The Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Catholic Youth Organization banned 11-year-old Caroline Pla from playing in a boy’s football league earlier this year, even though she had played in the same league for more than two years and had been voted onto the league’s all-star team after the 2012 season. Last week, the CYO reaffirmed that decision, upholding its ban on female participants in grades 5 through 8.
The original ban was about safety, the CYO explained then, even if there were no indications that Pla was in any more danger than any of the 11-year-old boys playing football. When they upheld the ban, the reasoning shifted to fears of “inappropriate contact” between male and female players, even though neither Pla nor her family had ever given thought to such an issue before.
At nearly the same time, a football league far larger than the Catholic Youth Organization took a step in the opposite direction. In 2012, the National Football League formally instituted a rule allowing women to participate in its league, and next week, the annual regional scouting combines for amateur players will feature its first female participant.
Lauren Silberman, a 28-year-old former college club soccer player, is attending a regional combine with the hope of becoming the first woman to play in the NFL. The odds that Silberman, a kicker, will make a team are longer-than-long, but that doesn’t matter: the NFL provided a path for women to participate, and for the first time, one will. There are more than 1,600 girls playing on boys’ high school football teams, and multiple women have played college football, so Silberman almost surely won’t be the last woman to go out for the team.
But these stories aren’t as much about football and making the team as they are about just having the chance to play. Women now enjoy far more access to sports than they did 40 years ago, when Title IX became law, but female participation still doesn’t match that of men. Neither does funding, even though sports participation has substantial health, education, and economic benefits for the women and girls who participate. It’s wonderful that the NFL is expanding access to women, but those efforts are undermined when youth leagues like the CYO, where there are more girls who want to play and fewer who have access, refuse to let the Caroline Plas of the world play the games they love.