Junior netball, gender, and statistics

When, and how, to segregate sports by gender occasionally throws up difficult issues. At the elite level, there was the controversy surrounding Caster Semenya. But it’s a problem at junior level, too. Should boys and girls compete in separate sporting competitions – and if gender segregation should happen, at what age? In the case of netball, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Appeals Tribunal has ruled that segregation should be later than 15-and-under level, after an interim decision allowing a 13-year-old, 185cm boy to continue to play in a 15-and-under competition. The boy wishes to keep playing in the girls’ competition – at this point, there is no netball competition for teenage boys.

This isn’t the first such court case to be brought in Victoria, where a parent has sought to allow their child to continue to compete in a competition originally restricted to one gender where a suitable gender-specific competition for their child wasn’t available. This article describes a 2003 case where three teenage girls sought and one was allowed to continue playing Australian Rules football in junior competition, over the objections of teams from opposing clubs.

To briefly summarize a brief summary, the judge in that case concluded that “exclusion of one sex will be permitted in sports where, if the two sexes were to compete against one another, there would be a disparity between the males’ strength, stamina or physique and the females’ strength, stamina or physique, and that disparity would be of such a magnitude that it would have an appreciable effect on the ability of one sex to compete with the other, making the competition uneven.” Furthermore, the judge looked at statistical data for these attributes – in the case of football, the judge found lean muscle mass the most relevant statistic – and concluded that while there was no difference between averages for 13-year-olds, above the age of 14.5 years the disparity is such (the difference in means was greater than one standard deviation) to permit gender segregation on the above grounds.

The review article linked to discusses a number of reservations about the reasoning in this decision, but it’s worth analyzing the situation with regards to netball along similar lines.

In the case of netball, particularly for players in the goal area, the key attribute is clearly height. No matter how fast or skilled an opposing player is, if a goal shooter has a big enough height advantage it is all but impossible under netball’s rules to prevent them getting the ball and taking an umimpeded shot at goal – or, conversely, a defender with a significant height advantage could make obtaining the ball and shooting very difficult.

The graph below presents a (poorly drawn, but sufficient for the purposes of illustration) cumulative histogram for heights of (American) boys and girls at age 13 years and 6 months. As you can see, the mean heights are quite close – within 1 cm of each other. That would suggest that there is little point to segregating players of this age on the basis of biology – they should be able to compete on a pretty even basis.

However, there’s a caveat here; while the mean heights are very similar, there is considerably greater variation in boys’ heights at this stage; 5% of girls are taller than 172.5cm, while the tallest 5% of boys are taller than 175.9 cm. So while average boys have an insignificant height advantage over average girls of this age, the tallest of boys of this age group have a more significant advantage over the tallest girls. Given that netball players are likely to self-select for height, this may suggest a justification for segregation on competitive balance grounds at earlier ages than would be suggested by a simple comparison of averages.

But getting back to the boy on whose behalf the VCAT case was brought. A 185-centimetre 13-year-old boy is exceptionally tall. We don’t know exactly how old he is, but if he is 13 years and six months old, he’s taller than 99.9% of his male age group peers (assuming Australian and American height stats are roughly comparable). I have no doubt that the average girl of his age, around 159 cm tall, finds it almost impossible to compete against him on the netball court. But so would the average 160cm tall boy of the same age. A girl of similarly exceptional height – taller than 99.9% of her peers – would be 180cm tall, nearly a head higher than an average-height female opponent. They would be almost as difficult to defeat on court – to the point that playing against them would, I imagine, be similarly dispiriting.

I’m not taking a position on whether there might be other grounds under the law, as it stands, to prohibit 13-year-old boys from playing competitive netball with girls of a similar age. I also haven’t thought through whether there might be good arguments for gender segregation of junior netball that aren’t currently recognized under Victorian law.

But I would suggest that one exceptionally tall boy playing – and presumably dominating – a junior competition isn’t necessarily grounds for banning, on competition balance grounds, all boys of his age from playing netball with and against girls of the same age.

UPDATE: See Taylor Geoff’s comment, stating that there are many competitions that permit boys to play.

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4 Responses to Junior netball, gender, and statistics

  1. Taylor Geoff says:

    “The boy wishes to keep playing in the girls’ competition – at this point, there is no netball competition for teenage boys.” – that is not true. There are MANY competitions that permit boys to play (of which, this boy already plays in).. just not this one. He was also not granted permission to ‘continue to play’ – he was never playing in this competition. The team entered themselves into a girls only competition and only half way through the season was the decision then granted to allow him into the comp to play.

    • Thanks for the extra information.

      I’m not sure that it alters the general argument all that much, however. For instance, what if this boy, rather than wanting to play in an inner-suburban competition where there is undoubtedly no shortage of leagues to play in, lived in some isolated country town? Or what say the league in question was known as the best junior league in Melbourne, and therefore the best league to play in for strong players wishing to further hone their game?

      I can imagine that there are other issues here that haven’t been discussed openly. Just pointing out that on past precedent and available data on the anatomy of children at this age, trying to gender segregate teams of 13-year-olds on competition balance grounds is likely to struggle to pass muster with the lawyers.

  2. Alan Davies says:

    Last year my daughter’s U-14 netball team lost the grand final in their comp to a team with a boy. The boy was taller and more solidly-built than any of the girls. He was a fine player, although to what extent that was the result of innate talent or a physical advantage is unknown.

    There are plenty of children around 12-13 who’ve already hit puberty, so I think your points about the relative degree of variation and self-selection are important here. It’s not just height in netball though – I’d like to see some comparison data on other variables like speed and strength.

    The risk of not segregating sport by sex is girls aged 12-13 will be put off playing.

    • The article on the Aussie Rules decision discusses the use of speed and strength data (by way of a proxy, lean muscle muscle) to make a decision on gender segregation in that sport. Their conclusion was that there was not enough difference to justify segregating players under the age of 14.5 years.

      I’m not sure the standards used in that decision would make sense in this context, where the concern is boys dominating a sport traditionally played mostly by girls.

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