Sydney Phillips is a 12-year-old from Kenilworth, New Jersey, who loves basketball. So much so, that when her school axed the girl’s team for “lack of interest,” she asked to join the boys team.
She may have expected, at the very worst, to be told “No.” But, undoubtedly, she never expected to be expelled.
Sydney asked if she could join the boys’ squad in October 2016, but officials at St. Theresa’s school refused her request. This is despite the fact that the Archdiocese of Newark has no specific rule prohibiting mixed-gender basketball training. But Sydney didn’t take the refusal (and exclusion) lying down.
Her father, Scott Phillips, immediately filed a lawsuit against the school. Unfortunately, they lost in court and Sydney and her younger sister, Caitlin, were expelled from St. Theresa’s, according to ABC News.
Ironically, her father heard the news while watching Sydney play on another court with the revered New York Liberty women’s basketball team. You see, they had heard about Sydney’s efforts to continue playing basketball and had asked her to train with them.
For a moment, just imagine being Scott Phillips — watching with pride as his daughter played with the NYL team when he gets the email informing him that his daughters are no longer welcome at the school they love. The school where Sydney is student council treasurer as well as an altar server. It just doesn’t seem fair at all.
Perhaps I feel such unwavering support for Phillips because I, too, have a strong-willed daughter who loves sports. She is the only girl in her year who has joined the soccer team. She is the only girl who gets invited to all the boys’ football parties. She is the fastest runner out of the 36 children in her class. She is fearless at every physical activity she takes part in.
At Christmas, I was Bambi on ice, while my brave daughter coached me down the slope. “Just make a pizza with your skis, Mummy,” she told me while bringing me safely down the mountain. The thought that, at any point in her life, my little firecracker could be expelled from her school simply because she plays sports, horrifies me.
No wonder Scott Phillips feels so disillusioned, telling NJ.com:
“I am so disappointed with St Theresa’s, I’ve been a lifelong parishioner. I was baptized there, I did my communion there, I was married there. My children did their communions there; my parents are buried in that church. And this is what they do after all these years, because we want our daughter to play on a boys’ basketball team. It’s disgraceful, and they should be ashamed of themselves.”
This comes at a time when girls’ participation in sports is on a decline. A 2012 study by the Sport, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center for Women and Girls (SHARP), found that while athletic participation opportunities expanded across the decade, the boys’ divisions grew more than the girls. By 2009-10, 53 athletic opportunities were offered for every 100 boys, compared with just 41 opportunities for every 100 girls.
The report also reinstated how sports are an integral part of an educational experience. Students who participate in sports are shown to achieve greater academic success on a whole.
Meanwhile, the Women’s Sports Foundation, founded by Billie Jean King, found that by the age of 14, girls drop out of sports at two times the rate of boys. This is due to a variety of reasons: Lack of access (girls have 1.3 million fewer opportunities to play high school sports than boys), social stigmas, cost, lack of female role models, and safety/transportation issues.
Surely, St. Theresa’s should be doing everything in their power to encourage young women to join sports rather than discouraging (or expelling) them. Three-quarters of working women feel that sports enhance their self-image, and after all, physical activity is good for our health. So isn’t it imperative that girls get as much encouragement and support in their sporting activities of interest as our boys?
Sydney has already tried out and secured a spot on an Amateur Athletic Union basketball team. When asked about the situation at her school, she told ABC News: “I was like, really bummed when I found out I couldn’t play with the boys, because I’m better than them.”
Being excluded because of gender is an issue at the top of women’s minds — not only in school, but in workplaces around the world. What example is it setting by telling Sydney she can’t play with the boys? It is saying that playing just as well, if not better, than them isn’t enough. It is sending the message that just because she is female, she is not good enough.
As New York Liberty player Teresa Weatherspoon told ABC News, “We are obligated to teach our kids. We’re obligated to send them to another level. We’re obligated to show them who they can be.”
In this case, that means taking on the boys and winning. Something I’m sure Sydney could have done but, I guess now we’ll never know.