NORTHCREEK-After a long fight, which involved a civil rights attorney from the U.S. Department of Education, 14-year-old EmmaLee Ellsworth has been granted permission to play on the Johnsburg Central School baseball team, a right which had previously been denied because of her gender.
EmmaLee, now in eighth grade, has been breaking down barriers for some time. In 2009, after having played baseball for four seasons for Johnsburg Youth Athletics (JYA), she was told she would have to play softball instead of baseball. But after working her way up from the minors to the majors on the town baseball team, she didn't want to be shunted in a different direction.
"She said, 'No, I don't want to play softball, I want to keep playing baseball,'" EmmaLee's mother, Darlene Ellsworth, said.
So Darlene went to the Johnsburg Youth Committee, the organization in charge of JYA, and requested EmmaLee be allowed to continue playing baseball. The request was rejected. Girls had to play softball, Darlene was told.
Things changed when Darlene lodged a complaint with the New York State Division of CivilRights. At the time, according to Darlene, the town provided insurance and baseball fields for JYA. And faced with a potential lawsuit, the town board encouraged JYA to allow EmmaLee to play.
"That was the end of that,"Darlene said.
At least it was for the moment. EmmaLee played the 2009 summer season. But she had aged-out of JYA. In order to continue playing baseball, she would have to do so through the school.
In September, Darlene contacted the school modified baseball coach, who said he was unable to make the decision, turning it over to the school's athletic director. According to Darlene, the director responded in the fall with a letter saying EmmaLee was ineligible to play baseball.
Undaunted, in the winter of 2010, Darlene scheduled herself on the school board meeting agenda. There she was told again: girls couldn't play baseball; they had to play softball. The rationale of the school board was, according to Darlene, that baseball employed a bigger field and had a supposed elevated level of competition. The latter reason was particularly ironic to Darlene, considering her daughter had played with and against many of the same boys, playing baseball, for five years.
So Darlene called the U.S. Department of Education, which took on the case as a civil rights issue, appointing EmmaLee an attorney.
"Then it was completely out of my hands," Darlene said.
Much of what happened next happened behind the scenes, so much so that Darlene is not completely sure what happened. The attorney contacted the school, but she was not privy to the conversations or meetings.
"I was not privileged to anything like that," Darlene said.
In the summer of 2010, the school superintendent signed a resolution agreement, allowing EmmaLee to continue playing baseball. According to Darlene, in the resolution agreement, the superintendent stated the document was signed specifically to avoid the potential threat of costly litigation.
A phone message to Johnsburg Central School Superintendent Mike Markwica was not returned by press time.
EmmaLee had missed a year of baseball, but she'd be able to play in the 2011 season. She was back on the field, playing third base, this month. But she quickly found that some members of her team went out of their way to make her feel unwelcome, out-of-place in a traditionally all-male environment.
"The beginning was really rough,"EmmaLee said.
Darlene said her daughter's teammates made inappropriate comments toward EmmaLee, treating her caustically.They started circulating a petition saying EmmaLee shouldn't be allowed to play baseball, as they weren't allowed to play softball. In fact, as EmmaLee pointed out, they likely could if they had wanted to and gone through the process she had.
Darlene contacted the school. Taking action, the superintendent met with the team the following day, suspending the boys involved with the petition from their first game.
From then on, according to Darlene and EmmaLee, things have been much less turbulent. EmmaLee has been able to play the game she's loved since Little League.
"The wheels of justice turned, but they turned very slowly," Darlene said.