Mackenzie Haitsma has played with the same group of girls for the same Capital Football club for the past four seasons.
But this season, moving up into the junior league, she’s “too old” to play with her peers.
“She’s four days too old,” her mother, Tamara Haitsma, explained.
“Nevermind she’ll be the same age as everyone else during the season, regulations go off the calendar year.”
Aware of this, Mackenzie signed up for the under-17 side before season registrations closed. Her mother then began applying to get her an age-related exemption so she could play in the under-15s with her friends.
“She received an exemption two years ago to play in the under-13s. It wasn’t a problem,” Ms Haitsma said.
This time, though, they’ve had to go through a process that Ms Haitsma described as “archaic”.
It’s a guideline used by football organisations across the country: relative age effect (RAE).
According to Capital Football’s regulations, an RAE is used to consider exemptions to “offset any physical disadvantage in relation to players of typical or early maturation by playing down an age group”.
It’s based on a player’s date of birth, height and weight, determining if they are considered at or below the 50th percentile for their age.
In Mackenzie’s case, she needed to be 162 cm or shorter and weigh 52 kg or less – criteria she doesn’t meet.
“They’ve denied her the chance to play because she’s ‘too heavy’,” Ms Haitsma said.
“She’s a healthy, active young woman who’s at a stage in her life where she’s growing. She doesn’t have the 5 kg they want her to lose. It’s body-shaming and they really need to step into the 21st century.”
While 15-year-old Mackenzie is upset she can’t play with her peers, she’s also speaking up because she feels such a standard could be damaging to other young women who might have to go through this process.
“I know teenagers, especially girls, can be insecure about their bodies,” she said.
“It’s ridiculous how they’re viewing kids’ bodies that are meant to be growing, and it makes me worry that if someone else is told their body is different to what they want, their first reaction could be not to eat.”
Mackenzie said her emotions have been “up and down” because of the whole experience.
“I’ve never viewed my body as overweight or anything, but I definitely feel more aware of my body now, especially at training,” she said.
“I would love for them [Capital Football] to have the regulations changed to a more appropriate standard.”
Capital Football CEO Chris Gardiner said the RAE standards were last reviewed in 2021 and they are benchmarked against those used in other jurisdictions.
“There is a significant amount of leeway in these rules. The use of the percentile framework provides significant scope for variation in individual development,” he said.
Approximately 20 age-related exemptions have been granted across the boys and girls team for Capital Football’s current season.
Mr Gardiner stressed player safety and fairness are key considerations, and while football isn’t a collision sport, it still involves considerable physical contact and challenges.
“Size is clearly a factor in determining both the fairness and safety of the game in that regard,” he said.
“The competition in question is an elite youth competition. So, for example, ‘wanting to play with friends’ is not a criterion.”
Ms Haitsma sought an independent review of Mackenzie’s case, but the reviewer found in favour of Capital Football.
“Of course, we want Mackenzie to be able to play with her peers, but we also don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” she said.
“How many other girls have gone through this? How many have stopped playing rather than going through this at all?”
She has also written to both sides of the ACT Government and the Football Federation Australia, arguing other jurisdictions have more ‘realistic’ exemption guidelines.
“The NSW regulations say she’s suited to play with her age group; she’s actually considered a late developer according to their standards,” Ms Haitsma said.
Football NSW’s standards follow ‘biological maturation’, where a person’s standing height, seated height and body mass are taken into consideration.
According to its 2018 regulations, a 15-year-old female is considered at or below the 50th percentile if they weigh 54 kg or less and are 163 cm or shorter.
“There should be a national standard so everyone is doing the same thing,” Ms Haitsma said.
“We’re going to continue to fight this. It’s an unbelievable situation that we don’t want to have happen to other girls.”