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Sixth grade girl takes on Philadelphia archdiocese for right to play football

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By then, she and her parents, George and Marycecelia Pla, had taken to the airwaves to lobby for a rule change. An online petition has attracted more than 100,000 signatures, and Caroline recently appeared on Ellen DeGeneris' show as well as newscasts.

"I'm perplexed that you would contact me last, after publicizing your situation in both the national and regional media," Chaput wrote in a January email shared by the family. "That kind of approach has no effect on my decision-making. CYO rules exist for good reason."

The Women's Sports Foundation believes there are instead good reasons to reverse the rule — and not just for the sake of girls.

"What the diocese is missing is all the wonderful things that come out of co-ed sports. The mutual respect that lasts a lifetime between girls and boys," said lawyer Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist in swimming who now is senior director of advocacy for the Women's Sports Foundation.

From a safety perspective, pre-pubescent girls and boys are often the same size. And legally, private or religious groups that receive any type of federal funding — through low-income lunch programs or other aid — must abide by Title IX, the 1972 law that guarantees girls equal access to sports, she said. There are exceptions for contact sports, but they cannot be invoked once girls have been allowed to play in a program, she said.

Hogshead-Makar advises colleges to make sports activities co-ed whenever possible — in the weight room, on the team bus, on the court. She believes the mutual contact fosters respect and reduces rates of violence against women.

No matter how Chaput rules, Caroline could still play football next season for Pop Warner or her school team. And she has no plans to play in high school because she doesn't think she'll be big enough to play her position at that level.

Her brother plays on the high school freshman team, while her twin sister and an older sister have been cheerleaders.

"Right now, I'm one of the biggest because I've hit my growth spurt and a lot of them haven't," said Caroline, who scored her first touchdown this past season on a 15-yard run. "It's just really fun."

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