Gender and Religion on the Basketball Court

It’s easy to dismiss what happened in Kansas recently between a private religious high school and a female referee as … Continued

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.”

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  • Cheryl

    This is an inaccurate article. It clearly wasn’t about being “misogynistic” but rather to protect a female from getting battered on the court. Cambell and the other officials were paid in full and then they walked off the court – real hero’s wouldn’t have accepted payment. This is nothing more than a matter of preference. Males and females are often preferred for different jobs -secretaries, oil rigs, even happens in the military and there is nothing wrong with that. Is the Washington Post hurting for stories – what idiots.

  • DG

    The article shows a wider problem: the ever more thorough exclusion of traditional Catholics from civil society, with broadening legal actions taken against them and not only civil displeasure. This has been a long process; when to begin I am not sure, perhaps with the first Christians under the Roman and “Jewish” authorities. Most Catholics have been accelerating this problem by ever ready accommodation and a willingness to dissolve their own identity. Current examples include local transgendered ordinances, discrimination statutes affecting Catholic Charities in multiple states, mandated contraception coverage, etc. Presumably these problems affect orthodox “Jews” and fundamentalist—I use the term with no disrespect and rather specifically—Christians. For Catholics—I am a single male and so have an easier time of this—to be ready to drop out of much of civil society and ready themselves for increasing persecution with jail as a logical outcome.

  • JS

    This article has a few inaccuracies. First of all, the 20,000 estimate is a bit off, a more accurate number is closer to 1 million (see this CWN story,

  • Tom Gibbons

    I am a seminarian studying to be a Catholic priest, and while looking at some of the other comments regarding this article, they seem to focus on some possible inaccuracies in the fact backgrounds, which is fair. However, by focusing on this misses the larger point.That in this day and age a Catholic school can exclude a qualified female referee from working a boy’s basketball game is disturbing on a number of levels. One, even if it is true that this is not a discrimination issue (which I believe it is), what kind of ideas about gender are being taught to the students that no interaction can take place between a woman (who seems to have no problem refereeing other boy’s basketball games in the state) and men during competition? While I do not have an issue having all boys or all girls schools, I do not believe there can be any genuine respect between genders if healthy interactions in these environments are not allowed. It sets us back as a faith and as a people too far.

  • Jim M

    Cheryl, It clearly is about being “misogynistic.” Your argument that the issue is about protecting “a female from getting battered on the court” is discriminatory. I suppose poor Ms. Campbell was unaware that she was a female when she took the job, and thus was unfit to determine what was in her best interest. As far as accepting payment for the assignment, I believe that it was appropriate, and that the male official who declined to officiate, in protest was indeed a hero. Cheryl, it seems you have no problem with indentured servitude, requiring people to provide work without pay. It took time and effort for Ms. Campbell to arrive at the game, and we don’t know what opportunities or other costs were involved her her showing up to do the job she signed on to do. Dinner with her husband? Did she have to hire a baby sitter?There is one thing that Cheryl can do something about, if she feels that it is inappropriate for a woman to be battered around on the basketball court. She can chose not to be a referee of boys basketball games. However, a person with such bigotry really should not be taken seriously when she wishes to impose her bigotry on other persons, in “their best interest.” It reminds me of the argument in favor of racial segregation because certain minorities would just not be comfortable in all white neighborhoods.

  • Kacoo

    The D.C. Public School system is probably not the educational model to which the rural private school aspires.Discussion of indentured servitude should include those being forced to perform any work against their will for any money. Every man in America is forced to register for selective service when he turns 18 and can potentially be forced to work against his will in a military occupation for the duration of his life. Girls have no such requirement of citizenship, and yet a woman is complaining for the right to referee a boys’ sporting event. One possible solution would be for the school to require the female referee to sign a statement saying that she supports selective service registration for women. That would correctly honor the very different form of citizenship duty that men peform for their country.

  • Jim M

    KacooThe point about selective service is not valid in context of the argument about whether a woman should be permitted to referee a basketball game. However, on its own merit, you make a good point. If men are required to register, women should be required to register likewise.Still that has nothing to do with the issue at hand. It is only a weak ploy to justify a wrong.

  • Devorah

    I agree that selective service is not relevant here, and that all citizens should be expected to serve if needed, and perhaps in a compulsory fashion. Since she is not a child, this form of protection is not necessary.

  • Mike

    This is entirely about misogyny; those who think not are themselves misogynist.