Men welcome: Club field hockey encourages coed participation

Brett Andrews (left) and Nikhil Khongbantabam practice at the Pitt Sports Dome on Monday evening. (Photo by Sarah Cutshall | Staff Photographer)

Every now and then you’ll read a story about a high school woman joining the football or baseball team. It’s a feat that defies gender norms and expectations.

But rarely do you hear the opposite. In field hockey, a sport dominated by women, scenarios for men to join don’t present themselves often — at least not in America.

In other countries, such as India, the sport isn’t dominated by one gender. First-year neuroscience major Nikhil Khongbantabam is a foreign transfer student from India, and one of only two male players on the Pitt club field hockey team.

“Field hockey was the first sport I started, and it’s actually very popular in India,” Khongbantabam said. “I played on an all-guys team. It was so popular over there that there was actually two teams for guys and two teams for girls in [my] high school.”

Practices with the Pitt team are much different for Khongbantabam. They practice at the Pitt Sports Dome, running plays and drills in two large groups. Scanning the field, it’s hard to miss Khongbantabam — his short haircut stands out against the women’s long hair as they run down the field.

Khongbantabam runs through drills during his evening practice with the team. (Photo by Sarah Cutshall | Staff Photographer)

Khongbantabam knew there were far more women than men playing the sport in America, but he was not entirely prepared for the disparity between the genders.

“I found out from [one of my friends] that coed teams are mostly dominated by females in America,” he said. “So I knew what was coming, but I didn’t know how many girls would be there. I didn’t know it would be this dominated so I was a little overwhelmed coming over.”

Khongbantabam’s only other male teammate is Brett Andrews, a member of the Pitt research faculty for physics and astronomy. Andrews has been with the team for the last three years and says the low number of male players is not something exclusive to Pitt’s team.

The same disparity exists on club teams at other universities registered with the NFHL, the governing body for U.S. collegiate club field hockey.

“Often with club teams it’s one or two guys,” Andrews said. “At nationals I think there was a limit to how many guys you could have on the field. I think it was two.”

The rule Andrews is referencing to is the NFHL’s “up two” rule. The rule states both teams must meet before the game to confirm how many male players they each have. The team with more male players is only allowed to play up to two more male players than the other team.

In Andrews’ three years with the club, there have never been more than four men on the team. Most of the male players he’s played with were international students from Belgium and India. He said he thinks this is because of the lack of field hockey promotion in America — even he didn’t start playing until he was in graduate school when his wife, who played Division 1 field hockey for Yale, taught him.

He noted it’s particularly hard to find male players in Pennsylvania because of a “mixed-gender” rule passed in 2014. Under this rule, women’s high school teams can’t have men on the roster unless certain criteria are met. This includes that a man cannot play for the women’s team if the school has a men’s team. Because most schools don’t have men’s teams, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association doesn’t even list field hockey as a men’s sport.

The rule also states that in cases where there is only a girls’ team, the principal determines whether or not a boy can play. In that case, the principal cannot allow the boy to play if the boy would displace a girl already on the team, provide a competitive advantage or pose an increased risk of injury to other players.

Andrews noticed that the ruling has significantly thinned the pool of talented male field hockey players, which has a direct impact on the team.

“If your talent pool of high school boys isn’t playing high school field hockey because they can’t, then it’s going to be hard to have guys coming in and playing at the college level,” Andrews said.

This lack of experience with the sport makes it difficult for men to pick it up once they get to college. Junior social work major Abby Frazer has been on the team for two years, and said most men don’t even know playing is an option.

“Most guys don’t really want to play field hockey or don’t know they can play field hockey,” Frazier said. “We play at a relatively high level, so it’s hard for beginners to kind of come in and join.”

All throughout practice, the team calls out plays and slings passes across the field with ease. They showcase skill and play at a speed that requires an intense level of practice.

Even though most men joining would be beginners, Frazier made it clear that the club welcomes male participation.

“I think since most guys don’t play field hockey, it’s hard to get them to join,” she said. “Everybody thinks it’s really cool to have guys on the team so we really embrace it.”

Andrews has always felt accepted during his tenure with the team. There is no conflict with him being a man on a team of mostly women.

“I think that we’re very much treated as a member of the team,” Andrews said. “I’ve been very pleased with how we’ve recruited guys and girls. We’ve got a lot of talent coming in each year.”

Khongbantabam’s previous experience may only be with all-men’s teams, but he says he’s impressed by his teammates’ abilities and play. He also sees the value in getting more male players involved in field hockey, but not because of any skill differences between genders.

“Skill comes first whether you’re male or female,” he said. “These girls are really fit themselves. It’s more about when you have a greater pool of players to select from, like when you include males, you have a greater chance of getting better players.”

Frazier offered reassurance to male players that want to join Andrews and Khongbantabam, but might feel hesitant about joining such a women-dominated sport.

“We promote ourselves as a coed team,” she said. “We have extra sticks and stuff so we’ll take anyone we can get.”

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