Riverdale Country School’s lone girl on the gridiron looks to level the playing field for mixed-gender competition

Riverdale Country School junior Shira Mandelzis is challenging state requirements that are enforced on students who seek to play a sport not assigned to their gender.
Photo Adrian Childress

While the allure of being the quarterback who commands their team to victory is enticing for many would-be gridiron warriors, Riverdale Country School junior Shira Mandelzis found a special power returning punts. It’s in that moment as the ball is in the air and a wall of blockers fortify a path for Mandelzis to make a game-changing return, that no one can ignore her place as the lone girl on the football field.

“It’s this feeling of everyone’s eyes watching you, and it’s one of the few times as a girl playing football where your presence and your impact can’t be ignored,” Mandelzis told the Bronx Times. “Nobody could just shove me on the sidelines and it was even better because my teammates saw me and respect me because I returned my first punt back for a touchdown on my first try (in seventh grade). I was over the moon because people finally knew my name and I found ways to make a change in an environment that wasn’t designed for me to succeed in.”

For the majority of players on Riverdale Country School’s no-cut contact private school football team, all they had to do was show up and receive a spot on the team. Mandelzis, who is listed as a cornerback and wide receiver, had to do much more than that, undergoing a sexual and physical maturity test, receiving a closed-door panel’s approval, and having to handwrite an essay legitimizing her interest in a sport she grew up loving and is a staple of her family.

To make the team this year, Mandelzis, 17, who is one of the few girls to make the Riverdale Country football team, was required by New York state and her school to undergo these requirements including the “Statement of Interest” essay to the athletic department, an essay she says was to prove she was joining the team “for the right reasons” but also exhibited gender-based discrimination in school athletics.

State law designates football as a panel-reviewed sport, which means that female athletes can’t participate in the sport unless their physical strength is confirmed by a panel of athletics faculty at their school. Entry on the roster meant Mandelzis had to pass conditioning tests and specialized medical examinations, including a “sexual maturity test” called the Tanner Scale.

These barriers, which Mandelzis and her legal representatives are calling on the state to change, create “extra hurdles” for student-athletes who desire to play a sport “meant” for another gender, they say.

“To suggest that a female athlete is playing a male-dominated sport for any reason other than a genuine interest is unfair and sexist,” Mandelzis said. “There were many of my teammates who didn’t have to write an essay to prove that they loved football. None of my teammates had to take an invasive sexual maturity test to show how good of a football player they can be.”

“I want people to treat me like a football player. I want them to hit me as hard as I hit them. I want people to know that I’m a girl who loves this game and wants to create space that was paved for me, for other girls to be able do the same.” Photo courtesy Shira Mandelzis

JP O’Hare, a spokesperson with the New York State Education Department, told the Times that they had not received requests from the athletics organizations, schools or districts, to revisit these guidelines, but they are open to feedback from stakeholders.

The Tanner Scale, which was developed in the 1960s assesses a child’s stage of puberty based on characteristics like breast size, testicle size and pubic hair — and also whether a girl has gotten her period. For physical development and maturity,  the handbook suggests Tanner staging remains the “least invasive tool” to gauge a person’s sexual maturity rating as an indicator of physical maturation. The Tanner Scale has been a requirement from the state since 1985.

In New York state, girls who want to “play up” to a higher level – from junior varsity to varsity, for example — have to clear a higher bar for sexual maturity than boys. According to a few local pediatricians, girls who have not begun to menstruate can’t score high enough on the test to play up.

“It’s so important that this law changes and it’s important that we acknowledge that the state can change and review the law…,” said Iliana Konidaris, who represents The Fierberg National Law Group. “Shira’s story is so important because you see how different and divergent the experiences are for a girl who walks on a football field and a boy who walks on a football field, and how those paths are different because of regulations and gender-based standards like these.”

However, despite the state requiring Riverdale and all schools to handle situations like Mandelzis’ to meet “Regulations of the Commissioner of Education on Mixed Competition,” Riverdale Country School Head of Athletics John Pizzi said to student newspaper The Riverdale Review in February that the requirements are “very outdated.” Mandelzis said Pizzi told her the Statement of Interest was to “make sure that girls weren’t playing for a college essay, make sure that girls weren’t playing for a media circus and to humanize the athlete when the panel is reviewing their numerical information and data.”

In August, Mandelzis started pressuring administrators about removing the Statement of Interest policy through a successful petition and open letter, which garnered more than 1,000 signatures.

The school complied and removed the policy on Jan 27.

In a schoolwide interview announcing the change in policy, Head of School Dominic Randolph stated, “We…have come to understand via [Mandelzis’s] campaign that requiring steps beyond the legally required protocol can be viewed and felt as discriminatory.”

There has also been a double standard, some students at Riverdale Country told the Times, as males on the Riverdale Country all-girl volleyball teams, which the state does not recognize as a panel-review sport, did not have to submit an essay or any meet other extracurricular requirements to join the team.

Konidaris said removing barriers for girls and nonbinary athletes in the state’s school athletics environment is important, and alluded that a push for more co-ed sports opportunities on the scholastic level could help meet some of those inequities. More than just outdated, Mandelzis says these requirements also create an “othering” that girls and increasingly so, nonbinary athletes, in sports are all too familiar with.

State law designates football as a panel-reviewed sport, which means that female athletes can’t participate in the sport unless their physical strength is confirmed by a panel of athletics faculty at their school. Photo Adrian Childress

Girls have 1.3 million fewer opportunities to play high school sports than boys have, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation. Additionally, athletic interest has waned among nonbinary athletes as a 2020 Trevor Project poll of queer youth revealed that only 17% of nonbinary respondents said that they participate in sports, compared to 27% of cisgender girls and 24% of cisgeneder boys.

Mandelzis has experienced the weight of othering and gender-based discrimination in sports since she first hit the practice field as 12-year-old middle schoolers with her sister as the only two female students on the co-ed flag football team at The Elisabeth Morrow School in Englewood, New Jersey. The first question one of the athletic department’s head’s asked her when she and her sister signed up for the flag football was, “did you girls really sign up? Do you really want to play football?’”

In addition to inconsistent locker room treatment with teammates treating her with kid gloves by not fully engaging in drills and full contact with her to being confined to a solitary locker room and pressing her ear to the door to hear her other teammates getting ready in the adjacent locker rooms, Mandelzis said enforced gender norms and standards in sports can breed a sense of isolation in a environment that is cooperative in nature.

Mandelzis knows her biggest battle won’t be on the gridiron, but her ongoing fight to change gender standards and norms in the state’s athletics. She’s taken her fair share of stingers and big hits on the field, but most importantly, wants to make sure that the next girl who plays football in Riverdale Country School or elsewhere doesn’t have to be quizzed on the legitimacy of their interest or undergo a maturity test to earn their spot on the roster.

“One of the best feelings is getting dressed in my jersey (on days before gameday) and having other girls talk about how they wish they could play football,” she said. “And they can, because football isn’t just for boys … but there are so many boundaries in the path for girls and others to play football that I don’t want anyone else to feel like they need to jump through these hurdles to earn a spot on a school’s football team.”

Mandelzis currently runs a campaign called No Gender Just Game on social media, where she shines light on barriers and inequities within scholastic sports.

Reach Robbie Sequeira at rsequeira@schnepsmedia.com or (718) 260-4599. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes