Recreation Department bounces co-ed youth basketball

Few girls participated in league

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Few middle school-aged girls played last season in the Williston Recreation Department’s basketball program. Perhaps boys were the problem.

That’s the theory the town intends to test this season. Sign-ups started Monday, and for the first time the program will segregate girls and boys in grades five through eight. Younger children will continue to play on co-ed teams.

“We wanted to eliminate the intimidation factor,” said Williston Recreation Committee member Mike Healey. “There was just a general sense that this would make everyone more comfortable.”

Participation by middle school-age girls has dropped in recent years, said Recreation Director Kevin Finnegan.

Last season, a dozen or fewer girls played on teams for grades five through eight, Finnegan said. There were about 70 players altogether in the age group. The imbalance meant that most teams included only one or two girls.

The co-ed arrangement also prevented competition between Williston players and those in other towns, Finnegan said. Neighboring towns segregate the sexes at the fifth to eighth grade level.

Most other Williston Recreation Department programs field both girls and boys teams and play against other towns’ squads. With the basketball program change, “now we can match up with other towns’ teams,” Finnegan said.

The Recreation Committee has debated over the past several years whether to segregate girls and boys. Basketball is often a contact sport, and committee members wondered if self-conscious, middle school-age girls would prefer to compete in a same-sex league. Finnegan described it as a “body image issue.”

The town asked parents and players in the league to fill out response cards designed to survey satisfaction with the basketball program. Out of 54 total responses, 20 said they wanted no changes and 34 suggested changes. Nineteen of those who suggested changes said they wanted a separate girls’ league.

Finnegan pointed out that participants would tend to be satisfied with the current arrangement.

“It’s the folks that are NOT in the league that we’re most concerned about,” he said in an e-mail.

Efforts to contact parents who have told the Recreation Department that they want a girls-only league were unsuccessful. But one long-time supporter of the former co-ed arrangement said she was disappointed the town changed course.

“If you want my opinion, it’s a huge mistake,” said Lynn McClintock, a former Recreation Committee member and parent of six children who played in the league. “I’m really disappointed the town thinks this will get more girls to participate.”

McClintock said both her daughters and sons benefited by seeing that the sexes can compete on equal ground. She worries the town is now sending a message “that girls can’t do it.”

“That’s not the message we’re trying to put out there,” Healey said. “We’re trying to make room for everyone. And we’re trying to drive up the number of players. Our thought has never been that girls can’t play with boys.”

Finnegan said other factors could be contributing to declining participation by girls. The number of players in a given recreational league tends to rise and fall with the popularity of the corresponding professional sport. Girls may also be less attracted to basketball than other sports.

Healey said separating girls and boys this season could be considered a trial run.

“We’ll find out whether it’s working,” he said. “If it’s not working, we’ll address it and go from there.”