October 08, 2018
If things had gone differently, Caroline Pla would be remembered as a trailblazer who cleared a permanent path for local girls who wanted to play football.
After a heated, high-profile battle with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Pla – just 11 years old in 2013 – brought about co-ed Catholic Youth Organization football teams.
Donning a uniform and heading out onto the gridiron during her sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade years, she said she would be the only girl to take advantage of the Archdiocesan policy before it was reversed in 2014.
“After my eighth-grade season, the rule changed back. I tried to fight it, but was told nothing was going to change. No girls were trying to play,” Pla told PhillyVoice during a phone interview last week.
That reversal – despite its Title IX discrimination implications – didn’t garner as much attention as Pla’s fight did. That could be about to change, though, because of a 12-year-old Chester County girl named Brooke Choi, who finds herself in a similar predicament.
“I'd kind of forgotten about it, but now that she’s trying to play, it’s really disappointing for me," said Pla, a Central Bucks East High School senior who plays basketball and helps coach players in her former youth program. "She’s going through the same thing I went through. She’s the first girl since me. It’s just disheartening.”
Disheartened may be an understatement to describe how Choi feels these days.
Having played football for the past three years in a suburban youth league, the seventh grader, who is already taller than her mother Suzanne, has at times bawled her eyes out.
She’s also channeled her energies into playing for a girl’s lacrosse team at Pope John Paul II Regional Catholic Elementary School in Coatesville, much to the dismay of opponents on whose behalf referees have urged Brooke to take it a little easier on them.
What she wants to do most – with much support from former and would-be coaches, family members, friends, parish communities and others – is to get back out and play the sport which she loves.
That means the Archdiocese could soon find itself engaged in another battle.
Last Tuesday morning, Brooke and Suzanne sat on a bench outside St. Peter Catholic Church, just off Manor Road in Coatesville.
It’s their parish, the one Brooke would represent playing on the Chester County Crusaders. Her school is right next door.
Brooke’s father Michael is the head football coach at Pequea Valley High in Lancaster County. Her brother Brandon plays at Bishop Shanahan High in Downingtown.
With Brooke developing her own love for the game, it's easy to understand why her mother Suzanne considers herself a “football widow” this time of year.
Brooke gets to talking about how being surrounded by the sport left her “just wanting to try it out” when she was eight or nine years old.
She tried out for the Downingtown Young Whippets program and, despite admitting her “form was a little sloppy at first,” made the 80-pound squad her first year, and the 100-pound squad in subsequent years.
“They had her as a center but moved her to tackle and guard because of how much of a beast she was,” Suzanne proudly declared.
“That’s my strength,” Brooke added, noting her play in the sport’s proverbial trenches.
Not once, she said, did she hear a comment about how girls shouldn’t play football.
“Everybody was so nice. They didn’t care that I was a girl," she said. "My hair got yanked sometimes, but that doesn’t really affect me.”
Suzanne offered a vignette to put her daughter's skills into context.
“I was standing in line at the snack bar at halftime of one game, and I heard a father was saying, ‘Oh my God, you see that girl out there? She’s kicking my son’s ass,’” she said, prompting laughter from both.
This year, though, Brooke’s father wasn’t really keen on his daughter moving up to the next division.
Rules changes left the league no longer “weight mandated.” That meant that she’d face larger, stronger boys. Dad wasn’t going to let that happen, so he told her she couldn't play in that league anymore.
“It was awful,” Brooke said. “I bawled my eyes out for three days straight. I begged him to let me play.”
All was not lost.
Though she couldn’t continue on with the Whippets, a compromise was reached: she could sign up for the Crusaders, which draws young players from four local parishes, provided she worked hard enough to prove she wanted the chance badly.
And, that Brooke did.
On August 3, Suzanne went online to sign her up. Brooke qualified on the age and grade prompts, but when gender was entered on the site, it stated that only boys can play.
"Unless it’s for flag (football), girls can’t be registered for tackle (by) Archdiocesan rule. We can’t override that at the Crusader or District level since the policy was implemented by the Archbishop," wrote Edward Caporellie, board president for the Crusaders, when Suzanne reached out seeking information in the aftermath.
It was a stunning realization that hasn’t relented in two months. The Archdiocese told the family that Brooke could not play because they feared “inappropriate touching” could take place.
“They’re acting like bullies. They are being bullies. And I hate bullies.” – Suzanne Choi
Suzanne wrote a letter to the Archdiocese, hoping to change their mind about the policy. It read in part:
I want to reiterate that we are fully aware that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is unable to use any overarching national or state religious council's mandates as an opportunity to skirt its responsibility to uphold Title IX.
Our research below, reviewed by Title IX experts, indicates that the Archdiocese already granted permission to a female player to play CYO contact football from 2011 through 2014.
Precedent has been set to allow all females the right to play, in absence of another football opportunity.
None exists; none has been offered since Caroline Pla's situation first challenged the same-sex contact rule.
When contacted by PhillyVoice for further details, Archdiocese spokesman Ken Gavin offered a limited response via email:
"CYO representatives were in correspondence with the parents of one girl requesting information regarding eligibility to play CYO football," he wrote. "Information regarding our contact sports policy was shared with this family and there have been no additional inquiries."
In a follow-up email on Monday afternoon, Gavin added that, "Following the decision in the Caroline Pla matter, which was a provisional decision and noted so very publicly at the time, the Catholic bishops of Pennsylvania issued a common policy on contact sports at the CYO level. That policy is in effect and the one that was shared with the family which inquired about the matter."
