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Girls face dangers on boys teams

Coaches and teammates face dilemma, especially in football and wrestling.

By FRANK PASTOR, Times Staff Writer
Published January 6, 2004

Sandra Wylie knew injuries were a possibility when she allowed her 16-year-old daughter to play football.

But she never imagined the sport would nearly take her daughter's life.

Amber Scull ruptured her spleen after she was tackled during a practice drill at Nature Coast Tech in Brooksville 21/2 months ago. Had she arrived at the hospital 30 minutes later, doctors told her mother, she might have died.

The injury, which required emergency surgery and kept Scull out of school for three weeks, isn't what upsets Wylie most. What bothers her is the treatment she says her daughter received at the field after she was hurt.

Treatment, Wylie said, that would have differed had Scull been a boy.

"We don't know if this is a sexual thing because this is a girl playing football," Wylie said.

Three Nature Coast coaches and the school principal say that wasn't the case, but the incident illustrates some of the complications that arise when girls play traditional boys sports.

Is equal treatment the goal, or should there be special considerations?

Title IX went a long way toward leveling the playing field for girls, adding girls basketball, soccer, softball or cheerleading squads where none existed. Since 1972, the federal act has required schools to provide equal opportunities for all students regardless of sex.

The Florida High School Athletic Association permits girls whose interest or talent lie in traditionally male sports to pursue football, wrestling or baseball. Girls may play on boys teams if there is no female equivalent. Recently, hundreds have taken advantage of the opportunity.

During the 2002-03 school year, 252 girls in Florida played traditional boys sports, most in the six seasons since the FHSAA began posting results of participation surveys on its Web site. Though the number of girls playing football is the fewest since 1996-97, participation in wrestling and baseball is higher than at any time during the same span.

* * *

Girls play traditional boys sports for different reasons.

Hudson wrestler Jennifer Rose Jurek wanted to follow in the footsteps of her cousin, Luke Jubran, who placed fourth in the state two years ago. Teammate Jessica Stafford joined her twin brother, Jake, on the team.

Gibbs' Molly McKesson, the first girl in Pinellas County history to play varsity baseball, started playing alongside boys at age 8, after one of her practice throws nearly broke the nose of a softball teammate.

Scull and Nature Coast teammate Amber Collard saw football as an outlet for anger that stemmed from family or personal problems.

"I just wanted to be a part of it and have something to look forward to," Scull said at the start of the season. "To keep me out of trouble and to keep my grades up."

The presence of girls on boys teams can put coaches in an awkward position. Coaches say they treat boys and girls equally but must make concessions. They say they try to avoid putting girls in dangerous or embarrassing situations.

Hudson wrestling coach Dana Bentley said the Cobras' three girls have a separate dressing space and arrive for practice from a different stairwell. He reminds the boys not to make insensitive remarks around the girls. When the team wrestles live, Bentley tries to pair the girls with teammates of similar weight, strength and experience, as he does with the boys.

* * *

Nature Coast football coach Tom Keeler said he holds all of his players to the same expectations, including participation in 50 mandatory offseason workouts. Still, he tries not to ask too much of the girls, such as matching them against 290-pound linemen.

"We just try to bring them along and make sure they learn their position, learn how to hit, learn how to tackle, pretty much just like the boys do," Keeler said.

Though coaches do their best to protect girls, the players say they don't want special treatment.

Hudson's Amanda Feagley said she wishes she had more chances to wrestle boys in practice. Sheryl McKesson said her daughter wasn't deterred from pitching even after Molly's older brother, Kevin, was hit in the head by a batted ball. Nature Coast's Collard said hitting is what she likes most about football.

"I feel like we should be treated just like the guys, because people are like, "Oh, you're female, we're not going to hit you,' " Collard said in August. "But we get out there and we work just as hard, if not harder."

They seldom are rewarded with equal playing time.

Berkeley Prep wrestler Dominique Molina, a two-year varsity letterwinner, would be starting at 112 pounds this season if not for a lower back injury, coach Russ Schenk said. McKesson, who has played baseball for nine years, was Gibbs' No. 2 pitcher and has received interest from NCAA Division II schools.

But they are exceptions. Most girls see little playing time in male-dominated sports, coaches admit, because their performance or skill levels don't measure up to the boys.

* * *

Often, girls have other incentives, such as camaraderie, fitness or love of the game.

Schenk said he had a sophomore who was overweight at 189 pounds. Though she never appeared in a varsity or junior varsity match, three years of wrestling helped the girl trim down to 135.

