June 26, 2013 at 12:37 PM ET
Madison Baxter may be just 12 years old, but she already knows her life’s passion: football.
The sport comes easy to Madison, who goes by the nickname Maddy. She’s 5 feet 5 inches tall, and as a defensive tackle, doesn’t shy away from hard hits.
In the last year, parents at Strong Rock Christian School in Locust Grove, Ga. became accustomed to seeing Maddy, with her curly hair in a French braid tucked under her helmet, charging at the opposing team on the football field. The crowd cheered when she sacked her first quarterback. Other coaches stopped her in the parking lot after games to say that she’d done a good job.
So when the school told Maddy’s mother last week that it would no longer allow her to play on the boys' football team, Maddy was shocked.
“I sat there in silence for 10 minutes just thinking,” Maddy told TODAY.com. “I feel that it’s completely wrong.”
Her mom, Cassy Blythe, said the school’s CEO Patrick Stuart gave several reasons for the decision, including that the boys might have “impure thoughts” about Maddy, that the locker room talk might be inappropriate for her, and that boys and girls should not compete in the same sport. Blythe says the CEO also told her the school could make such a decision since it is private.
Strong Rock Christian School told parents in an email sent Tuesday that the board of trustees and administration “fully stand behind” the school's policy, entitled "Middle school girls play girls' sports and middle school boys play boys' sports.”
“We believe this policy promotes a safe and fair environment for athletic competition and is in the best interest of all Strong Rock students and families,” school officials wrote in the email, obtained by TODAY.com.
Neither Stuart nor the school immediately responded to TODAY.com's requests for comment.
“It was such a shocking moment,” Blythe said of last week’s meeting. “She deserves to be there, she earned her spot, she worked out, she’s obsessed with this sport.”
When Blythe returned home and delivered the news to Maddy, the soon-to-be seventh grader wanted to find a way to respond. She thought other young girls across the country likely faced the same challenges and she wanted to reach them. So mother and daughter began a Facebook campaign called Let Her Play.
“It was supposed to be like a support group for her and then it just blew up,” Blythe said. In the past week, the page has received more than 30,000 likes and hundreds of supportive comments.
Blythe said encouragement has come from all corners of the globe and from unexpected allies, like male football coaches and members of the military. Professional female football players have called Maddy, urging her to persevere. Nearly 2,000 people have also signed a change.org petition calling on Strong Rock Christian School to end “gender discrimination.” The reassurance, Maddy said, is “really, really helping out. It’s brought my spirit up.”
For Maddy, football can’t be replaced by another sport. She began learning defensive tactics from her stepfather at age 7. When her grandfather heard about Maddy’s interest in football, he taught her how to analyze plays. In second grade, she started joining games at recess. The boys told her she should join the school team, and finally, after years of asking her mother's permission, she got the chance.
“It’s one of those things you find and you just get this feeling of acceptance – you have someone who always has your back,” she said of the team camaraderie.
She doesn’t understand the fuss over whether or not the boys might have “impure thoughts” as a result of her presence on the team.
“I just thought, OK, I don’t think you know my friends very well. They are really good kids,” she said. And, she added with a laugh, even if they might develop a crush, she’s probably not their first choice. “I know that we’re growing up, but honestly wouldn’t those thoughts mainly be directed to the cheerleaders – not someone who is in full pads?”
Before she was removed from the team, Maddy knew her days as a defensive tackle were numbered. Maddy and her mother were preparing for her to transition to being a kicker, a position she could still play on a boys' team in high school. If the school doesn’t change its policy, Maddy may play instead for a local all-star team, a recreation league or another private school.
The experience, Baxter said, has exposed Maddy to the challenges that sometimes come with being a female athlete.
“You fight for your spot on the team,” she told her mom. “You don’t fight for your right to play.”