Last year, as a defensive tackle on the middle school football team at Strong Rock Christian School, 12-year-old Maddy Baxter recorded four sacks and helped her team to a winning season.
This month, Maddy is tackling a bigger opponent: the perception that girls shouldn’t play football.
According to Maddy’s mother, Strong Rock’s CEO has ruled that Maddy’s presence on the team is inappropriate, despite her previous performance, and that Maddy should seek a sport meant for girls.
Summer-time practice begins in a few weeks at the private school in Locust Grove, about 40 miles south of downtown Atlanta. But Maddy won’t be joining her friends running drills at the school’s state-of-the-art stadium.
The school, which has about 750 students, pre-K through 12, posted a brief comment on its website, saying, “Middle school girls play girls’ sports and middle school boys play boys’ sports.”
The banishment has raised Maddy’s dander, put her mother Cassy Blythe on the warpath and attracted media coverage from Atlanta to New York. On Wednesday, Maddy flew to New York City with her mother to tape an appearance on “The View.” She has appeared on Atlanta news shows and on the popular radio program “The Bert Show.” A Facebook page Blythe created this week, called “Let Her Play,” already had 38,000 “likes” as of Thursday.
Of the school’s decision, Blythe wrote, “This is the craziest and most backwards thinking I’ve heard in a long time. It’s like taking a leap back to 1960.”
A visit to Maddy’s house near Jackson as she prepared for her New York trip reveals a hectic scene: Friends stop by; the family fields calls from news shows; her sister Ava twirls in a purple costume. Maddy, dressed in a University of Kentucky T-shirt (“I love the Wildcats!”), talks about football, while her mother scoops the youngest, 1-year-old Molly, from her crib. (Maddy is the oldest in a blended family of six children, all girls.)
Tall, strong and aggressive, Maddy enjoyed playing touch football during recess at school, but campaigned to be allowed to play the real thing. Both parents work in law enforcement (Blythe left her job to stay home with her girls), and they trained Maddy how to take down an assailant, so her fearlessness was expected.
Her grandfather, Steve Stevenson, wasn’t surprised. “She was the first grandbaby, and my wife would buy her frilly dresses, but when Maddy got older she’d much rather have a ball than a baby doll,” he said. “From day one, she was a rough girl.”
Accepted on the team last fall, Maddy proudly wore her No. 82 Patriots jersey and quickly determined she’d rather play defensive tackle than other positions. “I like going after people and attacking, rather than protecting someone,” she said.
The reaction from her male teammates was positive, she said. “All of the guys on the football team, I’m good friends with. I’ve had to knock them down, tackle them, push them down (in practice). We help each other back up.”
But school officials worry that such dynamics will change. According to Blythe, the school’s CEO, Pat Stuart, told her in a meeting that having a girl in a contact sport might promote “impure thoughts” among her teammates, and that the boys might “lust after her.”
School officials have not responded to repeated requests for a comment on the issue.
Maddy said, “Wouldn’t they just lust after the cheerleaders? I mean they have on shorter skirts, right?” For her part, Maddy isn’t concerned that personal feelings would get in the way of the game — for example, if she had to tackle a cute guy. “It’s just another guy,” she said. “It doesn’t feel any different from tackling one if they’re non-cute. If you’ve got the ball, you’re my target.”
The issue is not simple. As a fourth grader, Maddy was inspired by another Strong Rock student, Gracie Smoak, a kicker, who played on the varsity team. But Smoak has posted messages endorsing the school’s decision.
According to the rule book of the Georgia High School Association, of which Strong Rock is a member, “Girls may participate on boys teams when there is no girls team in that sport at that school.”
But Ralph Swearngin, executive director of the association, said schools are free to create more restrictive rules than those outlined in the rule book.
In the meantime, Maddy has received support from unexpected quarters. The Atlanta Phoenix, a full-contact woman’s football team with an undefeated record in the Women’s Football Alliance, invited Maddy out to Sandy Springs to watch a game last week and gave her a jersey. “We’ve got her back,” said Phoenix co-owner April Christler. “And we’re some pretty tough women.”
There are other schools in the area, including Union Grove Middle School, that have included female players on their rosters, usually as kickers. In a 1998 game at East Coweta High School, kicker Ashley Martin played, then was crowned homecoming queen at halftime.
Blythe said she and her husband will consider sending Maddy to public school, or home-schooling, if Strong Rock doesn’t change its policy. She admits the chances of that are “slim to none. I’m hoping that we’ll get support behind us, and they’ll find that gender inequality is not right for their school.”