By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New York state student will be allowed to play on his school's girls field hockey team after an athletic commission on Tuesday reversed an earlier decision barring him from participating because he had become too proficient at the sport.
Keeling Pilaro, 14, will receive a waiver to join the girl's team at Long Island's Southampton High School for a third year after winning an appeal before county athletics officials, lawyers and school representatives said.
"We are relieved that a young boy with a passion for a sport that is not always accessible to young men in our country can pursue his interest and develop his talent without a protracted controversy that would be distracting and disheartening," J. Richard Boyes, superintendent of Southhampton Union Free School District, said in a statement.
While Pilaro had played for the girls team for each of the past two seasons, an athletics board decided he should not be allowed to play in the upcoming season because his field hockey skills had improved to the point where his presence on the field would leave the girls at a disadvantage.
Frank Scagluso, a lawyer representing the student, said the family was "ecstatic" officials had reversed their decision and will allow the 4' 8", 84-pound teenager play on the team.
"My argument to the committee was you've got to balance his skill level with the impact of not allowing him to play," he said, adding that he felt the committee had earlier overestimated Pilaro's skills.
"If he's that good, why did the team only finish in fourth place?" he asked.
Pilaro was born in New York City but grew up in Ireland, where field hockey is commonly taught in schools to boys and girls alike. Upon his family's return to New York a few years ago, he learned there was not a single public high school in the state with a boy's field hockey team.
"If you're a boy and you want to pay your only option is to be on the girls' team," Scagluso said. "He has a strong passion for the game."
Pilaro had the support of many coaches and players on opposing teams, according to district officials.
"We respect the fact that there are complex considerations in deciding where mixed competition may be very appropriate and where it may not be," said Boyes. "In this case, however, Keeling by all accounts fits in well and does not present an unfair or adverse presence to his teammates and competitors."
If the school district's appeal had failed, the family would have launched a discrimination lawsuit in federal court, said Scagluso, the family attorney.
Edward Cinelli, who oversees the state's schools athletics association for the county, said it was the first case he could remember of a boy getting permission to play on a girls team in the area.
"The committee felt that him playing field hockey as a 9th-grader did not have a significant adverse affect on the ability of the girls to participate successfully in the sport."
But he added: "He is a very, very good field hockey player."
(Editing by Paul Thomasch and Todd Eastham)