When a basketball team from St John the Apostle church in Scotch Plains, New Jersey started playing together in the Catholic Youth Organization, or CYO, league four years ago as second graders, they were a part of the Rookie co-ed developmental league. The next year, the boys and girls should have been split up as they moved onto the Pee Wee league.

However, there weren’t enough third and fourth grade girls interested in joining a basketball team within the parish, so two girls who had been on team as a part of the Rookie league, just stayed on with the boys throughout their Pee Wee competition.

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As the St John’s team entered Junior Varsity level competition as fifth graders, the girls stayed on with their male teammates from the previous three seasons. Everything seemed fine for the first 10 games of the season until the CYO league director, Rich Donovan, told the team that they should not have been allowed to play as a co-ed team at all that season.

A tersely worded note from Donovan on the league’s website gives you an impression of how he handles business in his office:

“If you try to sneak illegal players on and I have to ‘waste my time finding out that you are cheating’ then please be prepared for the following to happen; You will forfeit EVERY GAME that child has played in – including playoffs, championships; The coach will be suspended for the remainder of the season; It will be at my office’s discretion if we allow that coach to be reinstated the following season;The above rules and these clarifications are not up for debate of any kind. Regardless if you, the child’s parents or even your pastor/ principal call or email me to argue them or plead a case about them.; Should you try and bend the rules to suit your needs – NO YOU SHOULD NOT!“

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There was no sneaking though — the young women had been on the team’s roster since the season began in three months earlier. It’s unclear whether Donovan wrote this note before or after informing the team that the girls were not allowed to play for the remainder of the season. What is clear, though, is that before their second to last game of the season, the referee tasked with officiating that game was told not to do his job if the girls were going to play.

The director’s tone and tactics seem to run contrary to the Newark Archdiocese’s goals for its youth ministry programs, particularly their desires for “young people hear Jesus’ call to change this world for God.”

The members of the St John’s Junior Varsity level team chose to take a stand by sticking together. The coach of the team was not about to make the decision for his 11 players, so he left it to them to take a vote on what they wanted to do. They could stick together and forfeit the game as well as a chance at the playoffs, or they could finish the season without the girls.

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When they took the vote, the results were unanimous. The team was sticking together, chanting “Unity” along with moved members of the crowd. Instead of playing the regularly scheduled competition, the team scrimmaged against themselves and celebrated their camaraderie with a pizza party after the game. The story has been picked up by Good Morning America , ESPN , and the Associated Press.

After getting support from the boys on the squad, the girls decided to return the favor, volunteering to sit out the final game of the season, allowing their teammates a chance at competing in the playoffs. Director Donovan wasn’t having it, though. He described their forfeiture of the previous game as a “stunt,” canceled the remainder of the team’s season, and went back into the league records to mark all of their games as forfeited.

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Donovan noted that another team had filed a complaint with the league and he was compelled to follow-through the with threats issued in the note cited above. The team that leveed the complaint: St Theresa Kenilworth. This is notable because St Theresa was recently sued by the family of a seventh grade girl who wanted to play in boys “Varsity” league competition because she did not have any female peers interested in playing alongside her. Not only was this young woman not allowed to play ball, but she and her younger sister were thrown out of the school. Perhaps the St Theresa parish wasn’t interested in there being a precedence set against their decision.

While these incidents and litigation bring up questions of fairness, the youngsters on the St John’s Junior Varsity basketball team have shown that coming together and supporting one another is what really counts.