For Brooke, who beat out 22 boys for a roster spot on teams that won two championships in the Bert Bell League, it's beyond frustrating.
“I just wanted to play football. It was really upsetting,” Brooke said. “I know I’d be better than the boys out there, but they wouldn’t give me the chance.”
Added Suzanne, “This isn’t a gimmick, just to have a girl play football. She legit plays football and she should be allowed to play with her school friends. It’s like they dangled candy in front of her and just said she can’t play.”
Despite the stop sign, Brooke attended the Crusaders’ early season “heat acclimation” sessions in which players practiced without pads.
“It’s the most absurd thing in the whole world. Instead of permission, we’d ask for forgiveness later,” Suzanne explained.
She'd already collected a wide swath of support coming from all quarters except the Archdiocese itself, but few seemed willing to defy those orders.
“It should never have come to this,” Suzanne rued.
When the pads went on in the second week, though, the practices ended, leaving Brooke sidelined but for serving as the team’s ceremonial captain at their home opener in September.
“It was depressing. It was awful,” Brooke said of being limited to that role.
To Suzanne, the fact that her daughter has “never had one instance of inappropriate touching” in her years of playing football makes this more difficult to accept, not to mention the fact that there’s no locker room to worry about at this level.
Still, Brooke’s family would prefer to avoid the sort of legal battle that consumed Caroline Pla’s family for months on end.
“I didn’t want to push it at this point,” said Suzanne.
She's been told the law would be on their side for two reasons: the Archdiocese accepts federal funds for lunch programs, making it Title IX-eligible, as well as the precedent set forth in the Mercer vs. Duke University case that bars an institution from trying to claim a same-sex contact sport exemption if it has previously allowed a girl to play that sport.
Support for Brooke even extends beyond the parishes, their boards, the players’ families and those who know her and her family.
Caroline Pla, the trailblazer, said she should be able to play. That Brooke remains sidelined feels insulting after the battles she fought years ago.
Tom Kucera coached Brooke when she was nine and 10 years old. He said last week that she’s a capable player and concerns about her playing contact sports don't carry weight.
“When we put her on the field, we didn’t worry about her being able to defend herself, which is a big deal,” Kucera said. “She’s a capable football player. We never treated her any differently because she was a girl. Never in those two years did she look like she was in danger, or in over her head.
“I’m not the kind of guy to make waves. They have their rules, but where she played (previously) is a few notches above CYO. She’d be able to completely defend herself on the field.”
"I’d be more concerned about a 65-pound boy getting hurt. Brooke was one of the more aggressive players on the team." – Guy Fardone, Chester County Crusaders coach
Guy Fardone, the Crusaders coach for whom Brooke would be playing this year, said it’s a simple issue.
“I just want to see a 12-year-old girl be able to play football,” he said. “She’s a really good player, and she's really passionate about the game.
"Our goal is to help the Choi family in any way we can. Whoever makes these decisions should meet face-to-face with the family and explain why she’s not allowed to play. We still don’t know why.”
Fardone believes the Archdiocese is just trying to prevent an inevitable shift.
“When I was first helping Brooke try to play, they said she couldn’t because she could get hurt. I’d be more concerned about a 65-pound-boy getting hurt. Brooke was one of the more aggressive players on the team,” he said. “Then, they came back with the ‘inappropriate touching’ statement.
“Letting girls play CYO football is going to happen sooner or later, whether that’s in five or 10 years, or five weeks. It’s just the natural course of things. Just look around. … The Chois are a Crusader family, and the Crusaders just want to help a 12-year-old girl play football, unless someone, somewhere can actually provide a tangible reason as to why not.”
In the late 2000s, Grace became the first girl to carry the ball in a Philadelphia Public League football game, as she made the Germantown High team.
This summer, Grace was a coaching intern at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers preseason training camp. She continues coaching at a North Philadelphia high school, and runs camps and training for professional players in Philadelphia to this day.
She saw the prohibition through a different lens, noting that the Archdiocese should be “adamant about making sure they raise integrity-filled people and men” instead of barring girls from the sport.
“That’s the social role of football: Teaching discipline. Being self-motivated and team-oriented,” said Grace, who faced a lot more pushback when she played than Brooke has faced. “They’re robbing her of that opportunity because they’re worried someone else will not have any integrity.
“If the school is OK with it, they’d be taking responsibility on teaching the young men to be good people. Instead, it just seems like the (Archdiocese is) encouraging the stigma of Catholics, that people act like this.”
She said it extended out to larger societal issues, drawing a parallel between keeping a gender out of football and the viewpoint that “men are being inconvenienced with sexual harassment allegations.”
“I’m not trying to be political, but it’s so frustrating to be in a world where men get protected in their guilt,” she said. “It’s so overwhelming for women to feel unprotected and unsafe on such a large scale. What this does is teach young girls that the highest authorities in their religion and in their school will not protect them.
“People should stand up for Brooke’s passion in life. There’s no space for us unless we make it, and it took so long for me to realize that.”
Suzanne's point transcends legalese and societal shortcomings, though.
For her, it's about how her daughter's being treated by an archdiocese that doesn't seem inclined to even interact with them and offer further explanation behind their decision.
Though she's not currently inclined to go the legal route, the battle is not over.
“They’re acting like bullies," she said. "They are being bullies. And I hate bullies.”
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