Trophy or no trophy, Emily Nash ruled the golf course last Tuesday.
The highly regarded Lunenburg High School junior golfed her way to the top at the Central Massachusetts Division 3 boys’ golf tournament. She shot 3-over-par 75 at Blissful Meadows Golf Club in Uxbridge, besting the number-two finisher by four strokes in a field of nearly 60 competitors, including another female.
But as it turned out, Nash had no chance at the individual title, no matter how well she played that day. An arcane rule barred her from winning for real — because she’s a girl.
So she did not take home the trophy. That went to the kid who came in second: Nico Ciolino of the Advanced Math And Science Academy Charter School in Marlborough.
Nash also won’t be able to compete in this week’s state tournament in Great Barrington, which is open only to males. Ciolino will.
Nash shot from the same tees as her male competitors, and in every other way played the same 18-hole tournament. But, in a nutshell — not that it makes sense — as a female she was in the wrong season for earning individual honors.
Under rules set by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, which governs high school athletics in the state, female golfers compete for individual glory in the spring, male golfers in the fall. The MIAA treats golf as both an individual and team sport, and Nash’s performance Tuesday only counted as part of her high school team’s score.
Unfortunately, the Lunenburg boys’ team did not perform well enough to advance to the state tournament. The school doesn’t have a golf team for girls.
After Tuesday’s awkward tournament ending, the MIAA had much explaining to do — especially once the story, originally reported by the Telegram & Gazette, was picked up by media organizations around the world, as well as dissected by social media. (The Minneapolis Star Tribune had one of the better headlines: “High school girls’ golfer defeats every boy, denied trophy by odd rule.” The Washington Post pretty well nailed it: “A high school athletic association took away Emily Nash’s golf trophy, then somehow made things worse”.)
The stiff, tone-deaf statement the MIAA issued whiffed on failing to even mention Emily Nash by name, calling her instead “the female golfer from Lunenburg.” Surely the true champ of the golf course that day — a young woman who has been nothing but calm and gracious over this matter, proving her mettle in more ways than one — deserved a more personal recognition.
The MIAA instead boiled it down to policy: “The boys team and individual tournament has taken place in the fall and the girls team and individual tournament has taken place in the spring. … To offer an opportunity for team play to all MIAA member school students, female golfers have been welcomed to participate on a boys team in the fall if their school did not sponsor a girls golf team in the spring. Approximately 26 female golfers participated in 2017 fall boys golf tournaments. …
“Given this team opportunity during the fall tournament season, it has been clear to participants that female golfers playing in the fall boys team tournament are not participating in an individual capacity. The individual tournament opportunity for female golfers takes place during the spring season. As stated in the official MIAA 2017 Fall Golf format, “Girls playing on a fall boys team cannot be entered in the boys fall individual tournament. They can only play in the boys team tournament. If qualified, they can play in the spring Girls Sectional and State Championships.”
The unnecessary rule certainly put the MIAA in a spot last week. One wonders if the writers of the rule never considered the possibility that a girl who is allowed to play on a fall team could actually outperform all the boys to earn first-place individual honors.
We believe the MIAA, which operates as a nonprofit, only intended to be accommodating to girl golfers whose schools didn’t have a team for them, not condescending or dismissive. In writing the rule, though, and then needing to invoke it — leaving some at the tournament, or reading about it later, jarred and confused — the organization did not help itself last week if it wishes to alter a longstanding reputation of being rules-heavy and inflexible.
At least in the impression it left, the incident was a step backward for an organization we emphatically want to believe in female athletes, encourage girls, and aim to benefit girls as much as boys.
The MIAA must amend the rule. Life isn’t fair, but sports are supposed to be. What happened was absurd, and counter to the spirit of sports and their win-loss straightforwardness.
By a long shot, this episode was not MIAA’s finest hour.
Still, if the story was an embarrassment to Massachusetts’ scholastic athletics fans, followers and participants, it had a bright side, as well. That showed in the reactions of the two young people most affected: Emily Nash and Nico Ciolino, the second-place finisher awarded the trophy.
Adults can sometimes become overwrought over nonsense outside our control. Nash, though — her father told the T&G — went home and had dinner, the tournament outcome being a “non-issue.” And that’s in spite of the young golfer telling the reporter that she hadn’t been aware last Tuesday that she wasn’t eligible for the individual title or the trophy.
“None of us are mad at the MIAA or anything like that, but I was definitely a little bit disappointed,” she said.
And Ciolino actually offered Nash the trophy. “She beat me fair and square. It was the right thing to do. She won. It didn’t mind me [sic] that she was a girl. We played from the same tees. We played in the same conditions,” he told a Boston Herald reporter.
Nash declined. It’s almost unimaginable that she would have taken the trophy from his hands, but the gesture from one 16-year-old to the other stands out. It was impressive and courteous of him to offer, kind of her to decline. The two competitors were following “rules” of equality and sportsmanship that, time and again — often in small ways off to the side — we are pleased to see play out.