Anna Scanlon is learning, at age 6 1/2, her first lesson in sex discrimination. She is also learning that there are some fairly arbitrary grown-ups, a lesson most children eventually learn, though usually not at such a tender age.
Anna has played soccer on an integrated "minikick" team for the last two years in the Fairfax Police Youth Club Inc. league. (The league has no ties to the Fairfax Police.) This spring, however, she is being kicked off her team and, in effect, being forced to join an all-girls team because club rules call for single-sex teams after the age of 6.
"We knew there was a rule that said the girls and boys went to separate leagues when they hit the age of 6," says Bill Scanlon, Anna's father. "We checked with the league and initially we were told they would make exceptions. Then when we went to register, we were told it was too disruptive."
Soccer, as any soccer parent knows, is a matter taken very seriously in this area, and on occasion there have been instances in which overzealous soccer parents take themselves and their league rules a trifle too seriously. This surely is one of those occasions.
The argument for separate teams goes like this: Girls develop differently from boys, boys are stronger and rougher, and the point comes when it would be dangerous for girls to play on the same field as boys. They would get hurt.
The argument for integrated teams goes like this: Far fewer girls than boys get involved with soccer; therefore the level of competition is lower, and girls with superior skills and athletic talents have greater competition and better opportunities for developing their skills when they play on boys' teams. Also, since there are fewer girls who play soccer, there are fewer teams and this means that there are fewer opportunities to play different teams. The alternative to integrated teams is to have a greater age spread on teams, so that skilled younger players play with older girls, an alternative that has its own drawbacks given the developmental differences between girls who are 7 and girls who are 9 or 10.
The argument for separate teams probably has a great deal of merit when girls and boys reach puberty and the physical differences between the sexes begin to assert themselves. But we are not talking about 11- and 12- and 13-year-olds, here. We are talking 6, 7, 8.
Most kids that age don't even have the skills to be rough on a soccer field. Half the time they are standing in the wrong position, looking around, trying to find the ball, or merely daydreaming. This is the stage when they are learning the rules, trying to learn how to dribble and pass, and, perhaps by the age of 8, maybe even figuring out how to keep from stumbling over their own teammates.
The gravest perils they are likely to encounter (besides parents who take soccer too seriously) are a shot in the shins or a ball in the face, perils they are just as likely to encounter on a segregated team as on an integrated one. Girls play on boys teams in other leagues around the Beltway, including the Montgomery and Arlington leagues. I can report from years of observation that little girls have played with little boys in the McLean Youth League. They have had learned some skills, had moments of success, gotten some exercise, and had fun, which, certainly at that level, is what soccer ought to be about.
Anna Scanlon is not alone in being blighted by the foolishness of grown-ups. Another child, Elinor De Deo, who is also 6, has been told she can no longer play on the team. While the fathers of both children feel there's a principle at stake in the situation, Scanlon makes a further point: The parents in both families work outside the home, the team was a neighborhood team, "so we were able to arrange car pools." This is no small consideration, and it is one that parents who run soccer leagues routinely take into consideration when assigning children to teams.
"There's a point in every young woman's athletic life when she has to make the decision" about what level of competition she can handle, says Pat Reuss, legislative director of the Women's Equity Action League. "But in the early years, where it's a neighborhood team, the gender of the little kid kicking the ball around doesn't make any difference. They all look alike: chubby legs, happy faces, missing teeth. They all fall down and run funny and none of them listen to instruction. There are no sex distinctions when they're playing hide-and-go-seek and to have those distinctions forced on them at an early age is very sad."
It is also just plain silly.