The comments come in different forms but all carry the same underlying message. Becca Dabrowski doesn’t belong.
You’re a girl. Get out of the pool.
The words are meant to scoff and intimidate the McHenry sophomore water polo player. They are often accompanied by sneers. Rather than ignore the verbal slights, though, Dabrowski takes them to heart.
“I love it because the guys look at you and say, ‘Oh yeah, she’s a girl, she can’t do it’,” Dabrowski said. “And then you go and kick their butt.”
Dabrowski and teammate Torey Kervick are in the minority of a high school sports landscape inhabited by nearly 7.7 million players nationwide. They are female athletes competing in sports with otherwise all-male rosters. To play on those teams may be considered by some to be an extreme choice, but one that remains an option almost 41 years after Title IX was enacted.
For girls who cross over – like Huntley’s Ali Andrews, who played for two years for a boys AAU basketball team, and Crystal Lake South freshman Tepenga Vrame, who joined the Gators’ club lacrosse team this spring – fitting in can sometimes be difficult.
But the jeers they hear mostly from opponents are not enough to deter female athletes who only seek the opportunity to play the sport. Whether that’s a convincing enough argument for girls to compete against males on a regular basis, though, remains in question to some.
“I don’t think it does girls and women’s sports any good when we’re saying that the best way for girls to develop athletic talent is to play against boys,” said Nicole LaVoi, the associate director of
the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women In Sports at the University of Minnesota. “But I wouldn’t deny the girl the chance.”
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Dabrowski grew up around water polo, with two older brothers who played at McHenry and who now compete at the club level in college.
She never asked for special treatment, believing that if she could endure the competitive abuse she took from her brothers, she could certainly play other boys her age. Because of Title IX, a federal law passed in 1972 requiring equal opportunities, Dabrowski and Kervick must be allowed to compete at McHenry, because the school doesn’t offer a girls team.
Her teammates have been accepting, willing to treat the two girls like one of the guys. Dabrowski and Kervick don’t expect anything less. If Warriors coach Craig Fowles is chewing out his male players, the girls want to be chided just the same.
But once the games begin, some of the camaraderie disappears. That’s when Dabrowski and Kervick hear the demeaning characterizations the most, suggesting they shouldn’t be playing, asking if they know that water polo is a boys sport.
Other opponents take it a step further, pointing their comments at their fellow male counterparts.
“What’s it like to defend a girl?” they ask McHenry’s boys players.
Some flat out refuse to try to guard one of the girls, either because they don’t want to risk making awkward or inappropriate contact or because they don’t want to be shown up. On one occasion, Dabrowski said, one of her teammates switched defensive assignments with her just so they could deal directly with the player herself.
“It kind of gets me going,” she said. “I get excited to prove people are wrong because I know I’m better and that I can do it.”
Until last year, Fowles never considered having girls contribute on his varsity team. Any girls who showed up for tryouts were delegated to the junior varsity team. On the rare occasion when a girl traveled with the varsity team, they didn’t play until after the score was well out of hand.
But Fowles was soon confronted with the reality that both Dabrowski and Kervick were among his best 14 or 15 players that make up the game day roster. That left him with no other choice but to include them. It also forced him to deliver what he calls his “Girl Talk”, an uncomfortable speech he says is always a nightmare to deliver. It’s a speech geared at covering topics that need to be addressed with both boys and girls in the water at the same time.
One of the sport’s basic moves, he said, involves players shoving off the chest of another player. While nothing inappropriate has ever happened with his players, Fowles can’t stop opponents from doing what they will.
“You’re constantly checking them with your hands, and guys don’t have to worry because there’s nothing there,” Fowles said. “But with a girl ... that makes me nervous.”
But even after discussing topics like inappropriate touching that still cause him to blush, Fowles remains a little uncomfortable. Given the brutal style of play that goes on in the sport – especially out of sight from game officials – Fowles admits he had serious concerns about including the two female players.
“You don’t want to get them in that water and play because you know what happens,” Fowles said. “It’s awful, and so getting over my own misgivings was probably the biggest thing. I had to convince myself it was OK to put them in.”
LaVoi, however, argues that if coaches have reservations strictly based on a female player’s safety when they could easily have the same misgivings about a smaller or less-talented male player, they are guilty of feeding gender-based stereotypes that continue to permeate society.
Even in the four decades since the passing of Title IX, LaVoi said changing people’s thinking when it comes to men’s and women’s roles, even on the playing field, remains a tough task.
“As long as those stereotypes persist, men’s sport will still be perceived as the better version – or the real version – of sport compared to girls,” LaVoi said. “Those stereotypes serve a purpose to sustain power and privilege.”
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Last year, 4.4 million boys across the country participated in high school sports, while 3.2 million girls played, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Basketball and track and field remained among the most highly populated sports for both boys and girls, representing activities that offer teams for both gender groups.
But when schools don’t field teams for both boys and girls in less popular sports, such as water polo, lacrosse or hockey, it opens the door to athletes choosing to participate in a sport designed for the opposite gender.
For Andrews, who helped guide Huntley to the Class 4A girls basketball state semifinals, playing for the Kessel Heat AAU boys basketball team when she was a seventh-grader was a no-brainer, helping develop her into one of the area’s top players.
The idea to jump from a the girls team she had played with since fifth grade was introduced to her by Kessel coaches. At the time, they believed Andrews, who was 5 to 6 inches taller than most of her female competition at the time, would be better suited if she played with the boys.
