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Girl, 11, scores in fight against Philadelphia Archdiocese to play football

By Sarah Hoye, CNN
updated 10:22 AM EDT, Fri March 15, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Philadelphia Archdiocese reverses course, says girls can play football, provisionally
  • Girl played 2 seasons of tackle football before archdiocese enforced boys-only rule
  • Change.org petition asking Archdiocese to reconsider garners 108,000 signatures
  • Mom on daughter: "Caroline was never going to give up, even if they said no"

Philadelphia (CNN) -- Caroline Pla just won her fight to get back on the field.

Pla has been playing football since kindergarten, and for the past two years, the 11-year-old has been holding her own on the gridiron.

Her playing time with the Catholic Youth Organization ended after last season when the Archdiocese of Philadelphia enforced its "boys only" policy for football, sidelining the All-Star guard and defensive end.

'More than able to hold her own,' girl gets boot

Members of a panel selected by the archdiocese voted to continue the boys-only policy as written. Despite the panel's recommendation, on Thursday Archbishop Charles Chaput ordered the archdiocese to allow girls to play CYO football, according to a statement.

"The Archdiocese will allow for co-ed participation in CYO football, effective in the 2013 season," the statement said, adding that the rule was provisional and will be reviewed in future seasons.

Caroline\'s older brother, George, 14, inspired her to become a football player when she was 5.
Caroline's older brother, George, 14, inspired her to become a football player when she was 5.

"The Archbishop is grateful for their time and prudent counsel," Archdiocese of Philadelphia spokesman Kenneth A. Gavin said in the statement, adding that the recommendation was only one factor in the decision making process. "All possible factors were considered including the expectations of coaches, parents, and pastors, common current practice, legal circumstances and the CYO policies of dioceses around the country."

Caroline was walking home from school when her mother caught up with her to tell her the news.

"I was screaming, jumping and laughing," she said. "I'm just really excited and surprised. I wasn't expecting this (news)."

Caroline expressed appreciation for all the support she received around the world, without which, she said, "I don't think the rule would have been changed." She also thanked Archbishop Chaput, saying that "it was his decision in the end."

Caroline's mother, Seal Pla, said she was pleased with the decision, which came after her daughter mounted a fight, rallying support from around the nation.

The 11-year-old has played since kindergarten and started playing tackle football two years ago.
The 11-year-old has played since kindergarten and started playing tackle football two years ago.

After her pleas to the archdiocese were unsuccessful, Caroline decided to call an audible.

With the full support of her team, Caroline and her mom started an online petition at change.org to encourage the archdiocese to allow girls to play football that had more than 108,000 signatures as of Thursday afternoon.

The publicity surrounding her plight also caught the attention of talk show host Ellen DeGeneres who invited her to appear on the show.

"I'm just so excited. This is a positive step for the Catholic church," her mother said, catching her breath. "Caroline was never going to give up, even if they said no."

"I wish I had that much determination," she said.

Caroline fought for all girls wanting to play football, her coaches and family members say.
Caroline fought for all girls wanting to play football, her coaches and family members say.

Inspired by her older brother, George, 14, Caroline started playing Pop Warner flag football at age 5 and was hooked. Once she got too big to play Pop Warner, she signed up to play tackle football with the CYO in fifth grade.

Two games into Caroline's second season, head coach Chip Ross received an unexpected call from Jason Budd, deputy secretary for Catholic education for the archdiocese, who oversees the football program.

Not wanting to disrupt the season or ostracize Caroline, Ross and her parents kept the news under wraps and pleaded with the archdiocese to let her finish the season. After a week of corresponding with Budd, including sending a letter of support from the family's church pastor, an extension was granted.

There are 46 football programs, each with junior varsity and varsity teams, under the Archdiocese of Philadelphia CYO. Of the nearly 2,500 participants, Caroline is the only female player.

The coaches waited until the end of the season to tell Caroline and her teammates that she was off the team.

The archdiocese said it was trying to protect her, but Caroline wondered why she needs more protection than boys.
The archdiocese said it was trying to protect her, but Caroline wondered why she needs more protection than boys.

Though Caroline says she's never been hurt -- and has laid her share of licks on the boys -- the archdiocese said in a statement that the decision to give Caroline the boot was for her and other girls' safety.

According to the archdiocese, budget cuts and personnel changes allowed Caroline to slip through the cracks, and she actually should've been denied the opportunity to play when she initially applied in fifth grade.

When she first stepped on the field, the boys on Caroline's first CYO team were uncomfortable lining up against a girl, said her former coach, Jim Reichwein. Those concerns dissipated once Caroline showed she was tough enough to take the rough and tumble of the game.

"We didn't make a big deal about it," said Reichwein. "Anyone who went head-to-head with her ended up on the ground. After a week, (her gender) was laid to rest."

While waiting for Caroline to return from school, Seal Pla said her daughter taught her a powerful lesson.

"Always fight for what you believe in the right way, with respect and persistence," she said.

Football season is still a while off, but when the time comes, said Caroline, "I'll be ready."

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