Challenging the Rules

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It’s 2015, and the phrase “girls can do anything boys can,” has never been truer. With a female presidential candidate, women behind negation with Iran, and the unprecedented attention on the USA Women’s team winning the world cup, 2015 seems like the year where girls can do anything boys can—except, of course, play in an under 11 basketball tournament. In Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, the Charlottesville Cavaliers were disqualified from the National Travel Basketball Association’s National Championship Tournament. The reason for the disqualification is that one of the members of the team, Kymora Johnson, is female. Head coach Joe Mallory was informed of this on Saturday August 1st, just moments after a win that would advance the team to semifinals. The Cavaliers’ disqualification is the result of poorly communicated rules that were enforced inadequately. Not only is it unjust to disqualify the team through arbitrarily enforced rules, disqualification on the basis of gender is a step back in progress for women’s rights and equality.

Since August 1st, the issue has mustered up heaps of publicity. Apparently the NTBA hosts separate tournaments for boys teams and girls teams and does not allow mixed-gender teams to compete at a national level. Officials are maintaining that the situation was handled appropriately and in away appropriate to the rules which were made clear from the start of the tournament. A representative from the NTBA said, “This was a very clear-cut situation. The head coach was informed at team check-in that girls are not allowed to play on boys’ teams for our national championship, as we offer the girls a national championship as well.” While the NTBA seems confident that their rules were administered effectively the Cavaliers aren’t so sure. Team parents were upset that children were registered, checked-in and allowed to play in all the games leading up to the semi-finals and only at the height of their advancement were they suddenly disqualified. Coaches and family claim they were not made aware of this change in policy, before or during the tournament and legal action is being considered. People are even taking to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to express their disapproval of the situation. As many were “left in the dark” about the gender-specific rules of the NTBA, it seems unfair to disqualify an entire team after letting them play in five games unwarned.

When you log on to the NTBA website there are tabs on the left, one of them titled “Eligibility Info.” That is probably where you would go to find out if you are eligible to play. Under that tab you will see that there are listed separate categories for boys and girls teams and then they are further divided into age groups. The Eligibility Info is very adamant about players not being able to venture to teams under their age group (they reinforce this by asking for legitimate proof of age and proof of grade). It does not however say anything about mixing genders. If you look in the tab “Other Info” there is a subcategory titled, “More National Championship Info,” and even there you will not be able to find any information or rules about the gender of a player. It is only under the “Other Rules/Regulations” subcategory, located obscurely near the bottom of the “Other Info” tab where you will find one rule saying,

“Players must play with their gender.  Girls are not permitted to play on boys teams and boys are not permitted to play on girls teams.  NTBA will grant a waiver for a girl to play on a boys team in certain regular season tournaments.  Please contact us for more info if you would like to request a waiver. For the National Championship, you must play with your gender as NTBA offers both a Girls National Championship and a Boys National Championship.”

This then leaves room to question, if this rule holds so much weight that it is grounds for full disqualification of a team, why is it so difficult to find on the organization’s website?
There is a process that players need to go through in order to participate in the tournament. Paperwork needs to be filled out prior to the tournament, then the whole team checks in in full uniform, showing proof of identification using a birth certificate. Every member of the team goes through this check in process, they look officials in the eyes, they state their name, date of birth, what school they attend and they go through an interview process. Kymora did all of this and had the paperwork to go with it. Furthermore according to Kymora’s mother Jessica Thomas Johnson, “Kymora had her hair down. She had a headband on. She had hot pink nail polish on her nails, they knew she was a girl.” And head coach Mallory pointed out that no one opposed to her obvious intentions of participating in the tournament, “They didn’t say anything about Kymora, so we went on with their interview process. After the interview process two hours later, we had a basketball game on that Wednesday. So if there was a problem with a female or a girl playing on the basketball team, they should have corrected that or fixed that during the interview process, but we played five more games.” The NTBA president John Whitely explained that the reason the issue wasn’t addressed initially was because no one noticed Johnson off the bench. And during the check-in process it was assumed that she wasn’t going to play. Whitely says, “We have no problem with the girls sitting on the bench. We don’t care who sits on the bench with the teams.” But why allow Kymora to go through the entire check-in process? Completing this process communicates that she intends to be checked-in to the tournament and able to play. If the NTBA is not going to allow a girl to play, then they should not carry out the check in process with her. Parents can sit on the bench too but they don’t need to be checked in. Checking a player in implies that he or she is able to play, period. They should have denied Kymora check-in approval rather than giving the false impression to her, her coach, her team and her team’s parents that she can play.  Kymora’s mother understands this saying that, “Even if it was buried in the rules and we missed it, they accepted her at check-in with her spiral curly hair [worn] down, hot pink nail polish, birth certificate, and DMV-issued ID.”

