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They Didn't Go Far or Fast Enough

What should have been said about equality and expedient government in the aftermath of the city’s recent decision to let girls play basketball with boys.

To sum up, I’m disappointed this took so long.

It’s been nine-plus months since the Menlo Park Parks & Recreation Commission to stomp on the civil rights of a then eight-year-old girl.  

You may remember that last December, against the objection of many, the Commission denied third-grader Linnea Lindblom the right to play city organized basketball against boys her age.

In so doing the city made the case that allowing her to play would . Somehow the Commission felt it needed a bit more time to discuss... what exactly? Was it a safety issue? An insurance concern? Was someone on the Commission not comfortable with the possibility that their son might get beaten on the basketball court by a girl?

Who’s to say what they were thinking. The public perception of the Commission after its decision to not let Lindblom play was, These people are ill-equipped to deal with the issue. Commissioner Andrew Kirkpatrick confirmed the perception when he said, “Exceptions send a bad message to community, and city staff, and are really unfair.”

To which the Lindblom family might have replied, “No, it’s the rule that is unfair!”

Keeping an open mind

Under public pressure Kirkpatrick and the Commission agreed to review the gender rule. Unfortunately they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do so in a timely manner, and young Lindblom missed the opportunity to play co-ed city basketball this past season.

But, true to its word, the Commission reviewed the case. And last week, it changed its ruling. In what must have been a humbling experience, the Commission issued this statement:  

“The City of Menlo Park Youth Basketball League allows females to opt-in to a boys team and males to opt-in to a girls team for all grade levels. School coordinators must use the roster form provided and continue to ensure balanced teams across the league with rosters that promote the recreational, inclusive and positive values of the program. Girls and boys may still play up a grade level within their gender if their skill level is appropriate.”

After botching the initial decision and wasting nine months debating the merits of co-ed basketball, the Commission’s statement was brief, straight from Legal via Marketing, and meaningless as a vehicle to express why it’s never OK to deny someone the right to participate based on gender, race or socio-economic background.

Missed opportunities

Why couldn’t the Commission have used its decision as a platform to make a broader point about discrimination? I find the Commission’s comments about being “inclusive” and the importance of “positive values” to be condescending. You can’t tell me that, after it took nine months to make a decision that should have been obvious from day one. So much for values.

Had any sincerity or thoughtfulness gone into the Commission’s decision, it might have said:

“First, we made a huge mistake in December. Lindblom should’ve been allowed to play in the boys league, we apologize to her and her parents, and we promise to learn from our mistakes. Second, we’re embarrassed it took nine months to resolve this issue. Government decisions always take too long, but this was over-the-top and we’re sorry. We will try our best to implement a more efficient city government going forward.”

The Commissioner would then have gone on to say:

“Most importantly, we hope our decision today, to allow co-ed basketball teams, will serve as a reminder to parks and recreation departments, cities and states everywhere, that discrimination in any form is just plain wrong. I take full responsibility for screwing this up in the first place. There are no excuses; I won’t even try. Reasonable people don’t want to be bothered.”

This is how the city could have laid things out. It could have made a strong statement about the need to avoid getting bogged down in government bureaucracy, and the Commissioner should have taken responsibility for not making the correct decision as soon as the matter arose.

In the end, it seems, the Commission came to see things as the majority of Menlo Park residents do. The Commission did, in fact, solicit public opinion on the matter. I completed a survey in my son’s school newsletter about the issue, and I’m quite sure the Commission wouldn’t have changed its mind unless the results of that survey heavily favored a rule change.

The rule, by the way, was overturned by a landslide. The Commission’s vote was five to nothing, a nearly a 180 degree turnaround from last year, when the Commission voted 5-1 the other way.  I guess politicians can be taught.  

Clearly they got the message that, the only thing worse than making a dumb decision is making it twice. 

Bob Dylan October 03, 2011 at 04:56 PM
Realizing that I will now open myself up to public scrutiny, I just had to write and state that articles like this are very disappointing. I do not know Mr. Kirkpatrick, but I have heard that he is in fact a very hardworking VOLUNTEER for our rec department. Some of us, and perhaps it could be the "silent majority", sided with Mr. Kirkpatrick and the commission, but did not know how to communicate those feelings, or where to communicate those feelings. Yes, I know it was on the e-newsletter, or perhaps in a town bulletin, but I missed it. My fault. I don't have a strong opinion either way with this decision, but many of us were asking: What about Title IX, does this issue not cover that?? Many of us being coaches (yes, I am one and have been for a number of years) did not know how this new element fell into the arena of coaching. Perhaps I would have had a difficult time if "a girl" showed up a player or two on the court. Would that have lead to ridicule, from the other boy's teammates? Once a player gets to the middle school, high school level, aren't they just playing for a boys team, or a girls team? A few of us had heard that there may be a lawsuit regarding this issue. Now WHY would I want to, or any other volunteer want to, open themselves up to this type of ridicule in our town? I am afraid that articles like this, will only dissuade others from volunteering their time, while some only volunteer their negative opinions. Scott Lohmann
Kevin Wolf October 04, 2011 at 09:00 PM
Scott, thanks for your comment. You make a valid point. Volunteers like Mr. Kirkpatrick are invaluable to a community, and at the very least I should have asked for his perspective prior to publishing my story. That said, I'm pleased that my article prompted the City to offer a rebuttal, which Patch ran this morning. Menlo Park residents now have more insight into the decision-making process of the City, and transparency in government is always a good thing. On the other hand, I continue to believe the issue -- whether or not to allow city-organized co-ed basketball in Menlo Park -- isn't as complicated as the Commission made it out to be. Some "concerns" for the proposed rule change, voiced by residents at a Sept. 14 community meeting, sound at best like excuses and at the worst like gender discrimination. "Logistics issues," really? I'm all for focus groups, community meetings and surveys, but let's not waste time when the matter has to do with ensuring basic civil rights.

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