A 13-year-old Long Island boy who played field hockey growing up in Ireland has been told that after two years as a member of the Southampton High School girls' team, he is now too skilled to qualify for an exemption allowing him to compete with - and against - girls next season.
Keeling Pilaro, whose 10 goals and eight assists earned him all-conference honors on suburban Long Island - he was the only boy in any league - is appealing the decision by the governing body for high school sports in Suffolk County, and a lawyer for his family suggests a court battle could ensue if the ball doesn't bounce Keeling's way.
An appeals committee said it looked only at his skills, not size or strength, when upholding the decision to keep him off the field. That raises a question of discrimination.
Keeling's fight appears to be a rare example of a young man seeking to take advantage of Title IX, a 40-year-old law enacted to provide women equal access to athletic opportunities. There are no boys' high school field hockey teams anywhere on Long Island, or, for that matter, in most of the country.
"It's really annoying," the eighth-grader said in a recent interview. "I'm just 4-foot-8 and 82 pounds, so I don't see why I shouldn't be allowed to play. I don't really care if I'm on a girls' team or a boys' team, I just want to play."
Southampton school administrators agree, but they don't have the final say.
"The decision to support him represents our commitment to provide meaningful opportunities to each of our students," Superintendent Dr. J. Richard Boyes said in a statement. "Our community, including the girls on our field hockey team, embraced Keeling Pilaro and we couldn't be more proud of him."
The problem, according to Edward Cinelli, the director of the organization that oversees high school athletics in Suffolk County, is that state education law won't allow it. He cited a provision that says administrators are permitted to bar boys from girls' teams if a boy's participation "would have a significant adverse effect" on a girl's opportunity to participate in interschool competition in that sport. Officials say Keeling's skills are superior to the girls he plays against, creating an unfair advantage.
Keeling's defenders say that while he has played well, his skills are not superior to everyone else in the league, and also that his skill level should not be the final determining factor in whether he gets to play.
In order to play with the girls in the first place, Keeling had to get permission from Suffolk's mixed-competition committee, which screens players who want to compete on teams of the opposite sex. Cinelli says there have been occasions where girls have been approved to play football, wrestle or compete in other traditional boys sports, but Keeling is the first in his memory to play alongside girls.
After a year on the junior varsity and a second season with the varsity, the committee in March denied Keeling permission to play next fall. An April decision by the panel's appeals committee affirmed the original decision, and said it did not consider his size and strength as potential criteria for being disqualified.
"Stick-play, quickness and agility are the ingredients of superior play and those are the characteristics of Keeling Pilaro relative to those girls with and against whom he participated," the committee wrote.
Another appeal hearing is set for May 15.
Keeling also plays with an all-girls field hockey club team, his father, Andrew, said, contending that there have been no problems in club competition.
Family attorney Frank Scagluso argued the county organization's ruling is faulty and promises legal action, if necessary. He said judging the boy's stick play is subjective, and the fact that Keeling has worked hard to improve his skills should not disqualify him. Scagluso argued there are many girls playing in Suffolk County with superior skills to Keeling's.
Keeling's chances of winning on a Title IX argument are slim, said Joanna Grossman, a law professor at Hofstra University, because the law was established to benefit those who claim their opportunities to compete are underrepresented. Most of the time that favors women or girls, because schools provide more opportunities for boys to play athletics.
But, she said, he could successfully argue that he is the victim of discrimination because officials already granted him permission to play and may now be holding him to a higher standard than girls.
The United States is one of the rare places in the world where boys do not regularly play field hockey, said Chris Clements, the national men's coach for USA Field Hockey. He said there are some leagues for boys in California, places on the East Coast where men and boys play, and club teams. But he conceded the opportunities for boys to learn the sport are rare.
"Even the girls don't pick up the sport until high school, or middle school."
He said USA Field Hockey is working on initiatives aimed at getting more boys involved. Some on the national team played on girls high school teams when they were younger; others have also developed skills playing in Europe, he said.
He said Keeling's age and skill sets should not disqualify him from playing with the girls next season.
"Obviously at some stage we do need to separate them in terms of their speed and skill," Clements said of boys and girls playing together. He didn't think Keeling's participation on a girls' team at his age would be detrimental.
"Maybe by the time he gets to be a senior, it could be argued that there is a difference, but I would say right now he fits in just fine," Clements said. "I'd say right now the girls are just as fast and just as strong. He stands out naturally because he's a boy. He just looks different."
Get Eyewitness News Delivered