Allegra Milholland, at the age of 9, has developed into something special as an athlete. Last summer, she won the Northern Virginia Swimming League's all-star backstroke event. For the past two years, she has been playing at the highest level of youth soccer in the soccer in the Washington area. And she has been playing with kids who are at least one year older than she is and they have all been boys.
She is no token. Allegra, who mostly plays halfback, starts and plays most of every game. The team she plays on, the 1971 McLean Stingers, is so good that it was invited to play this year in the Canadian Robbie tournament -- a prestigious international event in which 40 of the best teams from the U.S., Canada and Mexico play for five days in Toronto. Her team is going. Allegra is not.
Allegra can't play.
She's a girl.
"I think it stinks," says Allegra.
Mixed teams are not allowed in the Robbie tournament. Officials say they have a girls' tournament and Allegra can play there, which of course she can't since she's not on a girls' team. Allegra's coach, Albert Galiani, says he did not realize she could not play when he applied to be invited to the tournament last fall. "After we had been accepted, a coach came up to me and said what are we going to do about having a girl on our team. That was the first clue that made us start looking into it."
Allegra's mother, Olivia -- who stresses how kind Galiani has been to her daughter -- has a different recollection. "He'd always said that if she couldn't go, the team wouldn't. That was before the acceptance came in. That was last year." After the acceptance, Galiani phoned Olivia. "He wanted me to say 'neatsy keen' and I did at first." Then she broke the news to her daughter. "She was sitting quietly at the table and I very calmly said that the team had been accepted to the Robbie tournament and unfortunately they didn't accept girls to play on mixed teams and she would have to stay home when the boys went up the tournament," says Olivia. But as they talked, the unfairness of it all hit both Olivia and her husband, John. Allegra, a child of today, educated parents raised in another time.
"She said to me questions like 'aren't I an important member of the team?' and 'does the team want to go without me?' and 'I love going to tournaments, isn't there another tournament we can go to?'
"I didn't like the look on her face. We don't raise them that way anymore," Olivia said. Her husband John was listening. "This kind of thing has never really bothered him. His ears were getting redder and redder. Things were not going well. By midnight, I was purple," and by the next day she'd told Galiani what she thought of the situation and he was on the horns of dilemma.
He telephoned and wrote the tournament officials. "Their argument comes back to the same stupid argument you hear all the time, which is that because boys don't play on girls' teams, girls shouldn't play on boys' teams."
"It's a no-win situation," says Olivia. "If they don't go, it's because there was this dumb girl on the team. If they do go, Allegra loses because she was excluded, although she was part of the team. She wants to stay on that team because there is nothing comparable unless she wants to play on a girls' team that's much older."
John Milholland contacted the U.S. Soccer Federation but found the official he spoke to "totally uninterested. He was not interested in the fact that there was no comparable girls' team at her age. It was simply the federation's position that they do not encourage girls to play on boys' teams."
Galiani, who says he has "spent a lot of sleepless nights on this whole thing," finally put the issue to a team vote. "The team wanted Allegra to be acting captain, to dress out for the games, to go out on the field before the coin toss. They wanted her to warm up with us, to be like a coach on the sidelines . . . They wanted her to share in any rewards if there were any and also have the experience of seeing Canada." And they voted to go.
"Nobody means to be mean," says Olivia. "They just want to go to the Robbie tournament so badly they can't stand it. When it comes right down to it, Allegra is a girl and she'll just have to sit back."
Galiani, who says he would "never have applied to the tournament knowing what I know now," says his obligation is to think of the team first. Because Allegra is so good, she will go to tournaments "that some of these kids will never see." But it is because of how good she is that she has been able to play at the highest competitive level and has, thus, had an embarrassing, disappointing and potentially embittering experience.
"I just hope it doesn't discourage other girls from coming out for teams and coaches from picking them," says Allegra.
"There's no question other coaches do not look favorable on choosing girls because they don't want to run into this kind of problem," says Galiani. "What's so ironic about this whole thing is that because we didn't have any prejudices we end up being the ones who are caught in the middle."
Last week, the McLean Youth Soccer board passed a policy resolution discouraging coaches from applying would have effectively barred girls from mixed teams, says Harry Hoft, who heads the board.
Two weeks ago, a letter was sent to the Robbie committee suggesting that a way out of this might be to allow mixed teams if the committee and opposing coaches agree that it doesn't give the team an unfair advantage. This would take care of the great fear -- which is that some American girls' team would show up with boy players. So far, there's been no response. The tournament is at the end of June but even if they "graciouly allow Allegra to play," as her father puts it, "the real damage has been done."
"It is," says Olivia Milholland, "a perfectly lousy start for someone who's been told you are on your own, it's your talent that will make you or break you."