Jim Kenyon: Left off the pitch in Vermont

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

By JIM KENYON

Valley News Columnist

Published: 09-10-2023 11:20 AM

Although we probably don’t need more examples of how adults can mess up youth sports and kids are left to pay the price, here’s a recent one that deserves public scrutiny.

Since before she entered elementary school, 12-year-old Annabella Gordon has played fall soccer with her friends in Hartford.

Until now.

Annabella and her parents were informed last month that she’s no longer welcome to play in Hartford, where her family has lived for a decade.

“It was heartbreaking to tell her that she couldn’t play,” said her father, Joe. “She’s missing it a ton.”

What happened?

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In Hartford, youth soccer is run by the Parks and Recreation Department until kids reach seventh grade when the town’s middle school takes over.

Annabella doesn’t go to the grade 6 through 8 school — she’s a student at a small private day school. But since her daughter’s school lacks a soccer program, Cheyenne Gordon didn’t think it would be a problem to sign her up for the Hartford team.

In Vermont, kids who attend schools that don’t offer a sport can usually play at the nearest school that does. The same goes for home schoolers.

But here’s the wrinkle that’s forced Annabella to the sidelines:

She attends Mid Vermont Christian School in Quechee, which earlier this year ran afoul of the Vermont Principals’ Association, the governing body for school sports in the state, for violating the organization’s anti-discrimination policies.

The VPA, as it’s known, and Hartford school officials have taken the stance that attending Mid Vermont is reason enough to disqualify Annabella from joining Hartford’s seventh and eighth grade team.

In other words, guilt by association.

The rift between Mid Vermont and the VPA has received a lot of publicity. In February, the VPA scheduled Mid Vermont to play Long Trail School, another small private school in Dorset, Vt., in a girls’ varsity basketball playoff contest.

Because Long Trail had a transgender player on its team, Mid Vermont officials informed the VPA that it was forfeiting the game.

By refusing to play a team with a transgender student-athlete on its roster, Mid Vermont violated VPA policies on “commitment to racial, gender-fair, and disability awareness,” as well as “gender identity,” the organization said.

Students can participate in sports and other activities “in a manner consistent with their gender identity” and “discrimination based on a student’s actual or perceived sex and gender” constitutes a violation of VPA policies.

After news of the forfeit broke in February, Vicky Fogg, Mid Vermont’s head of school, responded via email to Valley News’ questions.

“We believe playing against an opponent with a biological male jeopardizes the fairness of the game and safety of our players,” Fogg wrote. (Joe Gordon told me last week that he agreed with Fogg.)

But I suspect it has less to do with “fairness” and more to do with transphobia on the part of adults. If girls on the high school team were allowed to speak freely, I’m willing to bet they’d say competing against a transgender athlete wasn’t a big deal. It’s been my experience that kids just want a chance to play.

Wanting to hear more from Fogg on the subject, I called her office last week. I didn’t hear back.

In March, the VPA’s Executive Council, which consists of 15 school administrators, voted unanimously to oust Mid Vermont from its ranks indefinitely.

The VPA’s ban was merited. But as is often the case with youth sports, the adults running the show have gone too far.

Annabella was a sixth grader at Mid Vermont and had nothing to do with what was going at the high school.

Why punish her?

I figured it was worth asking Justin Bouvier, the interim principal at Hartford Memorial Middle School. He didn’t respond to my email.

Cheyenne and Joe Gordon, who work as educators outside the Hartford district, shared their mid-August email exchange with Hartford Athletic Director Joe James.

Hartford wasn’t accepting requests for Mid Vermont students to play on its teams “due to the ongoing restrictions imposed by the VPA,” James wrote.

I called Jay Nichols, the VPA’s executive director. I appreciated his candor when he explained the reasoning behind enforcing the ban all the way down to middle schoolers.

“If your school isn’t a VPA member, your students can’t play for a VPA-member school,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”

The rules-are-rules argument sounds better on paper than in practice. When I described Annabella’s situation, Nichols agreed “it’s not her fault that her school isn’t a VPA member.”

As Nichols pointed out, Annabella’s parents could solve the problem by enrolling her in Hartford’s middle school. Joe Gordon said they won’t do that, praising Mid Vermont for being “very rigorous, academically.”

Soccer was more than just an athletic endeavor for his daughter, he said. It allowed her to “reconnect” with early childhood friends that she doesn’t often see.

“I’ve known them since pre-school,” Annabella told me “We’ve become a really good team. We like playing together.”

She talked about a friendly rivalry with two Mid Vermont classmates whom she’s played against the last few years in recreation league soccer. They’re getting to play this fall — one in Hanover and the other in Lebanon. Unlike Hartford, the two communities run soccer for middle schoolers through their recreation departments.

Meanwhile Annabella is without a team through no fault of her own. It’s not very sporting.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.