No female refs allowed

A Catholic school protects a boys basketball team from being judged by a woman.

Published February 21, 2008 8:36PM (EST)

Sometimes reading the news makes you wonder: What is this world regressing to?

Last week, a female official was asked to not work at a varsity basketball game at St. Mary's Academy and College, a private school outside of Topeka, Kan., on the grounds that women were not allowed to officiate over boys' sporting events. When her outraged officiating partner asked the rationale for the policy, he claims that he was told by a St. Mary's staff that it was because women weren't allowed to be in positions of authority over men.

A media tornado ensued, with mainstream and alternative outlets from the Kansas City Star to "Good Morning America" to Fox News to AlterNet weighing in. Even for a school dedicated to "traditional Catholic teachings," wasn't this a little Taliban-like, especially for an institution named after a woman?

For several days, St. Mary's Academy offered no further explanation. Then Tuesday the headmaster issued a press release presumably intended to calm the sanctified shit storm blowing over the Kansas plains. "It was falsely alleged and widely reported that the decision of St. Mary's Academy not to allow a woman referee to officiate at a basketball game was based upon the idea that women can never have authority over men," stated the press release. The school pointed out that the faculty includes many "honorable ladies of talent and erudition" and that as "a Catholic institution," the academy "adheres in spirit and discipline to Divine Law" -- which includes "due honor to father and mother."

The distinction was not about women's authority over men but about Catholic directives on coeducation that recommend that boys and girls be educated separately during their adolescent years, especially in P.E. The press release then referred to the titles, publish dates and page numbers of the relevant texts.

The male officiator who reported the comment about not allowing women authority over men has stood by his story. But it strikes me as almost more insane and disturbing that St. Mary's assumed this weirdly worded, citation-riddled press release would in any way justify its decision. It's not about female authority in all settings, just ones involving adolescent boys. Well in that case, you're off the hook!

What seems closer to the truth is that the school simply feared that the team of boys being raised in its china shop of Victorian values might lose when faced with seeing a woman calling their plays. As the headmaster put it: "Teaching our boys to treat ladies with deference, we cannot place them in an aggressive athletic competition where they are forced to play inhibited by their concern about running into a female referee." One wonders what will happen if any of these kids go on to join a police force, the military, a corporation or any number other potentially aggressive work settings where women might be their bosses.

What strikes me as interesting are the parallels between St. Mary's and some radical Islamist sects, which cleave by archaic beliefs even as mainstream religion evolves. St. Mary's claims an ultra-Catholic identity, but the school was founded by the Society of St. Pius X, headed by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who was excommunicated for consecrating bishops independently. After his excommunication his society was no longer recognized by the Catholic Church. Where this puts St. Mary's isn't terribly clear -- the organization may call itself Catholic, but one former student called it a misogynist cult "run by fear tactics, conformity and guilt."

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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