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Tackling her dreams

Caroline Pla, 11, is shown in her Doylestown home. After two seasons of playing football for Our Lady of Mount Carmel Romans, the archdiocese forbid her from competing, citing a violation of CYO rules.

By Megan Badger

Wire Managing Editor

Caroline Pla grew up watching her older brother play football.

So, when she was old enough, she decided she would try her hand at the sport. Now, she’s fighting to make sure all girls have the same opportunity — to prove themselves in Catholic League football.

Pla joined the local Pop Warner league in Doylestown at age 5 before graduating to the Catholic Youth League, where she played two seasons with the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Romans.

The 5-foot-3, 11-year-old proved herself a valuable player in the CYO league and even made the all-star team this past season. The only problem she had as a football player was fitting her waist-length hair into her concussion helmet. The fact that she was a girl in a male-dominated sport never bothered her.

“The other team hit me just as hard, and during practice my team hit me just as hard,” Pla told the Midweek Wire during a recent interview. “They don’t really care that I’m a girl because once I put on the helmet, you can’t really tell.”

However, her presence on the field created a problem for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. After two successful seasons with the Romans, the archdiocese put an end to Pla’s football career, citing a violation of CYO rules.

“They keep changing the reason why girls can’t play, and I don’t understand that,” Pla said. “They had three major reasons. At first it was a boys-only sport. Then it was a safety issue. Now it’s inappropriate touching.”

Pla doesn’t think those are good enough reasons to keep her from playing the sport the loves. So, like any good athlete, Pla got back up after she was knocked down. She decided to fight back, not only for herself, but for future generations of girls who would never be allowed to play CYO football.

“My teammate’s little sister, she would hang out with us. She was always on the sidelines and would watch us during practice and wear a uniform,” Pla said. “She’s always wanted to play and she’s in fourth grade — so next year she wanted to play, but now she can’t.”

Pla reached out to the archdiocese via phone and email when the football season ended, hoping to change its mind about allowing girls on the field. After many attempts by the Pla family to arrange a meeting with archdiocese officials, her mother, Seal Pla, took matters into her own hands.

She started an online petition in January and began speaking with various media outlets. The petition on change.org now has more than 108,000 signatures from people all over the world.

With the world on her side, Pla could potentially play two more seasons with her CYO team, if the archdiocese decides to allow it. At the moment, the decision rests in the hands of Archbishop Charles Chaput, who is expected to announce his decision in mid-March.

“I don’t think [Archbishop Chaput] is going to take advice from anyone. He said no and that he’s not going to change it, so I don’t think he’ll take advice from anyone else,” Pla said. “I just want him to look at the positive part about it and how if they do change it, it won’t make that big of a difference. But, if they don’t change it there will be more angry people.”

Seal Pla did some research and discovered that plenty of other archdioceses allow female players in CYO football, including those in Delaware, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit and several in Washington State. The NFL also recently changed its rules to allow female players.

“They don’t want to give in to pressure. They’re trying to make an excuse,” Seal Pla told the Midweek Wire. “And it’s not like girls don’t play football. There’s 1,600 girls high school age who play.”

The sixth grader played offensive guard and defensive end during her time with the Romans. Her favorite position is defense, her mother said, because she loves to tackle.

If the archdiocese decides to uphold the ban on female football players, Pla will keep busy with her other activities. When Pla isn’t ruling the gridiron, she’s playing basketball or running track on her school teams. Football and basketball are her favorite sports, she said.

When she’s not playing sports, she’s doing what every 11-year-old girl is doing — hanging out with her girlfriends, many who live in her quiet neighborhood in Doylestown.

“She’s a kid — that’s the thing. It’s grade school,” Seal Pla said. “Everyone makes it into ‘What’s it going to get her?’ and ‘Who does she think she is?’ and ‘Is she going to go to the pros?’ No. She’s just a child who wants to play.

“CYO is done in two years,” she added. “Her main thing is that no other girls would be able to play, and that’s not fair.”

To sign Caroline’s petition, visit www.change.org/petitions/let-girls-play-football-stop-the-discrimination-by-the-archdiocese-of-philadelphia-cyo-office.

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