In this Connecticut small town, girls softball plays on borrowed fields while boys have two of their own. A referendum gives residents the chance to change that

·4 min read

For nearly 50 years, federal law has called for equal opportunities for males and females in sports. But in the small town of Coventry, the girls softball league has no permanent field, while the boys have two baseball fields.

Now, voters in the community of about 12,000 residents will go to the polls Nov. 2 to vote in a referendum on spending $325,000 to design and construct a new girls softball field.

The idea has already received unanimous, bipartisan approval from the town council, and residents say there is widespread support across the town.

Mackenzie Rivers, the softball league president, says numerous volunteers have been working to ensure that the project is passed.

“This has been a long time coming — probably a good four-year process,” said Rivers, whose two daughters, age 7 and 9, are players. “People, no matter what your political stance, have girls in the system. They know this is something that needs to be done. ... I was talking last spring to an older couple who were watching their granddaughter who said this was brought up 30 years ago, and it still hasn’t gone anywhere.”

Longtime Democratic activist Tom Swan and others are pushing for the idea as a matter of equity.

“It’s a compromise,” the outspoken Swan said in an interview. “There were folks who wanted two [girls’] fields, which is the same as the boys have. ... We have a really difficult time with referendums here. Folks have been trying to expand the library, and there were folks who wanted to keep Coventry stupid and wouldn’t support expanding the library and it went down in flames.”

But Swan is optimistic because of bipartisan support from Republican state Rep. Tim Ackert, who has represented the town in the state legislature for the past 10 years.

“Back to back, Tim Ackert and I spoke in favor of the idea of girls softball,” Swan said. “It’s not every day that we agree.”

Swan’s advocacy has captured the attention of Gov. Ned Lamont because Swan served as Lamont’s campaign manager in 2006 when he defeated U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary before losing in the general election.

Lamont says the Coventry effort is an example of citizen advocacy as he pushes for higher voter turnout in the municipal elections across the state.

“That’s what we’re trying to do,” Lamont said. “That’s what Tom Swan is doing out there, working on a ballfield in Coventry. That’s what you do, get involved at your local community level, get involved in public service.”

Currently, the Coventry girls softball league plays on borrowed fields. While they use school fields, the schools have priority over use and scheduling. The schools do not allow advertising on the fields, which impedes banners and sponsorships that are common in Little League.

“Our Little League is technically co-ed, but mostly male,” said John Elsesser, the Coventry town manager. “They have their own fields. They can schedule their own events. It is not really equal. The quality of the field at the schools — they’re not a full-size softball field, either. When they get into tournament play, they couldn’t ever have a home game.”

He added, “Fields aren’t cheap. We need about $325,000 to build one, and we’re asking the public to support it. We have a master plan — in the future — that could add a second field there and some additional facilities like bathrooms vs. port-a-potties and a food shack.”

The biggest game-changer in women’s sports was the passage in 1972 of Title IX, which guarantees equal opportunities in sports for males and females. The law is enforced at the college level for schools that receive federal funds, and it dips down to the elementary level.

Since the Coventry league does not receive federal funds, the town has not been violating any federal statutes. Town officials, however, want to abide by the spirit of the law.

“It’s not technically covered by that because of the source of funding‚” Elsesser said. “It’s not legally required, but it should be socially required.”

Around town, signs have sprouted up that say: “Equal the playing field.” That theme has also been displayed on T-shirts.

“I’m not aware of any organized opposition,” Elsesser said. “Obviously, people are always conscious of their property tax. So nothing is a guarantee, but I think there’s broad support. I would personally be kind of surprised if it doesn’t go ahead, but it depends on who shows up to vote.”

When he moved to the town 20 years ago with no children, Swan admits that he was not particularly concerned about youth sports. But now he has a 10-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son.

“This is really important to ensure that the children of Coventry have equal opportunity,” Swan said. “My son will probably play Little League. He’s 3. I think he’ll benefit from knowing that his classmates have access to equal opportunity.”

Christopher Keating can be reached at ckeating@courant.com.

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