EUREKA • The boy wants to play field hockey. That’s the problem.
Matt Bozdech is 15. He has braces and brown hair. He likes video games. He’s a fairly typical teen boy, except for the field hockey thing. He started playing several years ago, moving from the ice version to the grass one, and kept at it, even though the sport is widely considered a girls game in the United States.
Now, Matt wants to play field hockey for his school, Eureka High. But the school only has a girls team. No school in Missouri, or for hundreds of miles around, has a boys team.
So what’s a boy to do?
It’s a question that has been posed in just a few states — and never before in Missouri. Nationwide, fewer than 300 boys played field hockey in high school in 2012-13, compared to nearly 62,000 girls, according to one survey. So when boys do play, they almost always play on girls teams. Matt and his father asked Rockwood School District to give him a chance. He would play with the girls. He didn’t mind. Rockwood said no.
But the Bozdechs did not let it stand there. They filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education alleging Matt was discriminated against because he’s a boy, and was retaliated against for complaining about his exclusion. Earlier this year, the federal agency said it would investigate the allegations.
This is the flip side of the debate over Title IX, the 1972 law that bars gender discrimination in school programs. Along the way, Title IX revolutionized sports programs by requiring equal playing opportunities for boys and girls, men and women. Title IX has changed public perceptions — erasing the novelty of girls sports and leading to fewer raised eyebrows when a girl tries to play football or wrestle with the boys.
But a boy trying to play on a girls team is still viewed differently. It raises other, less clear questions about what is fair.
“I still like my school. I still support the team,” Matt said. “I just want to play.”
A BRUTAL SPORT
Matt has broken most of his fingers playing field hockey outside of school. Maybe all of his fingers. He’s lost count. He’s suffered two black eyes and a bloody nose. He once took a stick to the head and blacked out.
Field hockey can be brutal. In the United States, this cross between ice hockey and soccer exists mostly in the margins. Yet it is among the most popular sports in the world. In India, the August birthday of legendary field hockey player Dhyan Chand is celebrated as National Sports Day.
Matt found field hockey by accident. He was in the first grade and loved ice hockey. But his dad thought Matt’s playing days would be coming to an end when body-checking was introduced. Matt was one of the smaller players. His dad suggested he try other sports. Matt looked at the usual suspects: basketball, baseball and soccer. He considered water polo. One day, they drove by a field hosting a field hockey practice.
“Can I try that?” Matt asked his dad.
Sure, replied Paul Bozdech.
He didn’t expect Matt to stick with it.
That summer, Matt went to a field hockey camp. He was the only boy. But it didn’t bother him. And the adjustment has become easier.
“I’ve been playing with the same friends for so long that I’ve gotten used to it,” Matt said.
Girls field hockey enjoys strong support in St. Louis, with summer camps and year-round clubs. Many area schools have teams. Catholic schools tend to excel at it. In the Rockwood School District, the largest in the St. Louis County with 21,500 students, all four high schools have girls field hockey teams.
Before Matt even reached high school, Bozdech, who works as principal at Loyola Academy in St. Louis, talked with Eureka officials about his son playing field hockey. He asked if Matt could join the team, and he was told no. He then asked if Matt could help manage and practice with the team. That offer was turned down, too. When Matt was a freshman, Bozdech asked again. Same response.
This was in 2012. At the same time, in Smithtown, N.Y., a boy named Keeling Pilaro was making national headlines for fighting and winning the right to play on his high school’s girls field hockey team. “That’s exactly what we’re trying to do,” Bozdech recalled thinking.
But, in Missouri, Matt couldn’t even get near the field.
In August 2012, Bozdech fired off an angry email to school officials, writing, “He’s willing to stick his neck out to play the sport and you won’t grant him a small concession of helping the girls on the team?”
Days later, Bozdech got an email from Jim Wipke, the district’s director of secondary education. He warned Bozdech the decision was final and that Bozdech should refrain from communicating with anyone connected to the team.
“Such interference will not be tolerated,” Wipke wrote in the email, obtained by the Post-Dispatch.
BLAZING A TRAIL
Rockwood officials declined to comment on the specifics of Bozdech’s complaint. But the district pointed out that it offers 11 sports for boys and 11 sports for girls. And when it comes to sports, said district spokeswoman Kim Cranston, “we are following the guidelines established by MSHSAA for emerging sports.”
The suggestion is that the problem rests with the Missouri State High School Activities Association. It draws up the rules governing school sports. Rockwood just follows them.
Those rules put Matt in a Catch-22: He could play for Eureka High, if the school approved it, but then the girls team with Matt could compete only against a boys team or another coed team. Because he would be the only boy playing in perhaps the entire Midwest, Eureka High would have no one to play.
That’s the reason Rockwood gave for not allowing Matt to play, casting it as a decision between the boy and the team, Bozdech said. “He’s putting himself first, that was the message. And that’s not true.”
Bozdech said he wants Rockwood to ask the state activities association for an exemption to the “no boys” rule. And if the association rejects the request, then Matt won’t play, Bozdech said.
Bozdech cannot seek an exemption himself — the school would have to do that. And no school has ever asked for such an exemption, said Jason West, association spokesman.
In that respect, Matt is a potential trailblazer.
The question of who can play which sports is a tricky one. In Missouri, as in most states, girls cannot play on boys teams if the school also offers that same sport for girls. A girl tennis player can’t join the boys team if she has a team to play on. Otherwise, a girl may play on a boys team if the sport isn’t offered for girls and is defined as “noncontact.” So golf is OK. But boys can’t join a girls team if the school’s athletic offerings for both sexes is at least equal. And coed teams can play all-boys teams, but not all-girls teams.
To make it even more confusing, football and wrestling in Missouri are considered coed sports. That’s why girls are allowed to play these male-dominated sports.
But it’s not the same for boys looking to play female-dominated sports.
Things are different in Pennsylvania.
Boys can play on girls field hockey teams there. For now.
Pennsylvania has allowed this under a court injunction that barred gender discrimination in sports. But a Pittsburgh couple, tired of watching their daughter compete against boys, filed a challenge in 2011. Jim and Mary Grenen argued that the rule denied opportunities for girls and created an unfair competitive advantage. Last year, a judge agreed.
Now, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association is drafting new rules that limit boys’ participation in traditional girls sports.
That has parents such as Dave DeAngelis in Doylestown, Pa., worried. His son, Christian, plays field hockey on a high school girls team. Christian is treated like just another player. He wears the same skirt-and-short uniform the girls do. DeAngelis said losing the right to play field hockey “would be somewhat devastating to us.”
“How is this not reverse discrimination?” he asked. “It’s analogous to a girl playing football.”
Title IX — just 37 words that upended the scholastic sports world — promises equal opportunity to participate in sports, but generally not to compete in every sport.
“You look at whole program versus whole program,” said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an attorney in Jacksonville, Fla., and advocacy director for the Women’s Sports Foundation.
Most often girls are the ones getting cut short. Hogshead-Makar said the challenge with Matt’s complaint — or any boy prevented from playing girls field hockey — is showing that a school is short-shrifting the boys.
“He has no shot if the school is providing boys with more sports opportunities than the girls,” she said.
A WAITING GAME
Recently, Matt traveled to Virginia to compete in a national field hockey tournament. Enough boys showed to cobble together a few boys teams. But the lack of boys is recognized as a problem by USA Field Hockey, the sport’s national governing body.
“We’re trying to revive the sport for the men,” said Liz Tchou, national youth development manager. “But trying to get it in the schools has been a difficult task.”
At these national tournaments, Matt has met other boys who play field hockey. He realizes he’s not alone. His dad has had similar experiences, talking with parents who have fought battles across the nation. Bozdech said he kept hearing that the only way to get anything done was to file a lawsuit. He didn’t want to do that. Instead, he filed the civil rights complaint.
It could take months before the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights completes its investigation.
In the meantime, Matt finds time to play field hockey when he can. He sleeps in a bedroom with a poster of the men’s national field hockey team on the wall.
He sounded more disappointed than angry with how school officials have handled his bid. He said he understood their position. But, he said, “they just haven’t tried at all to help me play.”
He has a younger sister who plays field hockey. She’s 12. She’ll be in high school in a couple years. And Matt knows that when she gets there, because she’s a girl, she’ll have a field hockey team to play for.