Should High-School Athletes Compete in their Underwear?

When the late, great George Sheehan took up running in the 1960s, his children were mortified when neighbors would ask, “Why is your father running around town in his underwear?”

He wasn’t, but in those days, few people ran on public streets unless they were being chased by police, and so any man running publicly in shorts was scandalous, even if he was a much-respected physician.

A half century later, almost everyone runs in underwear, and the scandal is to question the trend.  A New York mother found this out recently when she dared to challenge the “heiney-hugger” briefs worn by the girls’ cross-country team at the local high school.

Karen Gaconnier’s fourteen-year-old daughter is on the team, and the mom told local media that she was appalled at what she saw at their first track meet.

“I turned to my husband and said, ‘Why are our girls wearing their underwear?’” she told WCBS reporter Carolyn Gusoff.

There was, as it turned out, several answers to that question, none of them sufficient.

The Sayville Public School District, showing that it learned nothing from Stephen Covey about the value of empathetic listening, tersely responded that the uniform was “legal,” approved by Section XI and the New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association.

Moreover, district officials said, the girls had a choice of a “running brief” or “square bottom brief,” a choice offered “to empower our student athletes with the confidence they need to do their personal best in their respective sports.”

“Their voice in the choice of uniforms contributes to this confidence,” the district said in a statement.

Let’s set aside the feeble excuse that the skimpy uniform is legal—it’s also legal to run on a narrow, poorly-lit street at night wearing all black, but that doesn’t mean it’s anything but a spectacularly bad idea.

It’s not clear who decided what the two choices would be—the girls themselves, coaches or administrators—but it is telling that both contain the word “brief,” whereas the Sayville High School boys compete in something that can only be described as “shorts.” In this age of gender neutrality, it’s surprising that any difference in uniform is allowed at all. But this is not noted in the criticism, which has largely been focused on the mother who was concerned about the uniforms, not the school district.

Commenters on the internet were quick to employ the lemming defense, noting that “everyone else” does it, from 85-90 percent of the athletes in the school district to Olympic athletes. The reason “everybody does it,” of course, is fundamentally sound.  In any athletic endeavor in which speed is the goal—from running to cycling to horse racing—the less weight, the better, which is why bicycles are light and jockeys are small.

If winning is not everything but the only thing, as Red Saunders and then Vince Lombardi famously said, that would make sense. But adolescents, who still have another decade or so before their brains reach maturity, are still under the tutelage of grown-ups for a reason. Left to their own devices, some behave like lemmings and dress like skanks. This is why high schools have dress codes, which sometimes go so far as to explain that “shirt” means “fabric on the front, back and on the sides under the arms.”

In a perfect world—let’s say Eden—it wouldn’t matter if we all let everything hang out, and some people still do at “family friendly” nudist resorts. But most people still cling to the hoary notion that modesty is a component of ethical living; it’s just that the line separating appropriate and inappropriate edges a little closer to total nudity each year. Bemoan this at your peril, as Karen Gaconnier found out.

“What a dopey person,” one commenter wrote

“And no headcoverings! Shameful!” wrote another, as if the discussion could be reduced to the question: burka or brief?

In fact, Gaconnier would just like her fourteen-year-old daughter to not be running around town in her underwear, and she’d be fine if the girls’ team wore the same style shorts that the boys’ team wore.

“I believe that the line should be drawn at the butt cheek, and should go no further up, and they should have a choice of those spandex shorts or regular shorts,” she told one reporter. 

The mom has launched a futile effort to change the policy not just at her daughter’s school, but nationwide. It’s futile not because her cause is not good, but because there’s truth in numbers.  She launched a petition on with a simple goal of 1,500 signatures. As of this writing, she’s not yet obtained 1,400.

Image: Video Capture/News 12 Long Island

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