High school was a long time ago for me, so when I first encountered powder puff I thought it was a silly thing. Most role reversal things are silly, right? You can see that from watching movies. Plus, a powder puff is what you use to put on makeup. There’s nothing necessarily silly about that, but to name a flag football game after it?
When I went to high school athletics was something, for the most part, for guys. It wasn’t that girls didn’t have teams. They played volleyball and field hockey, but I don’t remember rooting for them or even paying much attention. It took college and friends on the field hockey team for that.
So powder puff struck me as strange, until I talked to Judy Samaha.
Samaha died recently, at 75. As Sean Krofssik’s story in the Record-Journal noted, Samaha had 37 years in the Wallingford school system, 35 of which were at Sheehan High School. She was Sheehan’s athletic director from 1995 until her retirement in 2006.
The annual Sheehan-Lyman Hall High School powder puff game is called the Samaha Bowl, and there’s good reason.
While the name powder puff may serve up connotations of stereotyping, the game’s origin was drawn from the goal of equality. For years, female athletics at the high school and college level were second-class citizens. All the attention went to the boys — that fits with the experience I remember.
Today we recognize that as ridiculously stupid, but it can take some doing to come around to that kind of perspective. In 1972, Congress passed a law aimed at prohibiting sexual discrimination in education. Title IX was connected to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The idea was to make sure schools that received federal funding gave females equal opportunity, which also came to mean equal opportunity to play sports, an equally fair chance of getting athletic scholarships and an equal chance when it came to coaching, facilities and equipment.
“It’s not respectful to make fun of another sex.” So responded a Sheehan powder puff cheerleader when I asked him, in 2004, why they didn’t dress up as girls to cheer for the girls playing on the gridiron, because, possibly because of my pre-Title IX high school ignorance, I figured that was part of the role-reversal thing.
It just so happened that the passing of Title IX roughly coincided with the advent of Sheehan High, in 1971. In the school’s first year, athletics were played at the junior varsity level, but the following year Sheehan was set to face crosstown rival Lyman Hall in Thanksgiving’s Carini Bowl.
At the time, Samaha was a physical education teacher and coached field hockey and softball at Sheehan, having crossed town from Lyman Hall.
She was looking for a way to get more kids involved in athletics, in general, but also in particular girls, whose opportunity had not been so great before the onset of Title IX. What better way than to make use of an enormously popular game like football?
She began talking with her Lyman Hall counterparts about what could be done to get more kids involved.
“It was an exciting time for female sports then,” she told me. “Today, kids take it for granted that everything’s equal.”
I like that quote so much I ought to pin it on a wall. I took nothing of the sort for granted when I was in high school, and had you told me at the time just how much things would be different some day I likely would have laughed or snorted or said something that would have demonstrated how clueless I was. Now, I can’t imagine it any other way, and look at my youthful experience as if regarding another country.
So, yes, it’s absolutely fitting to name the Sheehan-Lyman Hall face-off for Samaha. They all ought to be named for her.
Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213, or email@example.com.