Sitting in matching navy shirts with #unitygames on the front, the fifth-grade students raised their hands in a vote. It was unanimous.
The members of the St. John’s fifth-grade Catholic Youth Organization basketball team had made their decision. They would rather forfeit that Friday night’s game (and potentially the rest of the season) instead of the alternative: continuing to play without the two girls who had been part of the team for years.
If you’re thinking, “This sounds like the plot of a movie I would be deeply invested in,” you’re not alone. The riveting real-life feel-good sports drama is playing out in New Jersey and, thanks to an article by NJ Advance Media, has captured the attention of the nation.
It all started two weeks ago, when the team found out that the girls were not going to be allowed to play on the team for the remainder of the season.
An error that had gone uncorrected for years — the team was never supposed to be co-ed in the first place — created a dilemma. Would the team play without the girls? Or would they stand together and forfeit the game?
But this isn’t the part of the story where the coach steps in and teaches the team a lesson about unity. Get ready to be even more impressed.
Coach Rob Martel refused to make a decision for the kids, instead letting them decide how to move forward on their own.
“One parent told me it’s my decision (whether the girls play), but I said no way, I’m not making this decision for 11 10-year-olds,” said Martel, whose daughter is one of the girls on the team.
Last Friday, sitting in the gym in matching shirts, the players voted on what they thought was fair, reaching the unanimous decision that unless the whole team could play Friday’s game, the whole team would skip it in a show of solidarity.
The following day, the girls tried to return the favor, volunteering to sit out for Saturday’s game in hopes that the boys would be able to play in the final game of the season.
Unfortunately, their generosity was not rewarded. The league director called the team’s decision to sit out of Friday’s game a “stunt,” Keisha Martel, an assistant coach for the St. John’s team, told NJ Advance Media, and as a result, the game was canceled and the season forfeited.
The team wouldn’t be allowed finish the season together, apart, or at all.
The kids weren’t the only ones disappointed by the situation.
The St. John’s team was scheduled to play their final game against Aquinas Academy on Saturday. Leslie Thomas, Aquinas Academy’s athletic director, received news only hours before that the game was canceled.
“I’m sick and tired of this,” Thomas said. “It’s not necessary. This league is about teaching our kids sportsmanship and this is definitely not sportsmanship.”
(Update 2/16/17: Let’s hear it for the girls! The decision has been reversed, which means the girls will be allowed back on the St. John’s team. And that’s not all! The two regular season games the team forfeited will be rescheduled and played ASAP, according to NJ Advance Media. The fifth graders will get a chance to go to the playoffs after all. Most importantly, they’ll get to go together.)
Stories like this are just one more example of how girls are often so easily pushed out of sports at a young age.
According to the National Women’s Law Center, girls who play sports “report better health, body image, popularity, and an overall higher quality of life, compared to girls who don’t play sports.” Unfortunately, as the Women’s Sports Foundation has found, by the time girls reach age 14, they’re dropping out of sports at twice the rate of boys their age.
So what’s keeping our girls from pursuing organized team sports and gaining all of those benefits? You guessed it: One of the main reasons for this dramatic decrease in girls playing sports is lack of access.
Think about that. Really think about it. What if lack of access had kept our country’s best athletes from the court or the field or the pitch?
For starters, the United States would’ve won five fewer medals in the Rio Olympics had Simone Biles been told there wasn’t a place for her in the gym.
What about all the girls who are now playing soccer after watching the U.S. Women’s National Team win the 2015 FIFA World Cup? What would they be doing after school if Carli Lloyd hadn’t been given the opportunity to play growing up?
This story isn’t just about these two girls on the St. John’s team who are being told after years of playing on the same team as their male peers that they’re no longer welcome on the court. This is about every girl who deserves a chance to be part of something bigger than herself and every girl who will be inspired by her in the years to come.
So look around in your community. Do girls have equal access to sports teams? What opportunities can you help create that would allow them pursue the games they love?
Watch the girls. Cheer them on. And if you’re the one making the call, let them play.