For several years, a Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) basketball team in New Jersey had included a pair of girls. But recently the squad, now in the fifth grade, was presented with a difficult choice: Drop the girls, per the archdiocese’s rules, or forfeit the season.
The team’s decision was unanimous. It was also courageous and inspiring.
Before a game Friday against a squad from another parish, the youngsters from St. John the Apostle decided to forgo their final two games, plus the postseason, rather than play without two longtime teammates. “It’s not fair that we get to move on but they can’t,” one of the boys said afterward.
“It has a big impact on me because it shows that they care,” one of the girls told NJ.com. “I’m part of them just as they’re part of me, and they don’t want to break that bond, just like I don’t want to break that bond.
“I think the rules are ridiculous.”
The rule should have prevented the team from ever having girls on it, the children were told by the league’s director approximately two weeks ago. The “illegal” players meant that the squad’s record that season was erased (per NJ.com). A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Newark said it is not commenting on the matter.
Despite the warning, the whole St. John’s team showed up for Friday’s game against St. Bartholomew the Apostle, causing the tip-off to be delayed as parents and coaches tried to figure out how to proceed. Eventually, a parent put the question to the fifth-graders: “Is your decision to play the game without the two young ladies on the team, or do you want to stay as a team as you have played all season, with the girls on the team?”
The children were asked to vote with a show of hands, and all 11 went up in favor of staying “as a team.”
A mother of one of the girls, who is also a coach on the team, reminded the squad that “this would be the end” of its season, including the playoffs. “It doesn’t matter,” one boy said.
After the St. Bart’s team left the gym, with some parents of those players expressing regret about the situation, St. John’s players split into two sides — girls included — and played a game that was meaningless, in terms of the league’s standings, but filled with significance for all involved.
“These kids are doing the right thing,” a parent said, showing emotion at her “pure pride” in their decision. “We don’t have to tell them what to do. They just know. It’s amazing.”
A spokesman for the archdiocese told NJ.com that rules specify that girls and boys can’t play on the same team, and that the St. John athletic director admitted he made a mistake by permitting the two girls to join the squad several years ago. The cardinal of the archdiocese, responding to parents of the players, initially agreed that the girls should be allowed to finish out the season, but they said that he subsequently rescinded that decision for legal reasons.
A nearby school in the same archdiocese, St. Theresa’s in Kenilworth, N.J., recently made national news when it expelled a 12-year-old girl, Sydney Phillips, in response to a lawsuit her parents had filed to prevent her from being barred from the boys’ team. Earlier this month, an appellate court judge ruled that Phillips be allowed to return to the school pending a fuller hearing.
Phillips had tried to join the boys after her own squad had been discontinued because not enough other girls were interested in playing, which was the same problem the St. John’s girls had faced at a much earlier age. Thanks to an apparent oversight, their ability to play with male classmates allowed the girls to pursue their athletic passion, but on Friday, they had to settle for an uplifting display of team spirit.
“The positive thing we saw was that everyone came together and supported each other, because that’s what Catholic school and being a Christian is all about,” a St. John’s parent, wearing a T-shirt with the phrase “#unitygames,” told the team afterward. He added, fighting tears, “What I see here is the reason why we send out children here.”