"Her championship was won when she got into the U.S. Coast Guard Academy," Schenk said. "If she was at the weight where she started, she never would have been accepted. But after three years of dedication and discipline, she passed her physical."

The experience isn't always what girls expect.

Sometimes, male teammates refuse to accept girls as equals. Parents make disparaging comments. Jurek, deep down, worries about injuries.

"I don't want any of my bones broken, (especially) if it was a really strong guy," Jurek said. "I'm a girl, and guys, even though they're the same weight as you, they have a lot more power than you."

Sheryl McKesson said her daughter has had mostly positive experiences playing on boys teams. But she suspects Molly might have been treated differently had she been less talented.

"The boys she's played with wouldn't have been as understanding if she didn't know the sport," Sheryl McKesson said, "and if she didn't seem to know what she was doing, I don't think they would feel they could rely on her for doing her part on the team."

* * *

Scull's family wonders if her experience would have been different had she been a boy.

She was injured when a football lodged in her stomach after she was hit by a teammate during an angle-tackling drill on Sept. 26. As she knelt on the ground, unable to breathe, she said coaches told her to "suck it up."

"The way they looked at me and the things they said, I just felt like they were just saying that because I was a girl, like I was a cheerleader that broke my nail," said Scull, who previously endured bruises all over her body, a swollen ankle the size of a softball and a shoulder injury without complaining.

When Scull told coaches her "organs hurt," she said assistant Ryan Wilson responded, "Oh, my God, I thought you were going to say your ovaries hurt."

Asked if he had made the comment, Wilson said, "Not to my recollection. The only thing I can remember is her saying her insides hurt." Wilson, who had a female teammate in kicker Andrea Kavouklis at East Lake in the late '90s, said Scull's complaint struck him as funny at the time.

"You don't normally hear guys say their insides hurt," Wilson said. "They say they're okay."

Neither Keeler nor assistant Paul Wilson remembered hearing Ryan Wilson make the comment. Asked about it, principal Tizzy Schoelles said she "didn't find much corroboration" to support Scull's claim.

"If anything, we were having a conversation with (Scull) and asking questions about how she felt," Paul Wilson said. "As she started to feel better, we asked her if she was comfortable to get up and walk and at one point she said she did."

Three teammates helped Scull to the locker room while the rest of the team continued to practice. Collard called Scull's mother, who drove her to the hospital.

Scull passed out in the waiting room. Doctors told Wylie her daughter's spleen had "exploded," and she needed emergency surgery to save her life. Scull's blood pressure slipped dangerously low, and the attending surgeon said she had lost nearly all of her blood internally.

"The surgeon told us if it had been another half hour, my daughter would be dead," Wylie said. "She never would have made it."

Upon hearing the news, Ryan Wilson said he immediately began to wonder what coaches could have done differently.

"We tried to stand by her just like any other player," he said. "I guess it's a little harder because it was a girl, because you say to yourself, "Was that the right person I matched her up against (in the tackling drill)?' "

Though she has since returned to school, Scull has a 10-inch scar down the center of her stomach and is vulnerable to illness or infection, because her immune system now lacks the antibodies to fight them off.

Hernando County schools do not have certified athletic trainers on staff, so coaches say it was impossible for anyone on the field to know the magnitude of the injury. Had they known, Ryan Wilson said, a coach would have accompanied Scull to the locker room.

Still, Scull's family said they would have preferred coaches took Scull's complaints more seriously and called paramedics or family members as they did after a couple of boys suffered neck injuries.

"I would have liked to see them pay attention that she was hurt," Wylie said. "It would have made a big difference if just one of those coaches would have called me or a member of the coaching staff would have been with her when I got there."

If anything, Ryan Wilson said, coaches showed more concern for Scull than they might have for a boy.

"I can guarantee you five coaches wouldn't have walked over there if it was a guy," he said.

* * *

Despite the experience, Scull said she holds no grudges and hopes to play again next season. She said her doctor recently gave her permission to play, but Keeler and assistant Jamie Joyner told her she will not be allowed to participate in tackling drills.

Keeler said he never discussed the issue with Scull.

It might not matter. Wylie said she will not let her daughter play unless Hernando County reverses its policy about having trainers on site or changes are made to the coaching staff.

Given the circumstances, Keeler isn't sure what more coaches could have done.

"I think we look at it and say, football is a very, very physical sport - boys, girls, whatever," he said. "Injuries occur sometimes, and they can be very serious. People deciding whether they want to play football or not need to decide whether it's worth that risk that they're taking."

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