Between his leaps, flips and turns, it’s clear Cruz Vernon is capable of matching up against other local athletes.
But according to the organization that governs public high school sports in his area, the 17-year-old isn’t allowed to compete in his sport of choice: gymnastics.
Vernon placed 17th overall on the floor exercise at state championships as a freshman, but for the past two years he has essentially been sidelined. That’s because he competes in Section 1, which oversees public school athletics in Dutchess, Putnam, Rockland and Westchester counties. The administrative body won’t allow him to compete because it would be against girls.
“They denied my eligibility to compete due to what they say is a significant adverse effect,” Vernon told NBC New York.
The junior at Ossining High School, has been tumbling and cartwheeling since he was 9 years old. And while he is still allowed to do his routines in competitions, Section 1 won’t allow Vernon’s score to count toward his all-girls team’s score.
“It’s sexist, they’re assuming that I as a male I would dominate the female competition,” Vernon said, adding that what they see as an unfair advantage is actually a disadvantage.
“I don’t have the stature of gymnast. I’m 6’3 when most are below 5 feet [tall],” Vernon said. “Most gymnasts are buff and strong. I’m tall and lanky.”
His family is fighting Section 1’s decision, and attorney Paul Barger filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights on Vernon’s behalf.
“Not only does the law as written have a discriminatory effect, but the way it’s being applied is discriminatory,” Barger said. “He’s receiving disparate treatment.”
While Vernon’s scores don’t count, Barger said that boys from other sections have been allowed to compete against girls at recent state championships. Vernon has also been denied a request to compete as a full member of the girls' gymnastics team.
There's no boys' gymnastic team at the high school.
Section 1 did not issue a comment, saying it had not received a copy of the complaint.
Vernon’s mother, Boneida Cruz, said they’re fighting because fair is fair, and they only want what’s right.
“We’ve always instilled in him to do what’s right, to do what’s fair, not only for him but those around him,” Cruz said.
The family said they are hopeful Vernon will get to return to competition by his senior year, and have an impact beyond to those facing similar difficulties.
“Any other boys…anywhere in the state won’t feel like they're alone in a similar situation,” Vernon said.