Rules Are for Schmucks: A Lesson from Basketball

Kayla Martel, age ten, wanted to play basketball, just as she’d been doing the past four years for her St. John’s school team in New Jersey. Until the day, that is, when the God experts at the Archdiocese of Newark discovered that—oh my God!—she’s a girl. Playing with yet another girl in a Catholic school boys’ basketball league, on a team with nine boys.

How sinful can you get?

Wasting no time, the office of the newly-minted Cardinal of Newark issued a godly decree: Kayla can’t play on that team anymore. Referees were firmly instructed not to permit either girl on the court.

The team learned of this decision when they were suited up and ready to play a game. What to do? It might have taken grown-ups a while to sort through all the pros and cons, but it didn’t take this group of fifth-graders any time at all. When the coach asked the boys what they wanted do, the vote was 9-0: if the girls don’t play, we don’t play either. They voluntarily forfeited the game and the rest of their season.

The story gets even worse. Sydney Phillips, a twelve-year-old girl at a different Catholic school in the same archdiocese, didn’t have a girls’ basketball team she could join, so she signed up for the boys’ team instead. “Absolutely not!” came the edict. She could be the next Maya Moore, but they won’t even give her a tryout. Her father, who thought he’d heard something about “equal protection” and “Title IX,” filed a lawsuit—the result of which was that both Sydney and her younger sister were immediately expelled from school. Why? For the lèse majesté of questioning the wisdom of a rule that nearly every other youth sports league abandoned years ago. By an order of the court, Sydney and her sister were readmitted to school until such time as a final ruling is issued, but my guess is that they won’t be back next fall. At least I hope not.

Is there some logic to this? Well, yes. According to the archdiocese, “Gender differences are important and play a large role in development of mature Christian male and female identity.” We certainly wouldn’t want these girls to forget that they are girls, which could so easily happen on a basketball court.

Then there’s my son, whose story never appeared in the news anywhere. He, too, wanted to play basketball. At the time, the principal basketball league in our neighborhood was run by the local chapter of the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO). I submitted an application, then received a phone call—they needed to see his baptismal certificate. “Uh …” I replied, “gee … we adopted him from Hungary when he was six, and we don’t have any way of getting a record like that now.”

Sorry, came back the answer. No baptismal certificate, no basketball. Just think what the NBA may have lost at that moment!

Whether or not the NBA lost anything, the ultimate loser was that local CYO basketball league. I began to get much more involved in our local youth sports scene, working with lots of other adults to help grow a little secular soccer league into a program that has offered wrestling, track, lacrosse, paddling, baseball, flag football, futsal—and plenty of basketball. Now the CYO league no longer exists— all the kids around here play with us. We even let Catholics in—isn’t that generous?

The story of the little kids in New Jersey standing up to the black-cassocked ogres is heartwarming, but at this moment it’s even more than that. The federal administration is now preparing to unveil a massive program of vouchers and other subsidies—using the tax money they extract from you and me—to prop up exactly the kind of religious schools that treat children like Kayla and Sydney so callously. The details aren’t announced yet, but our so-called president was as clear as a bell throughout the campaign that this is exactly what he intends to do, and he selected an education secretary committed to “advancing God’s kingdom” with my money. These are schools that are proud to discriminate not just against girls, LGBTQ youth, and the straight children of LGBTQ parents, but even against the disabled.

In theory, encouraging charter schools to give parents greater choice and pressure overly bureaucratic public schools to improve performance makes sense. I get that. In Washington, DC, where I live, any proposal to get rid of our charter schools would arouse a storm of protest. The free market is a good thing. But even a free market needs regulation, as has been recognized since Hammurabi wrote his code. If tax money is going to go to charter schools, let them experiment and differentiate themselves all they want—but don’t use my tax money to promote religion, or its moron offspring, like creationism. Thoughtful analysts have been documenting the perils of insufficiently regulated charter schools, including the explicit religious brainwashing in some of them. If we’re going to start shoveling more money their way, then tighter regulation is a must.

We don’t need thoughtful analysts to document what goes on in Catholic schools, in Newark or elsewhere. We already know that, and the church is quite proud to trumpet what it does. If you want to have your children learn, in excruciating detail, just how horrible eternity will be for humanists, then Catholic school is the place for you. Have at it—but not using my money, either directly in the form of a subsidy or indirectly in the form of a voucher.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the need to be smart about opposing Trump. Sometime in the next few months, we’re going to be hit with the Trump-DeVos plan to make American education great again. The initial reaction, led by the teacher’s unions, will be outraged opposition to every comma. We need to be a little sharper than that. We need to accept the common sense premise that greater choice can lead to better results, but demand that not a nickel of tax money directly or indirectly be used to advance supernatural belief—and that every recipient of tax money follows rules of fundamental nondiscrimination fairness.

Especially when the discrimination is against children who just want to play basketball.