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Girls May Get Signal To Join Football Huddle in Texas

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In Texas, where high school football is a central element in the life of many communities and the masculine mystique is a deeply ingrained cultural tradition, girls have been given the preliminary go-ahead to play on the gridiron.

The legislative council of the Texas University Interscholastic League, the governing body for interscholastic sports in the state, voted 16 to 4 last week to allow girls to try out for high school football.

The Lone Star State had been one of the last to have a rule formally barring girls from participating in the sport.

The rule change still must be endorsed by the state board of education. If approved, the new policy will take effect next August.

In an action that is expected to offer far more practical opportunities to female athletes, the U.I.L. also agreed to elevate the status of girls' fast-pitch softball.

"Certainly there are plenty of other states that have had girls on football teams for quite a while,'' said Kathryn Reith, the assistant executive director of the New York-based Women's Sports Foundation.

"It is significant that a state in which high school football has so much prominence takes the time to vote this into the rules,'' Ms. Reith said. "It's a small step forward, but another step forward.''

Little Interest Expected

Girls have been permitted to try out for boys' teams in virtually every other sport offered in Texas high schools. But the U.I.L. had a rule blocking girls from playing football.

Six years ago, the state opened up the sport at the junior high level, but athletic officials say it has not proved to be popular among younger girls, bringing out only about six each year.

"We don't anticipate a great impact,'' said Cynthia Doyle, an assistant athletic director for the league.

Ms. Doyle said the decision to offer football opportunities to high school girls evolved over the past few years, as more people began broaching the subject and other states knocked down restrictions. The league also wanted to take the step to avoid any future discrimination lawsuits.

Girls currently are prohibited from playing football in only a handful of states. Although coaches, athletic directors, and other school officials used to fight it routinely, "the movement has been not to bar that any longer,'' said Helen Upton, an assistant director of the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Still, even though the official obstruction has been removed, few girls are participating nationwide. During the 1991-92 school year, 120 girls played interscholastic football, a sport that drew nearly 900,000 boys, according to the national federation.

Up Against the 'Bruisers'

In Texas, reactions to the rule change have been mixed.

In interviews last week, high school football coaches said they are not opposed to girls playing on their teams. But they expressed skepticism about girls' physical capabilities, especially against what one coach called "250-pound male bruisers.''

"The strength factor and the size factor are so much different,'' said Ronnie Bell, the head football coach and athletic coordinator at Dulles High School outside of Houston. "I do not think it is a safe situation for those youngsters, and I want to keep the game as safe as possible.''

Bill Eggar, the president of the booster club for Odessa High School, a school renowned for its football team, said he too would worry about girls getting hurt.

Mr. Eggar said his football player son has been taught to treat girls courteously, by doing such things as opening doors for them. What would happen "if he ever got on the opposite line of scrimmage from a girl where his job is to rip her head off?'' the father asked. "How do you do that?''

Coaches also said they were concerned about their inability to provide separate facilities, particularly since many districts are experiencing a fiscal crunch.

Mickey DeLamar, the football coach at Mesquite High School outside of Dallas, vowed to follow the rules. "We are going to put the best 11 players on the field,'' he said. "If one happens to be a girl, I don't have a problem with that.''

But Mr. DeLamar also speculated that the decision would "open up a can of worms'' by driving boys to seek access to girls' volleyball teams.

While football may not attract many girls, fast-pitch softball is the fourth most popular sport among girls. Some 220,000 young women participated last year, according to the national federation's figures.

The Texas league's vote on softball "is much more significant,'' said Ms. Reith. Not only does the sport attract more girls, she said, but colleges offer scholarships in it.

Although the league had not banned the sport, few schools offered it because there were no play-offs involved. The league vote will make softball a full-fledged sport by creating a state championship structure for it.

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