It took a broken bone in her ankle while playing softball for Thalia Townsend to convince her mother, Michelle Larsen, to let her play football.
Now Townsend, a 13-year-old girl set to begin seventh grade at West Carroll this fall, needs to figure out what she needs to do to win the same argument with the administration at the West Carroll Special School District.
“She told me when she was younger, ‘Momma, I want to play football,'” Larsen said. “But I was afraid she’d get hurt and told her that.
“She said, ‘Well, I could get hurt playing softball too.’ I still told her no, and then she broke a growth plate in her ankle sliding into home. A couple days after she did it, she asked if she could play football now.”
Larsen had no argument against that, and she let her daughter play football. She played for the elementary school’s team in her fifth- and sixth-grade seasons.
Townsend showed up for football tryouts this week for the middle school team and wasn’t allowed to participate.
“She called me and told me they wouldn’t let her play because she’s a girl,” Larsen said. “I wondered if she was correct or if maybe she’d misunderstood, and I went and talked to (the coach.) She was right.”
Townsend said she couldn’t believe what the coach told her when she heard it.
“I cried and thought, ‘Well, I guess my only dream is over,'” Townsend said. “Surely there’s some way they can let me play.
“I love playing football and getting out there hanging around with all my guy friends and being able to be aggressive. I love the game.”
Larsen talked to West Carroll Special School District Director Eric Williams. After he talked with middle school football coach Chris Rich, Williams supported Rich’s decision.
“He told us Title IX said they just had to offer her an alternative, and they said that alternative was softball,” Larsen said. “But that’s not an alternative for football. It is for baseball.
“The only thing girls are allowed to do in the fall right now is cheerleading.”
TSSAA sanctioned fall sports for girls include soccer, volleyball, golf and cross country. West Carroll offers none of those. Williams did not immediately respond to messages left on his voicemail asking for comment.
Matthew Gillespie, an assistant executive director for the TSSAA and the TMSAA, said the state athletic organization has no policies pertaining to girls playing football, other than what are established by Title IX.
“It’s not something that happens every year, but I can think of three girls off the top of my head who have played football in Tennessee in the past few years in high school,” Gillespie said. “Most of the time they kick, but there was one who ran for a touchdown as a running back.”
Townsend has played left tackle and defensive linewoman for the youth league team in fifth and sixth grades. She estimated herself at 5-feet-5-inches tall and 215-220 pounds.
“I don’t think I’d get hurt if I played,” Townsend said. “If I do, boys get hurt at football, and I got hurt playing softball. It’s part of the game.”
Larsen said she holds no ill will toward anybody at the school district. She said she just disagrees with this decision and hopes to see them change their minds.
“If the boys are allowed to try out, she should be allowed to as well,” Larsen said. “I’m not asking for special treatment for her or anything like that. Just give her an opportunity.
“I like Mr. Williams. He’s a nice man. We love the school district and teachers, and Thalia adores her teammates. And they seemed to embrace her as part of the team the past two years. She just wants the opportunity to keep doing it.”
Reach Brandon Shields at (731) 425-9751. Follow him on Twitter @JSEditorBrandon