It’s easy to dismiss what happened in Kansas recently between a private religious high school and a female referee as misogynistic. When Michelle Campbell showed up to officiate a boys’ basketball game at St. Mary’s Academy, she was told the school did not allow women to referee boys’ games. Campbell did not officiate the game nor did her male counterpart, who refused to work the game out of loyalty to Campbell.
Initial reports stated that the school, citing religious beliefs, did not allow women to have authority over men, and therefore could not permit a woman to referee boys. School officials aren’t speaking publicly on the matter, but St. Mary’s headmaster Rev. Fr. Vincent A. Griego did release a statement.
“This alleged reason was neither stated nor is it held by any official of St. Mary’s Academy,” Griego wrote. He went on to write that: “The Church has always promoted the ideal of forming and educating boys and girls separately during the adolescent years, especially in physical education. . . . In addition, our school aims to instill in our boys the proper respect for women and girls. 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.”
The Kansas State High School Activities Association is looking into the Feb. 2 incident and will hold a hearing on March 11. St. Mary’s Academy, a private religious school located about 25 miles northwest of Topeka, is not a member of the state high school association. It is unclear whether any action by the high school association will affect the school.
“I think it’s a gender issue hiding behind a religious issue,” said Marjorie Snyder, co-CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation. “I think [these type of incidents are] often unspoken. It’s never verbalized as being a gender issues. It could be verbalized as being a seniority issue or an experience issue or a skill level issue.”
Joe Marosy, the commissioner for the District of Columbia basketball officials association, assigns referees to work high school games in and around Washington. He said there are 16 women among the 400 referees officiating basketball games in his area. Marosy has never had a school refuse to allow a woman to work a boys’ game.
Women “referee boys’ games,” Marosy said. “A couple of them are in the top 10 of my referees.”
This is not the first time gender and religious beliefs have clashed at St. Mary’s. According to a report in the Kansas City Star, St. Mary’s chose to forfeit a football game in 2004 rather than play an opponent with a girl on its roster. A school official told the paper at the time: “We’re trying to form the boys to be gentlemen, and knocking a girl around on a football field is the furthest thing from that. . . . It’s not a game for girls, and not a game for boys to play against girls.”
St. Mary’s Academy is affiliated with Society of St. Pius X, a Catholic traditionalist group formed in 1970 by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. William D. Dinges, who has been a professor of religious studies at Catholic University for more than 20 years, spent time at St. Mary’s while writing his doctoral dissertation on the traditionalist phenomena.
“In the Vatican II and the changes that took place, there were some Catholics who were very disgruntled by this,” Dinges said. “And much of this discontent eventually came to galvanize around the traditionalists groups. One of the most visible of these is the Society of St. Pius X. . . . Archbishop Lefebvre was a French archbishop, very, very conservative. Somebody who himself had some very serious problems with some of the changes.”
Lefebvre, who died in 1991, formed a priestly fraternity, training them in the Latin Tridentine Mass, even though that liturgy had been prohibited since 1971. His followers came to the United States, first to New York and Texas then to Kansas in the late 1970s, early 1980s, and set up wildcat parishes.
“You don’t have to be a fundamentalist to recognize that our culture has gone through and is going through some very radical redefining of what we mean by family, gender dynamics, femininity, masculinity and so forth,” Dinges said. “Those concepts have become much more unstable or fluid or deconstructed. What you have here [at St. Mary’s] is an example of a people who in a sense are trying to assert a more framed order of things, a sense of definite boundaries. . . . To the degree that the identity of women becomes unstable or more diffused, this necessarily at some deeper psychological level threatens in a sense religion itself.”
Dinges, the father of three daughters, doesn’t approve of the thinking of the Society of St. Pius X, but he does understand its origins.
“This idea of the kind of gender specific responsibility of males to protect females and to the degree that a woman on a basketball court makes that more complicated, that makes sense,” Dinges said. “I mean, it makes sense not in the sense that I agree with it, but if you accept certain premises, it does.”
He added that the behavior by the Society of St. Pius X is analogous to what is taking place in the Middle East is terms of Islam and women.
It is hard to say how widespread the Society of St. Pius X and its beliefs are. Dinges puts its followers around 20,000 of the 65 to 70 million Catholics.
“This is an infinitesimal part of the Catholic population,” he said. “But again, that doesn’t mean it isn’t significant.”
It will be interesting to watch how this situation is resolved in Kansas. Snyder would like to see policies put in place to prohibit discrimination of female referees and sanctions if those policies are violated.
“Then I think there also needs to be some education,” she said. “Women can be fine role models for boys, and men can be fine role models for boys. . . . There could be some good education that went on in the schools about this.”