“I wouldn’t say (playing with the girls) was easier, but the coaches wanted to make it more of a challenge and so I’d learn more from it,” said Andrews, who averaged 15.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.4 steals and 2.4 blocks a game for Huntley this year. “I thought it would be a lot more fun since [boys] are so much bigger and stronger.”
Kervick has managed to do both.
The McHenry senior has swum competitively for most of her life. The next logical step was to add water polo, a sport she hopes to play in college. In addition to playing for McHenry’s boys team, Kervick also competes in the Northern Illinois Polo Club girls program. The two playing styles are worlds apart. While boys tend to be brutal in a game that often involves punching and kicking under the water’s surface, the girls game, Kervick says, is more “grabby.”
Much of the contact there comes when players grab the suit of their opponents, slowing down the progress of faster players. But having to adjust to how boys play didn’t keep Kervick from making the cut at McHenry.
“I think if you love the sport, you’ll play in any position you can play,” Kervick said.
Although she has chosen to play for what is the only co-ed high school water polo team in Illinois, Kervick said she understands why more girls don’t follow her lead.
“They don’t even give it a chance,” Kervick said. “They think, ‘Oh, if I do that, I’ll be more manly.’ But I wear dresses – I don’t care.”
For Vrame, her desire to compete among male athletes has less to do with making a statement and more to do with remaining within her comfort zone. Like with Dabrowski and Kervick, she’s able to play lacrosse at South because the school doesn’t offer a comparable program like field hockey.
Vrame says she has always had a tomboy side, one that manages to exist despite Vrame also taking a “girly-girl” approach to life. When it comes to sports, she has always felt more comfortable competing among the boys.
Rather than play Little League softball, which she characterized as “too prissy,” Vrame played for Crystal Lake’s baseball program. Her father, Paul, said allowing her to play brought him a lot of grief, but he didn’t want to disappoint his daughter.
Deep down, he didn’t like the idea of Tepenga playing baseball when there was a softball program for girls she could participate in. But he had always taught her to chase after her dreams and not to take any guff from anyone. So if baseball was her choice, he wouldn’t stand in her way.
“That’s my daughter, and your heart takes over what the brain thinks,” Paul Vrame said.
Vrame said she started playing lacrosse when she was 4. So after growing up with the sport, she decided last year she’d like to continue playing throughout high school. Most of her teammates have been accepting. Others, she said, haven’t, suggesting she doesn’t understand the game and that she’s “too wimpy” to play.
Vrame is determined to show them she’s not.
“I want to show them that girls are just as strong as they are and that anything boys can do, girls can do,” she said.
Andrews flourished in her two years with the Heat. She said she gained toughness, both physically and mentally, that have carried over not only to her varsity career at Huntley, but also with the Midwest Elite 17-U girls AAU team she plays with even though he’s only 15.
Now at 6-foot-2, Andrews would welcome the chance to compete against boys all over again – not because she feels like they’re better, but that they helped her bring her game to a different level. She describes the girls game as being played at a more controlled pace, while her time with the Heat pushed her to play quicker.
“I don’t think boys are better,” Andrews said. “I think it’s equal. It’s just different.”
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The Illinois High School Association sanctions 29 sports – including 15 for girls. Ten of the sports are offered to male and female participants while offering two and three sports, respectively (football and wrestling for the boys and badminton, competitive cheer and competitive dance for the girls) that are gender-specific.
While girls can play boys sports if a similar alternative isn’t offered, boys cannot cross over, according to the IHSA’s Affirmative Action Policy.
The foundation for the rationale, the policy states, is that by allowing a boy to compete on a girls team would most likely result in him replacing a girl on that team, taking away an opportunity. The policy also states that the situation not only adds to the difference in participation opportunities, but also hurts the growth of the girls program.
To some, that opens the door to a double standard since some schools – like in McHenry County – don’t offer a sport like boys volleyball when interest could exist in some boys playing in the sport like they can at the club level. In Illinois, 88 schools offer boys volleyball as a varsity sport, and while introducing the sport here was discussed in the late 1990s when boys volleyball became sanctioned by the IHSA, low interest numbers has kept those discussions from moving forward.
In 16 years at Prairie Ridge, athletic director Patty Hie says she’s never had a boy inquire about joining a girls team.
LaVoi argues, however, the position that boys are being discriminated against by not being allowed to try out for a girls team is a “a classic argument” among those who don’t know what Title IX is all about.
“Title IX is not a law that’s supposed to be limiting opportunities for participation for anybody,” she said. “We need to protect girls’ opportunities because they have been drastically under-represented. And that’s true.”
LaVoi would entertain the notion of eliminating gender-specific sports since high school athletics remains among the only life venues where males and women don’t coexist.
She points to workplaces, where both men and women work in a cooperative environment and to adult recreational co-ed sports leagues, where both genders are represented on the roster. LaVoi suggests that by keeping male and female athletes separated at the high school level supports the stereotypes that she says still exist, where the male version of the sport is still considered “the real” program.
Doing away with gender-specific sports, she said, would eliminate that, although she doesn’t foresee that happening any time soon.
“If we really want to train boys and girls to be cooperative and respect the talents of the other sex and learn to get along,” LaVoi said, “what better way than to let them play together in sport in a context which they really care about?”