Caroline Pla from Bucks County is the catalyst for what is quickly becoming a national cause celebre, and she’s handling the spotlight impressively. Poised and eloquent, the 11-year-old Pla seems well aware of the stage and her role. The TV anchors and newspaper headlines claimed she was banned from playing football because she is a girl. Let me make an important clarification: Pla was banned from playing football because she is a girl and she is good.
If Caroline Pla had been a novelty act, a girl the “real players” went easy on in practice and who rode the bench during the games—more a cheerleader in pads than a linebacker—no one would have cared. Even if she had been a punter or a placekicker, like Kathy Ireland in Necessary Roughness, she would have been thought of as cute. But Pla is a tackling terror who seems to hit harder than anyone on the current Philadelphia Eagles defense.
It was someone from an opposing team who complained about Pla. If you have spent any time on the sideline of a children’s sporting event, this shouldn’t surprise you. The Doylestown CYO league officials looked at the rule book and sure enough there was an archaic “no girls allowed” policy for football. Caroline Pla has already played two seasons. She is now banned from next season—for now.
I have a difficult time believing the ban will hold up in Catholic court. CYO stands for Catholic Youth Organization. When the Archdiocese first got word of the Pla case, someone must have said “Great, this is all we need.” After a child sex abuse scandal and school closings, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia could use some good publicity.
It doesn’t help them that the first statement released by the Archdiocese started with the statement “CYO is a full-contact sport designated for boys,” making it clear they have never seen Caroline play. It also doesn’t help that Caroline is willingly playing the part of “sports suffragette,” the Susan B. Anthony of pee-wee football. On Good Morning America, she said, “It makes me really angry. Not only because I am not going to be able to play—other girls won’t be able to play too. I know girls personally who want to play CYO football just like me.”
The Archdiocese isn’t dealing with just one girl; now it’s a movement. A petition on Change.org has more than 26,000 signatures (as of posting time). One signer is Samantha Gordon, the nine-year-old football star and YouTube sensation from Utah who was recently featured on Wheaties boxes. Another signature is from Philadelphia city councilman and proud Catholic Jim Kenney, who wrote a letter to the Archdiocese asking that the rule be purged from the CYO handbook. Yesterday, Ellen DeGeneres tweeted her support for Caroline and urged followers to sign the petition.
Caroline Pla, I support you. If you think girls should be allowed to play football, I urge you to sign this petition ellen.tv/U5iJqL
— Ellen DeGeneres (@TheEllenShow) January 9, 2013
The last line of that Archdiocese statement offers some hope. It reads: “(The policy) is currently being reviewed and will be addressed moving forward to provide complete clarity.” As a Catholic, I do hope that means they are going to let Caroline and other little girls who are good enough play. I am praying that the Archdiocese learns from its public relations stumbles of the past and makes the right call.
For some guidance, I direct the Archdiocese decision-makers to the words of Pla’s coach, Jim Reichwein. “If you can tackle, if you can block, it has nothing to do if you are a boy or a girl, or live in a mansion or are homeless or the color of your skin. Football the game figures it out.”
Football the game has already figured out that Caroline Pla can play. I just hope the Archdiocese can do the same.