Amanda Leves
Amanda Leve wants to join the all-male wrestling team at her Philadelphia high school.


Credit: Courtesy of Amanda Leve.

(WOMENSENEWS) — This month a newly formed wrestling team at Archbishop Ryan High School will start its first season, and 16-year-old Amanda Leve has little hope of going to the mat for her Philadelphia parochial school.

Leve said in a phone interview that school officials told her that the discussion among archbishops of the archdiocese of Philadelphia regarding her participation on the school’s wrestling team will recommence in April 2014, after the season is over.

The aspiring mixed martial artist is still campaigning for her Catholic high school to permit females to join the school’s new all-male wrestling team. In a petition that has gathered over 15,000 signatures supporting her push to join the team, she includes a link to a YouTube video of her winning a match against a boy at a competition. “I wanted to show that I fight boys all the time,” she said.

But despite Leve’s wins against males in competitions outside of school, Archbishop Ryan High can probably legally keep her off the team despite the growing reach of Title IX, the 1972 law that says that any federally-funded educational program must ensure the safety and protection against sexual discrimination.

A clause in Title IX enables schools to prevent a student from participating in contact sports with members of the opposite sex, Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel and director of equal opportunity in athletics at the National Women’s Law Center, said in a phone interview.

In the Educational Amendments of 1972, Title IX states in section one, clause 415(b) (3), that “separation by sex in physical education classes involving contact sports” is permitted. Contact sports are defined as “boxing, wrestling, rugby, ice hockey, football, basketball and other sports the purpose or major activity of which involves bodily contact.” In section 10, this clause is further parsec out: “Members of the excluded sex must be allowed to try out for the team offered unless the sport involved is a contact sport.”

Chaudhry called the intimacy caveat outdated and antiquated but said it could legally justify the school’s decision to keep Leves off the wrestling team.

Alternative Paths

When asked what possible route Leve can take in order to bypass the clause, Chaudhry said she could try forming an all-female wrestling team. But so far she has been the only female student to express interest in wrestling, Leve said.

Leve hopes to attain a university athletic scholarship for martial arts and feels that wrestling for her high school team would help.

“Not participating on a sanctioned high school team puts Amanda at a disadvantage,” said Lisa Maatz, vice president of government relations for the American Association of University Women, in a phone interview.

Maatz suggested another path Leve’s case could take. The school could “lead by design” and let her wrestle alongside her male classmates. In doing so, Maatz said it would fulfill another Title IX clause that says schools must meet the interests of students who display talent and commitment. “There’s the legal thing to do and there’s the right thing to do. The right thing to do is to let Amanda participate,” Maatz said.

Hearing that Leve was told intimacy was the reason she could not join the wrestling team, Maatz said, “It must be virtually impossible for there to be a gay boy in a Catholic school then.”

Leve was inspired to launch a petition campaign by a similar, victorious campaign of 11-year-old Caroline Pla, who was also barred by the archdiocese of Philadelphia from participating in her Catholic school’s all-male football team.

The online platform enables signatories to write comments explaining their reason for showing solidarity. One comment left by Kate Marshall in New Hampshire on the petition supporting Leve said: “Ironic. The slogan at Archbishop Ryan High School is, ‘Belong, Believe, Become,’ except if you are a girl and want to wrestle. Contact sports do not make women question their identity. It makes us individuals who can stand up for ourselves.”

Different Circumstances

Pla’s February 2013 petition did lead to her eventual inclusion in her Catholic school’s otherwise all-male football team, but Chaudhry said differences in Pla’s case worked in her favor.

“Caroline was allowed to play on her school’s football team for a long time and one day was kicked off the team,” Chaudhry said. Because Pla’s school had let her play football before excluding her, gender discrimination was at play, which openly violated Title IX, Chaudhry said. Once schools enable a student to partake in contact sports involving the opposite sex, the clause that allows schools to deny a girl from playing on an all-male contact sports team is nullified.

Even if Leve’s online petition does not get her onto the team, Chaudhry called it a helpful tool for altering a persisting “cultural mindset and perception of what girls can and cannot and should and should not do.”

Leve said she trains twice a day, most days of the week, and participates in anti-bullying programs to help empower youth. She was introduced to martial arts by her father. She said that attending college football games influenced her decision to pursue contact sports. “Seeing the running and push-ups, how they released their energy – I loved it.”

Pla’s case was able to invoke Title IX because the archdiocese of Philadelphia receives federal funding for the National School Lunch Program.

Title IX applies to all schools administered by a Catholic diocese whereby at least one school receives federal funds via the school lunch program, Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a lawyer and senior director of advocacy at the Women’s Sports Foundation, said in a report by Forbes that cited the case of Russo v. Diocese of Greensburg.

The contact-sports caveat in Title IX does not apply to today’s social dynamics in which women and girls have a lot more opportunities, Wendy Murphy, an appellate attorney specializing in child abuse and interpersonal violence and an adjunct professor at New England Law|Boston, said in a phone interview.

Murphy, also a contributing editor for Women’s eNews, added that many schools do not uphold Title IX until they are called out for prolonging gender inequity and accepting sexual abuse without penalizing assailants. “Challenge elite schools first and when they’re made to abide by Title IX, it trickles down to the other schools.”

Reshmi Kaur Oberoi is an editorial intern with Women’s eNews and is a New York-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @ReshmiKO.