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Apr 30, 2012 6:27 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Editorial Commentary: Let Him Play

Apr 30, 2012 6:27 PM

I remember when I first heard about Keeling Pilaro, the boy who wanted to play field hockey at Southampton High School. As the sports editor, I was intrigued by this story for obvious reasons, but it also captured my interest because of my personal love for the sport, the only one I played during my teenage years at Pierson High School.

I watched Keeling play in several games for the Lady Mariners last season. He’s very good, but he’s not the best player on the team—a fact that his parents, his coach and even he freely admit. Keeling scored a lot of goals against a mediocre East Hampton team in a game that was featured on MSG Varsity during the regular season, and footage of that game is now being used against him. He looked good in that game, but, then again, so did all the Lady Mariners, for the simple fact that they were the superior team.

Barring a successful appeal on April 15 to Section XI, the governing body of high school sports in Suffolk County, or successful litigation brought by Keeling’s parents against Section XI, Keeling will not be a member of the Southampton field hockey team next year. Section XI has ruled that his presence on the team “has an adverse effect on the ability of girls to participate successfully” in the sport, although they’ve failed to explain what that cryptic statement actually means.

To sum it up, Section XI has told Keeling, an All-Conference player last year, that he’s just too good, and that his talent has created an unfair playing field. The members of the mixed competition committee that made this decision based it largely on the footage they saw of him playing against East Hampton.

I wish they had seen Southampton’s first-round playoff game against Rocky Point instead. In that game, which Southampton lost, I remember seeing Keeling hit the ground hard on several occasions, absorbing contact from his female opponents, most of whom had a distinct physical advantage over him. Pilaro, who is 13, is quite noticeably the smallest player on the field in most games. He’s less than 5 feet tall and his weight is still measured in double digits.

Late in that game, Keeling came off the field with a hand injury. I remember seeing tears in his eyes and feeling sorry for him, because I was fairly certain that the tears weren’t so much because of the pain in his hand as they were the result of his team’s season coming to an end.

Make no mistake, Keeling Pilaro loves the sport of field hockey as much as any kid can love a sport. Growing up in Ireland, Keeling did not experience field hockey as a “girls” sport, and it’s not viewed that way in most of the world. I’ve played indoor field hockey at SYS with a Pakistani man who lives in Southampton, there are both men’s and women’s field hockey teams in the Olympics. When I attended field hockey camp at the University of Connecticut while I was in high school, three of our counselors were Dutch men. Unfortunately for Keeling, there are no boys field hockey teams in the area, so if he can’t play with the girls, he won’t be able to play at all.

This would be a devastating blow for a kid who has dreams of playing field hockey in the Olympics. In the larger picture, it will also be a step backward for gender equality in general. When we allow boys to play a girls sport, or girls to play a boys sport, the decision will inevitably be fraught with all kinds of drama, differing opinions, and cries of injustice. Admittedly, it’s not easy to decide where to draw the line. In some situations, it’s obvious that it can’t work. I don’t think many people would argue that the average-size high school female should be able to line up against the average-size high school male on a football field. Other cases are trickier.

I personally believe that Section XI is denying Pilaro’s request simply because they don’t want to open a Pandora’s box. If they allow him to play, how can they say no to other boys who might want to try their hand at field hockey? Where would the line be drawn?

If you ask me, Pandora’s box has already been opened. For some time now, we’ve seen girls be granted permission to play boys sports. The example of a girl kicking for a football team is a popular illustration of that fact, and it’s always painted in a positive, “You go, girl!” light. There have also been several instances where girls have been allowed to compete on boys wrestling teams. If having to roll around with a female peer in tight spandex on a mat, where you attempt to physically dominate her, doesn’t create an “adverse effect” on the ability of boys to participate successfully, I don’t know what does.

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