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The Ethicist
April 5, 2010

Randy Cohen writes "The Ethicist" column in The New York Times Magazine. If you'd like help with a moral dilemma you're facing at school, at home, or at work, send your question to: ethicist@nytimes.com or The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10018, and include a phone number.

No Women Allowed?

The Lions, a team in our men's recreational soccer league, has requested that a female player on the team they'll face next sit out the game. Several of the Lions are Muslim, and their religion forbids such contact with women. They also want to avoid the possibility of injuring her. As league officials, what should we do?

LET HER PLAY. While this is nominally a men's league, you allowed her to join and compete in previous contests: How can you bar her now?

And while the Lions' concern for her safety might be well meant, that's a matter for her to decide.

Next, you must clarify the rules for the future. In doing so, be wary of men's eagerness to protect women, something that can be used to restrict women's activities. Furthermore, you should not invoke religious strictures to regulate a secular pursuit in a community of many faiths.

There are legitimate reasons for considering gender in sports as it relates to physical factors like size, strength, and speed—but not to ideology. And it's fine to try to create conditions for well-balanced contests. But women should have a chance to participate in a more competitive league if they choose—female golfers in men's P.G.A. tournaments for example.

UPDATE: The woman agreed to sit out that one game. But the conflict reappeared when the same teams were to meet in the league playoffs.

The team with the female player defended her right to compete; the Lions objected. The league responded by matching each team against a different team in place of a championship game.

Going forward, the rules will define this as an "adult league" open to men and women. The Lions will probably withdraw.

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, April 5, 2010)