FRANKLIN, Mass. -
When Will Higgins won the South sectional 50-meter freestyle in Massachusetts in November, there was mixed joy among his Norwood Senior High teammates.
He broke the meet record in a blistering 23.96 seconds, moving on to the state swimming and diving championships. The win also helped spur his team to an eighth-place finish in the section tournament.
But because Higgins is a boy, his record win sparked increasing attention and criticism from a national audience in what has become a local epidemic: Boys playing on girls teams.
Higgins, swimming at the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) girls South Section meet, broke a girls swimming record that had stood for 26 years, immediately drawing the criticism of local parents, coaches and the former record-holder. With an uptick in boys playing on girls teams, and an increasing number of mixed-gender teams, the MIAA swim committee has decided to take a renewed look at the mixed gender arrangement in Massachusetts high school sports. The committee decided in a Jan. 5 meeting to create a sub-committee charged with finding a solution by its next meeting in April 2012.
Three years ago, the swim committee created a sub-committee to find a solution for the same issue, opting to wait and study mixed-gender teams more rather than make drastic changes to the swimming and diving seasons, said Ray Grant, the swim committee chair and Seekonk High's athletic director.
"I don't believe that the catalyst for this is the breaking of the record," Grant said. "I think the catalyst for this is we had more boys competing in the fall this year than we ever had before.
"We've seen the numbers [of boys] kind of go up and then they kind of go down and then they go up," Grant continued. "What we've seen over the past couple of years has been a linear increase as opposed to the peaks and valleys that we had in the past. I think that that is more the catalyst for taking a look at how we deal with this."
In 1976, the Equal Rights Amendment of the Massachusetts constitution replaced "all men" with "all people" are created equal. According to the Massachusetts Bar Association's Lawyer's Journal, the amendment also added the text "equality under the law shall not be abridged because of sex, race, color, creed or national origin." This distinction is paramount to understanding how mixed gender teams can exist in Massachusetts, bolstering Title IX, the landmark decision to create equal access for sports teams for girls.
Under the amendment, the MIAA is required to make each sport available to all athletes, regardless of gender or season. For swimming and diving, which has two seasons in Massachusetts, one for boys and one for girls, schools are often caught in a lurch to provide both, a heavy cost to the school and burden on local pool availability. Some schools opt to only provide one, which is the case at Higgins' Norwood Senior High, or have a co-ed season in the winter.
Despite this conundrum, both boys and girls are entitled to play under the law. There were five mixed-gender teams in the state this last fall and 20 boys participating in the fall girls' state tournament.
Unlike in field hockey, a girls sport boys often play in the state, the individual nature of swimming allows for the physical strength and speed of boys to trump girls. And unlike wrestling, which girls often participate in, the sport is available in two seasons.
"Swimming is such a different sport because we are one of the few sports in the state that have two seasons," Grant said. "If we didn't have two seasons this would not be an issue at all."
In April, the MIAA swim committee will once again have to decide whether to create a unified co-ed season, look at loosening rules for more co-op programs between schools, create a separate tournament for boys in the fall, or to stand pat again. Cynthia Kangos-Baker, whose 1980 record was broken by Higgins in the 50-yard freestyle, would like to see the committee make a clear distinction between boys and girls. She wrote an impassioned letter to the swim committee.
"Girls work hard to earn their opportunity to swim at sectionals and states," Kangos-Baker wrote. "When boys compete with the girls these qualifying times become faster making it more difficult for a girl to qualify, how is that fair? Boys have more strength and power than girls so it is completely conceivable that they should swim faster; this is why there are records set for and by girls [and] there should be records set for and by boys.
"I have held the south sectional 50 freestyle record for 26 years," she wrote. "That is a very long time. It's time that that record be broken. But broken by a talented swimmer who is a girl."
Higgins' record, 23.96 in the 50 freestyle race, is still up for debate as well. The MIAA does not keep state records, so the state coaches association for swimming will have to hash out its legitimacy after the winter season.
For Higgins, he'd have to do quite a bit better in the boys field for the record. In Massachusetts, the boys 50-yard freestyle record is 21.40, more than 2 seconds faster than what he swam in November.
Berry is a sports writer and producer for the Boston Globe and Boston.com. He's
covered high school sports in California and Massachusetts for the past 10
years. You can follow him on Twitter @zuriberry, and reach him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.