ACLU-TN Urges West Carroll Special School District to Allow Female Student to Join Football Team

Press release from the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee; June 10, 2015:

TREZEVANT, Tenn. – The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee today sent a letter to the West Carroll Special School District urging it to allow a female student to join the junior high football team.  The school district had refused the student’s request to join the team solely because of her gender.

“Schools cannot exclude girls from the sport of their choice based solely on their gender.  The Fourteenth Amendment protects girls from such unequal treatment,” said Thomas H. Castelli, ACLU-TN legal director.  “For over forty years, courts have made it clear that if a girl wants to play football and there is not an equivalent football team for girls, she must be allowed equal access to the boys’ team.”

The letter was sent on behalf of Thalia Townsend and her family.  Townsend, a rising seventh grader at West Carroll Junior/Senior High School, has played left tackle in a community football league for two years.  On May 11, 2015, Townsend was turned away from the initial meeting of the West Carroll junior high football team by the coach, who stated that girls are not allowed to play football at the school.  Every boy at the meeting was allowed to join the team.  When Townsend’s mother, Michelle Larsen, contacted the coach and, subsequently, Director of Schools Eric Williams, she too was told that the school had a policy against allowing girls to play football.

“I’ve never had a problem on the field because I’m a girl.  Most of the time the boys don’t even realize I’m a girl until I take my helmet off,” Townsend said.  “I just want a chance to play for my school because I love the game.”

The school district argued that it could legally exclude Townsend from the football team under Title IX because the school offered softball for girls.  However, as stated in ACLU-TN’s letter, “Discriminatorily excluding Thalia from the football team violates her right to equal protection, regardless of the fact that she could play softball…softball is not football, and she has the right, the same as her male peers, to further her athletic education by choosing the sport that most appeals to her abilities and interest…Though administrators at West Carroll may believe that they have satisfied Title IX, this provides no defense for violating Thalia’s constitutional rights.”  The letter further explains, “an assertion that the school has complied with Title IX is of no consequence if the school’s policies still violate the Constitution.”

“My daughter is already a football player,” said Michelle Larsen, Townsend’s mother.  “She has practiced, competed and earned her place among her male peers.  There is no justification for stopping her from playing the sport she loves.  We aren’t asking for any special treatment.  Just an equal opportunity for her to keep playing.”

According to the letter, “Thalia has proven herself a strong and skilled football player who is a physical match for her male teammates and opponents alike.  Thalia must be given the same opportunities as her male peers to play on the team and use her talents on the field. To act otherwise would have no substantial relation to protecting her safety, but instead only violate her rights while perpetuating ‘stereotypic notions of the proper roles of men and women.’”

“Athletic participation is as important to our daughters as it is to our sons,” said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-TN executive director.  “Playing sports promotes social responsibility, greater academic success and increased personal skills.  Thalia, and all young people, should have an equal opportunity to receive a well-rounded, quality education in a respectful environment free from sex stereotypes.”

ACLU-TN has launched a public petition to urge the West Carroll Special School District to allow Townsend to play.  The petition can be viewed at: https://action.aclu.org/secure/let-thalia-play 

A copy of the letter sent today is available here.