The Roman Catholic church in Philadelphia doesn't need another public relations headache after years of priest-abuse and school-closure headlines, but it's got one in the form of a pony-tailed 11-year-old athlete.
Sixth-grader Caroline Pla is fighting the archdiocese for the right to keep playing church-sponsored youth football.
The soft-spoken twin has been battling boys on the gridiron since she was 5. She's played the last two seasons in a Catholic Youth Organization league, where the 5-foot-3, 110-pound offensive tackle and defensive end made the all-star team.
But the archdiocese may put the kibosh on her Catholic youth league career. While at least a few U.S. dioceses let girls play football, and about 1,600 girls play on U.S. high school teams, the Philadelphia league is open only to boys.
"First they said it was a boys sport. Then they said it was a safety issue. Then they said it was inappropriate touching. I think they are just constantly looking for excuses to not change it," Caroline said Thursday at her home in Buckingham Township, Bucks County.
She first played in a public Pop Warner league, then moved along with her teammates to the Catholic Youth Organization league in fifth grade. After one season without a hitch, she learned last fall that an overlooked boys-only rule would be enforced. The archdiocese, though, agreed to let her finish the season.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput is now reviewing the ban, with a decision expected next month after a panel of coaches, parents and doctors weigh in.
"Traditionally football is a boys-only sport due to its full contact nature," the church said in a statement. "Most parents and players have preferred this; some now disagree."
Caroline sent Chaput an email in January, explaining that her Catholic youth league team had been the best chapter in her burgeoning, three-season sports career.
By then, she and her parents, George and Marycecelia Pla, had taken to the airwaves to lobby for a rule change. An online petition has attracted more than 100,000 signatures, and Caroline recently appeared on Ellen DeGeneris' show as well as newscasts.
"I'm perplexed that you would contact me last, after publicizing your situation in both the national and regional media," Chaput wrote in a January email shared by the family. "That kind of approach has no effect on my decision-making. CYO rules exist for good reason."
The Women's Sports Foundation believes there are instead good reasons to reverse the rule – and not just for the sake of girls.
"What the diocese is missing is all the wonderful things that come out of co-ed sports. The mutual respect that lasts a lifetime between girls and boys," said lawyer Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist in swimming who now is senior director of advocacy for the Women's Sports Foundation.
From a safety perspective, pre-pubescent girls and boys are often the same size. And legally, private or religious groups that receive any type of federal funding – through low-income lunch programs or other aid – must abide by Title IX, the 1972 law that guarantees girls equal access to sports, she said. There are exceptions for contact sports, but they cannot be invoked once girls have been allowed to play in a program, she said.
Hogshead-Makar advises colleges to make sports activities co-ed whenever possible – in the weight room, on the team bus, on the court. She believes the mutual contact fosters respect and reduces rates of violence against women.
No matter how Chaput rules, Caroline could still play football next season for Pop Warner or her school team. And she has no plans to play in high school, because she doesn't think she'll be big enough to play her position at that level.
Her brother plays on the high school freshman team, while her twin sister and an older sister have been cheerleaders.
"Right now, I'm one of the biggest, because I've hit my growth spurt and a lot of them haven't," said Caroline, who scored her first touchdown this past season on a 15-yard run. "It's just really fun."