PALMYRA, Pa. (WHTM) – Twelve-year-old Colin Kirkpatrick and twin sister Olivia attended the Pan America Cup hosted at Spooky Nook Sports Complex in August. The international event showcases the eight best men’s and women’s field hockey teams from North and South America, including Team USA.
Colin dreams of one day playing in red, white and blue.
“My ultimate dream is to eventually make it to the national team and maybe be in the Olympics one day,” he said.
But most Americans view field hockey as a woman’s sport. Colin’s parents, David and Cathy Kirkpatrick, have long supported their twins’ interest in the game.
“They got their first hockey sticks at age three,” Cathy Kirkpatrick said. “They started playing competitively in club hockey around the age of 7.”
Now, as the pair get older and enter Palmyra Middle School, the options for where Colin can play are getting smaller. Many club teams have an age cap on when boys can play against girls. He’s been invited to join the Team USA 15 and under program, but it’s an expensive commitment that requires cross-country travel to play.
The Kirkpatricks were hoping Colin could join his sister on the Palmyra Junior High field hockey team this fall, but the school district is not allowing him to play.
The school’s decision, however, is not made independently. Palmyra, like most schools in the state, is part of the PIAA, the primary governing body for athletics in the state. In order to participate in PIAA sponsored regular season, postseason, and championship games, schools must adhere to the PIAA constitution and bylaws.
For mixed-gender sports, schools are required to review four primary criteria in order to allow a boy to play on a girls team.
Here’s the text from this year’s bylaws:
C. Boys may play on a Girls’ Team if the student’s school
does not sponsor a Boys’ Team in that sport and the Principal
1. the overall boys’ athletic program at the student’s
school provides fewer opportunities for boys to participate
than for girls;
2. the boy would not displace any girl from the Team’s
3. the boy would likely not, due to his physical size,
athletic ability, and/or other characteristics, pose an
increased risk of harm to opponents beyond that which
would be posed by an average-sized and skilled
participating girl; and
4. the boy would not provide his Team with a
significant competitive advantage (as applicable herein, this
means that the boy’s participation would likely cause the
Team to be noticeably more competitive than it would be
without the boy’s participation on the Team).
Here’s a link to the complete PIAA constitution and bylaws. The policies on mixed-gender participation start on page 35.
In order for any school to allow a boy to play on a girl’s team, the school must ensure that none of these criteria would be affected by having the boy on the team. If even one of the criteria may be affected, the school has to deny the boy from playing.
The Kirkpatricks said when they asked Palmyra to review the policy, the district deemed Colin too much of a physical risk.
Melissa Mertz, PIAA’s associate executive director, says Palmyra followed the policies correctly.
“Palmyra did what they’re supposed to do,” she said. “They read the policy and they applied it the best way they know how.”
Mertz added that the PIAA designed the bylaws to be interpreted by every school on a case-by-case basis. One student may not pose a physical threat or competitive advantage at one school, while a different boy might at another.
“We worked to develop a policy that pretty much puts it into the school’s hands and says look, you can have a boy play on a girl’s team if that young man meets these four criteria,” she said.
For now, Colin remains sidelined, with practice being the only way he can improve his game. But after the Palmyra Junior High team played Middletown and the Kirkpatricks saw a boy on Middletown’s team, they reached out again to Palmyra Superintendent Lisa Brown. The Kirkpatricks said Brown has agreed to meet with them to further discuss Colin’s eligibility.
We reached out to Brown for a comment on this story. She did not return our calls.
“I think we’re going in to hear what they have to say because we don’t know where they are in the understanding of boys and field hockey,” Cathy Kirkpatrick said. “We hope to go in with a positive attitude and open and hopefully, we can learn something from them and they can learn something from us.”