Gabby Allen (left) and Aubrey Raile after the first day of boys flag football tryouts at Benito Middle School on March 21. (Photo courtesy of Christy Raile)

For the first time ever this school year, middle school girls in Hillsborough County can play flag football, and middle school boys can play volleyball.

Both sports have been added to the calendar, and Benito Middle School seventh grader Aubrey Raile played a big role in making it happen.

It was Aubrey’s carefully researched crusade that led county administrators to take a closer look at the middle school sports calendar. While the Hillsborough County School District couldn’t legally stop Aubrey, or any of her friends,  from trying out for the boys flag football team, concern about letting girls play a physical contact sport with much bigger boys led to the addition of two new middle school sports.

Aubrey started playing flag football in the sixth grade last year during PE class. She had never played before, but found that her speed made her an excellent pass rusher and that she enjoyed the other aspects of flag football – passing, catching, dodging tacklers, and pulling flags.

Flag football is 7-on-7, with all of the players wearing a belt with three flags on them (one in the back, one on each side). Everyone on the field is a receiver, and the game is played on an 80-yard field with first downs for teams every time they advance the ball 20 yards.

“As soon as I played, I found an enjoyment in the sport and wanted to play for my school,’’ Aubrey says.

When the middle school flag football season rolled around last March, however, she was told she couldn’t try out for the Jaguars’ team. Boys only, they said. Aubrey didn’t think that was fair.

She marched right to the library, and starting reading about the rules, and specifically, Title IX, a federal law that ensures that no one can be excluded from participation in any school program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. Basically, if a school offers a program just for boys, it needs to offer an equal opportunity for girls.

“When the coaches told her she couldn’t play, she went to the school library and found some books that explained the law,’’ said Christy Raile, Aubrey’s mother. “She put sticky notes all over the pages and gave it to me. She found the law, and highlighted it.

“Mom, is this right?,” Aubrey asked Christy. “Am I right?”

“I’m not an attorney, but I think this is right,’’ Christy replied. “I think they have to let you play.”

Emboldened by the support of friends like fellow sixth-graders Alexa Evans, Suhani Rana, Sannvi Prasad and Gabby Allen, the Railes continued to fight.

The people she talked to at the school district, Christy said, tried to dissuade Aubrey from trying out. She said she was told their rules overrode the state rules, although the county athletic office denies ever having said that.

Both sides continued to talk, but Aubrey was determined to show up to tryouts with a stack of books to argue her case.

An hour before the tryouts began at 3 p.m. on March 21, Christy says she was told Aubrey could trade those books for cleats and try out for the boys team.

While the school district does not consider it ideal for boys and girls to participate in contact sports like flag football, “We were directed by our attorney and our compliance officer that we needed to let that individual tryout,’’ said Jennifer Burchill, the county’s assistant director of athletics. “And, girls in general.”

Aubrey competed that day with roughly 75 boys, many of whom came up to her at tryouts and offered encouragement. Emery Floyd, one of the boys, was especially supportive, says Christy, picking Aubrey for his team and making sure she got as many opportunities to impress the coaches as everyone else.

Aubrey scored a touchdown during tryouts, produced several first downs and pulled four flags. Christy gets choked up when recalling that day, and how the other boys started chanting Aubrey’s name as she walked off the field.

“She played her heart out,’’ Christy said. “Maybe she wasn’t good enough to keep up with those eighth grade giants, only 5-feet tall and 95 pounds, but her heart was. And they knew it.”

Benito decided to create a sixth grade team for those who didn’t make it, and Aubrey played on it. The team had three practices, and played one game, against a sixth grade team from Turner/Bartells. Some of the opponents laughed at her, she says. “I expected it,’’ Aubrey says. “But, it only made me more determined to show I had as much right to be out there as they did.”

So, What About This Year?

The district, however, still had a problem to solve for the upcoming 2017-18 school year.

“It was felt in our department, amongst our district and upper administration, that we really did not want to combine boys and girls (on a flag football team),’’ said Burchill. “It really was not to our advantage for boys and girls to play together in flag football. We needed to find a solution.”

One principal from each of the county’s eight areas came together to form a committee. Instead of cutting sports to meet Title IX compliance, they came to the decision in May to reduce the track and field season, making room to add a boys team to volleyball, which previously only had a girls team, and a girls team to flag football, which only had a boys team.

It was the perfect compromise. The two sports are both low cost and open up a number of athletic opportunities that didn’t otherwise exist. It also keeps the county Title IX complaint.

“A win, win, win, all the way around,’’ says Christy, proudly.

While very few high schools have boys volleyball teams — Berkeley Prep and Brooks Debartolo are two of them — girls flag football has taken off at the high school level.

Last year, the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA), which has offered a high school state championship since 2003 when it had 70 teams playing, expanded its playoffs from one classification to two.

There are now more than 200 girls flag football teams playing statewide, and Tampa Bay is one of the hot spots. Last season, Tampa’s Robinson High captured the Class A flag football title, while Plant High in downtown Tampa took home the Class 2A title.

For the first time, the teams at Wharton and Freedom high schools will now have feeder programs.

And, they can thank Aubrey, who saw something she thought was wrong and fought to make it right.

“I think this has been a great experience,’’ she says. “It opened up a lot of new opportunities and new possibilities. I think its great to know that kids and people like me can make a difference. That’s pretty amazing.”

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