Kymora has played with the Cavaliers since kindergarten, when there were no girls basketball teams for her age, her mother signed her up to play with the Cavaliers and it’s been her home ever since. She’s played many games and tournaments with her team, she even joined them at the same national tournament for the past two years. This according to her mother who reported to Yahoo  that, “She’s played in hundreds of tournaments and two prior NTBA national championship tournaments on this team.” Kymora’s heart and dedication lies with the Cavaliers. Yes, the sports world may often be divided by gender, but that doesn’t mean girls should be restricted from playing with boys or vice versa. Kymora holds just as much weight in the Cavaliers as her other teammates, she has put in the work, she has played the games and she has even played in this very tournament in the past. Why is it that she doesn’t deserve to play in this one? If a coach makes the decision to play her, and her teammates support her on the team then rules should not discriminate against her gender. Rules are rules, but rules are not set in stone. As Martin Luther King once wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, “One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” Preventing a girl who has persevered with her team for years from joining them on their journey towards a National Championship is unjust. Disqualification on the basis of gender is unjust. The treatment of the Cavaliers and Kymora Johnson is unjust. According to Whitely and the NTBA, the preventing mixed gender teams was created in response to the organization receiving complaints from parents. However, the nature of those complaints and why the organization took them so seriously was not explained. The creation of this rule perpetuates the very sexism and inequality that our society is trying to escape. Kymora’s mother takes the words right out of my mouth asking, “I can’t believe this is 2015, and my daughter isn’t allowed to play with boys. What message does this send to other girls? What message does it send to boys?” Ms. Thomas-Johnson, you are absolutely right. Sexism should be left in the 60s because this is 2015 and we know that discriminating against gender is wrong.

It’s true that being oblivious to or unaware of a rule does not mean you are exempt. However in this case Kymora was not asking for exemption for her team. When the head coach and team were made aware of the rule Kymora immediately called for a more appropriate punishment. According to Washington Post, Kymora ran to the coach and the officials and told them to just disqualify her, not the entire team. Which is a solution that would be much more appropriate than punishing an entire team for being nothing more than misinformed. Kymora said that she would sit in the stands, she’d take the uniform off. Anything. “I wanted my team to be able to make the championships, to be able to play,” she said. Furthermore, it is evident that the while John Whitely maintains that the association made its new, no-girl rule very clear, letting a girl go through check-ins unaware of the rule and then failing to warn her before she plays in the game actually falls quite short of “making the rule very clear.” Whitely said that tournament officials didn’t make an issue of Kymora because they thought she was just sitting on the bench and didn’t notice her playing. If this tournament is a national level tournament and rules are being supposedly being upheld and reinforced so effectively, then referees should be trained enough to notice when a girls is on the court and scores a couple points. Though many would claim that separation of gender in sports is necessary for safety reason, level competition, and comfort this may not always be true. We need to remember that things aren’t always black and white. Yes, perhaps when we are dealing with something like wrestling and we have 6’4”, 250lb men it is wise to make separate categories for genders to ensure safety of participants. However, this is not something like that. These are children under eleven years old. This girl has earned her sport on the team and fits in without posing a threat to herself or a threat to others. At such young ages, why do we need to separate children by gender? Like I mentioned earlier, it’s this type of thing that perpetuates gender inequality and discrimination.

The Cavaliers’ should have never been disqualified. They went through all the necessary steps to participate in the tournament, they were open and honest about having a girl, Kymora, on the team, and they followed the rules they were aware of. The NTBA failed to post a supposedly important rule in a place where it is easy for parents and coaches to access, neglected to effectively communicate those rules at the start of the tournament, and allowed Kymora to go through with the full check-in process as though she was a participating team member. It can therefore be seen that the NTBA did a poor job in enforcing and stating rules and should not have disqualified the team so late into the tournament. Furthermore, the rule itself is discriminatory against girls and should not be there in the first place. Kymora has obviously established her place on the team and that place should not be stripped from her because of one sexist rule. This is 2015, and like I said before, girls can do anything boys can—including play in an under 11 basketball tournament.

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