Meritocracy is nowhere more manifest in modern America than on the high school football field.
The boys who play the game know who their most courageous teammates are, and they just as readily recognize the fastest, the smartest and the hardest working. In the weeks of physical training and full-pad practices that precede their first game, they learn to admire each other's skills and trust each other's character. Having been through much together -- and having started with equal chances to prove themselves on the field -- they become a team.
That is not what happened in Florida last Friday night, when South Plantation High fielded a girl as quarterback to run two carefully circumscribed plays.
The headlines stressed that Erin DiMeglio was the first female to play quarterback for a Florida high school football team. But reading past the headlines revealed that the formation of the team at South Plantation -- and the game of football itself -- had been altered to accommodate DiMeglio.
Last May 26, during spring practice, the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported about DiMeglio: "Her father won't allow her to hit yet, limiting her to 7-on-7 drills, but her arm strength and commitment has won the respect of her teammates."
On Aug. 2, the Miami Herald reported of her coach, Doug Gatewood: "Gatewood, who didn't allow DiMeglio to get hit during spring football, said his goal is to get her into games that already have been decided or are out of reach. He also plans to play DiMeglio only in shotgun formations."
"I've played flag football since the fourth grade," Dimeglio told the paper. "Scoring on boys is really fun, just to see their reactions, see the coaches get mad."
On Aug. 29, the London Daily Mail reported: "Coach Gatewood has assured her parents that she'll have minimal field time and would only be brought in to play when the game is going favorably for the team, to avoid unnecessary roughness."
In the same story, Gatewood said, "She doesn't ask for any special treatment."
The New York Times published a story on Sept. 3, depicting Gatewood's treatment of DiMeglio in a preseason game as follows: "The one question he did not know the answer to, and did not want to know, was whether she could take a hit. So when Dimeglio dropped back for her first pass, saw no open receivers and began to roll to her left, Gatewood felt queasy. 'Go down, Rock,' he said quietly. "Go down.'"
"Gatewood knew he had to prepare her to be hit eventually," the Times reported. "Last Wednesday, he brought junior varsity players up to the varsity and taught DiMeglio the best way to take a tackle."
The Times did not say whether her coaches drilled DiMeglio in making tackles.
On Friday night, when she made Florida history, DiMeglio lined up in the shotgun and twice handed the ball to a running back.
"Great publicity for the school -- it's a positive thing -- but at the end of the day it's not why we did it," Gatewood told the Miami Herald after the game. "We did it because she's a legitimate third-string quarterback."
But if she's a legitimate high school quarterback, third-string or otherwise, why couldn't she practice like the rest of the players on the team? Why didn't she participate in the exactly the same drills in exactly the same way as everyone else?
The Miami Herald used laudatory language to report on South Plantation's decision to play a female quarterback. The school, it said, "broke down a barrier in the process."
Yes, something did break down here. But it was not an illegitimate barrier to the advancement of women. It was a proper respect for the character of young men and the role that football can play in developing that character.
Feminism has been pushing those very few girls willing to try the game onto high school football fields for a long time now. In the 2011 high school season, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 14,421 high schools in the United States fielded 11-man tackle football teams. 1,095,993 boys played on those teams -- making football, over track and feild, the most popular high school sport for boys by a margin of almost 2 to 1.
There were also 1,604 girls who played 11-man tackle football at 421 high schools in the 2011 season. That was up from 2010, when 1,395 girls played football at 241 high schools.
The purpose of high school football is to develop character in boys. Putting girls on the team destroys that purpose in at least one of two ways. Either the boys are taught to hit girls with the same intensity they would hit a male teammate in practice or an opponent in a game, or they are taught that when they face a girl -- either in practice or in a game -- they must temper their play and tilt the field to her advantage.
Had a 260-pound defensive lineman smashed South Plantation's female quarterback into the turf, would he have been a hero? Would he deserve the adulation of society for treating a 17-year-old girl as his football-playing equal?
Or would it be more heroic for South Plantation's opponents to refuse to play a team that doesn't truly want a level playing field?