Kris Lines takes the story of a girl who wanted to play mixed football after the age of 12, and explains its implications across the spectrum of school sport.

Girl who challenged the football association

Minnie Crutwell is a 10-year-old girl from South London who plays football for the Balham Blazers. In March 2006, she reignited the debate over whether girls should be allowed to play football in mixed teams after they had reached the age of 12.

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Although Minnie wants to continue playing with her teammates when she turns 12, the Football Association rules require that she play for a girls’ team.

The FA rule reads: ‘Save for matches in a playing season in the age ranges under 7, under 8, under 9, under 10 and under 11, players in a match must be of the same gender.’

Minnie responded to the FA requirement by writing to the culture, media and sports secretary Tessa Jowell (who is also minister for women).

After going down to London to watch Minnie and her team play, Tessa Jowell arranged a meeting between Minnie and the Football Association to discuss the rule.

Minnie and her coach later submitted written evidence to the select committee on culture, media and sport about women’s football.

This month’s article builds on what we have already explored, looking at the implications of LTAD for gender, in particular for mixed-sex activities before, during and after puberty.

In particular, this article will discuss the implications of the recent and controversial case of Minnie Crutwell, the girl who wanted to continue playing mixed football after she reached the age of 12. Although Minnie’s case focused on the playing of mixed football, the arguments made and the physiological evidence apply equally to other sports.

This article will not express a view on whether single-sex or co-educational sport is the better approach to physical education at school. This is an emotive topic and there are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.

What this article will evaluate is whether girls and boys can play legally on the same team. Religious belief, peer-group pressure, maturity, sexual identity, resource constraints, the nature of the sport, the type of activity, and the confidence of the pupils concerned, will all play a part in the decision. The evaluation offered in this article is, therefore, only a small piece of a large puzzle.

Implications for school sport

A proviso
The first thing to note is that this ruling concerned an amateur, out-of-school, sports club rather than a physical education lesson or a school team. Although there may be no direct legal precedent, it is still worth taking notice of this situation, since the Association for Physical Education (afPE) guidance is based on National Governing Body rules and regulations — what is relevant for an NGB body will eventually be relevant for school PE.

The second important point is that the issue of gender mismatching has not been reported in any major UK legal textbook or journal. The two most relevant cases are still Affutu-Nartoy v Clarke & Ilea, and Ward v Donegal Vocational Education Committee (discussed in last month’s issue of Education Law Update), which deal with mismatching by size in same-sex teams.

The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 (section 44) says: ‘Nothing in Parts II to IV shall, in relation to any sport, game or other activity of a competitive nature where the physical strength, stamina or physique of the average woman puts her at a disadvantage to the average man, render unlawful any act related to the participation of a person as a competitor in events involving that activity which are confined to competitors of one sex.’

Given that the FA believes that the physical strength, stamina and physique of the average female footballer puts her at a disadvantage compared to the average male footballer, there is nothing illegal or discriminatory in the FA’s ruling.

Section 44 would allow schools to have separate boys’ and girls’ sports teams for some sports. Lessons could also be separated into single-sex classes if the sports were of a competitive nature and staff thought that there was a risk of injury through mismatching.

Effectively the FA argued that its regulations preventing 12-year-old girls from playing on boys’ or mixed teams, were for the girls’ own good. It pointed to the fact that it has a duty of care to provide safe football for all, and that boys and girls of over 11 are at different developmental stages, and therefore at increased risk of injury if they play together.

The FA also suggested that by segregating the sexes, it would enable women to develop their own teams and identify specific career paths.

These all seem sensible suggestions, but does the evidence support them?

The Physiological evidence

While it is true that there are certain important physiological differences between girls and boys, this should not be the determining factor when judging whether it is appropriate for them to play in mixed teams.

Pre-puberty (LTAD ‘fundamentals’ stage), although girls generally develop coordination skills faster than boys, there is no physiological reason to justify separating girls and boys in sport.

Girls begin their growth spurt earlier and reach a maximum growth rate at, on average, 11. By contrast, boys reach their maximum growth rate at about 14. Owing to the male hormone androgen, boys develop more muscle mass than do girls. Where a boy and a girl are the same height and weight, the boy will have more fat-free mass (a greater percentage of his body will be muscle) than the girl. So the boy will be stronger, able to run faster and throw farther.

What you would expect to see, therefore, is girls who are faster, stronger and taller than boys at the earlier stages of puberty, with boys becoming faster, stronger and taller later on.

It is obvious then that an unmonitored grouping of 12 to 15-year-old pupils in same-age, co-educational PE classes could result in physiological mismatching. But balanced against this is the girls’ increased physical maturity post-puberty, which could compensate for the increased muscle mass of boys in their peer group.

The Women’s Sport Foundation was, therefore, correct in its evidence to the commons culture, media and sport select committee that a ban on 11-year-old girls playing on the same team as boys is an arbitrary barrier.

Not every girl will be able, or want, to play on boys’ sports teams. But where height, weight and skill levels allow, there is no physiological reason why girls and boys should not be allowed to play on the same team past a certain age.

If the FA accepts this recommendation, this would place the duty of care firmly on the individual coaches and teachers to ensure that the players were evenly matched and not at any additional risks. While this will be a higher burden to meet, it should also be a more equitable one, which will allow talented older girls to flourish in the sport.

There is evidence that this blanket ban on mixed football after 11 is not shared with other countries.

Dutch women’s football already profits from a thriving domestic system and infrastructure. Girls can play mixed football with boys until the age of 19 — and the number of young females in clubs at all levels is growing.

In Germany, girls play in boys’ teams for as long as they want to. When they hit the point that they are too slow or are becoming out-muscled, they join a girls’ team.

Title IX in America allows girls who wish to participate on boys’ teams, the opportunity to do so.

Studies suggest that, owing to the greater demands on them, girls develop technical knowledge and ability at a faster rate when playing in mixed teams than they do when playing in single sex-teams. Having to win their place on a team therefore makes them more competitive.

The following should be taken into account when organizing mixed sport:

  • Consider the amount of physical contact involved. It may not be appropriate for some sports to be mixed — either because of the combative nature of the sport (boxing), or because of the intimate touching that may be involved, and the child protection issues that this raises: for example grappling techniques in judo and wrestling.
  • Be wary when different sports have different rules or equipment for the sexes: for example men’s tees are further back than women’s tees.
  • As well as football, consider other sports such as Korfball (designed as a mixed-team sport, where girls and boys compete on equal terms), softball, volleyball, dance, badminton, tennis, swimming or ultimate frisbee.

Bell v Staffordshire County Council (Unreported) December 2003

Two groups of primary pupils were playing tennis in the playground. The girls were using plastic rackets, whereas the boys were using strung rackets, which propelled the balls faster. One of the girls was hit in the eye by a tennis ball, when the boys turned their playing area at an angle so the balls were hit towards the girl’s court.

The judge held this was a foreseeable accident given the power of the rackets and the positioning of the courts. (The boys should have been playing in the same direction as the girls).

P. Whitlam, Case Law in Physical Education and School Sport, (Baalpe 2005) p.222 cites Bell.

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