and in response after winning the school severed its contractual relationship and expelled both Sydney Phillips and her sister from attending entirely.

As Sydney’s father put it, the disappointment of the school’s treatment hit personally. The family had been parishioners of St. Theresa’s for years, lifelong for the Phillips patriarch since he had been baptized at St. Theresa’s in his childhood. The reaction and treatment seemed unfair to the family given their lifelong commitment to the parish and school. On the other hand, they had initiated a lawsuit over the sports eligibility of Sydney, which was enough for the school administration to remove further litigious risk, most likely.

In the greater context, girls’ and women’s sports continues to see short shrift and less. Studies and research put together in 2012 by the Sport, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center for Women and Girls (SHARP) concluded that boys’ sports resources continued to grow at a far faster and bigger rate than those for girls, across the board. A separate report took the issue from a different angle; the Women’s Sports Foundation found that girls were twice as likely to exit out of sports in school than boys, increasing their lack of sports education and fitness. Among the contributing factors for exiting lack of sport teams, lack of access, social stigmas, cost, lack of female role models and lack of transport and safety resources are key factors creating obstacles for girls.

Coming back to the case of Sydney Phillips, it’s clear that the school is unable to separate the litigation from the need for girls’ access to sports, which probably could have been remedied with a bit of creative thinking. As it turned out, Sydney was able to get a spot on the Amateur Athletic Union basketball team but also, unfortunately, had to transfer to another school with her sister. Her education is not in jeopardy, but Sydney and her family learned a hard lesson on the lack of support for girls and sports. And it’s not an issue that can be ignored; federal civil rights laws expect an equal education in sports, which includes girls, regardless of what a diocese may think otherwise.


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