Last Saturday afternoon, a youth basketball team from Virginia was disqualified from a national travel tournament for having a girl on their roster.
After winning in the Elite Eight to advance to the Final Four of the National Travel Basketball Association Boy’s National Championship, the Charlottesville Cavaliers were disqualified because 10-year-old Kymora Johnson had played a few minutes in earlier rounds. The team the Cavaliers had eliminated in the Elite Eight advanced after the disqualification and went on to win the tournament.
It was a tournament for boys teams — with a separate event for girls at the end of June — but the optics were bad, and the incident quickly made local, then national news. Attention on opportunities for girls to play organized sports has exploded in the year since Mo’ne Davis stunned on the mound in the Little League World Series, and has surged again in the weeks after the U.S. Women’s National Team won the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
While to some, disqualifying a team for letting a girl on their roster appears callous and unfair, the NTBA says their bylaws are clear about gender eligibility for the National Championship. Girls are allowed to play on boys teams in regional tournaments, however, if they file paperwork ahead of time and are given a waiver. Kymora had always been cleared to play with the Cavaliers, but when her team wanted to go to the national championship, the inconsistent rules of eligibility would have left her behind.
Established bylaws or not, it’s a symptom of a fractured pipeline for girls who want to play organized sports at a higher competitive level — one that had severe consequences for Kymora and her teammates.
Kymora began playing basketball when she was only 3 years old, her mother Jessica Thomas-Johnson told BuzzFeed News this week. By the time she was 5, Kymora was ready to play with a team, but there were no competitive teams near them in Virginia for girls under 12, so she was signed up to play with the Cavaliers’ kindergarten team.
Her teammates never treated her differently because of her gender, Thomas-Johnson said, adding that her daughter "played in plenty of tournaments with boys and no one has ever had a problem with it." Kymora has even participated in the NTBA National Championship in previous years without getting the same harsh sanctions she got last week, just a few days after her 10th birthday.
In the five years since Kymora began playing basketball with a team, more opportunities for girls have popped up locally. Thomas-Johnson signed her daughter up for those teams when she realized she'd get more playing time and a better chance at developing her skills. But they definitely want to keep participating with the Cavaliers, "if they will have us," she said.
After the Cavaliers won the morning Elite Eight game, the opposing team sent a photo of the team while Johnson was on the court and complained to the NTBA. The team — not just Johnson — was then disqualified from the rest of the event.
Thomas-Johnson said that prior to the event she had checked the NTBA’s eligibility rules on their website, but saw nothing about gender restrictions. The specific rule regarding girls on regional teams versus national — which is buried under “Other Info” and then “Rules & Regulations” — states:
Players must play with their gender. Girls are not permitted to play on boys teams and boys are not permitted to play on girls teams. NTBA will grant a waiver for a girl to play on a boys team in certain regular season tournaments. Please contact us for more info if you would like to request a waiver. For the National Championship, you must play with your gender as NTBA offers both a Girls National Championship and a Boys National Championship.
The language of the rule carries parallels to the design of Title IX, which requires boys teams to allow a girl on their roster if there is no equivalent opportunity for girls to participate in the sport. In a news release, the NTBA pointed out that their restrictions are consistent with other youth tournaments, and that the Amateur Athletic Union enforces more stringent restrictions.
Kymora would have been fine with sitting in the stands with her parents and five siblings while her teammates carried on without her, but despite pleas from her mother — which she says was met with understanding by the NTBA President John Whitley — the sanction was not lightened against the Cavaliers boys.
Though she has exceptionally supportive teammates, Kymora felt disappointed and angry that she could not go on in the tournament, but especially guilty over the team disqualification, simply because she played a few minutes in early games. She’s felt uncharacteristically anxious, her mother added, her usual carefree demeanor interrupted by intermittent breakdowns.
William Bray, an attorney who represents the NTBA, admits that a child’s hurt feelings as a result of logistics handled — and miscommunicated — by adults is a frustrating outcome of the incident. He compared it to the sanctions against Jackie Robinson West, the Little League team out of Chicago that was stripped of its world series title after a competitor revealed they had recruited players outside of designated boundaries.
Should children be punished for the actions of adults? Bray says the precedent should be established even if a moral judgment would offer a different result. If the rules are applied inconsistently, he said, it will cause more problems down the line.
Bray also elaborated on why a precedent for team disqualification was important to uphold even when brought to light by the Cavaliers’ case. A team could bring ineligible players who would play at a high level and carry the team deep into the tournament, he said, and if only the individuals were eventually disqualified, the team would still be in the final rounds. Bray acknowledges that was not remotely the case with Kymora and the Cavaliers — she played only a few minutes in each game and scored just 3 points — but asserts the precedent should be upheld.
Meanwhile, in a news release issued jointly by the NTBA and the Charlottesville Cavaliers, both organizations stated their commitments “to offering equal competition opportunities to boys and girls in the sport of basketball.”
“In an effort to ensure that nothing similar happens in the future, the NTBA is examining its rule policies, as well as its tournament intake procedures,” the organizations said in the statement. “Further, CCB is committed to ensuring that, in the future, its coaches and families are aware of all tournament rules well in advance.”