COLLEGE PARK — Title IX was designed in part to balance the scales for girls and boys in school-based athletics.
Some day, maybe it will.
Nearly 50 years after Congress passed the sweeping law that guarantees equity in “any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance,” including high school athletics, girls are stuck in an imperfect system that continues to favor boys.
In schools across the country, boys’ teams wear nicer uniforms, play on better fields, are led by more experienced coaches, have their practices scheduled at more desirable times, play with newer equipment and dress in better-equipped locker rooms. All are potential violations of Title IX.
“We still estimate that the majority of schools are likely out of compliance with the law,” said Sarah Axelson, vice president of advocacy at the Women’s Sports Foundation.
A four-month investigation by The Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland found that:
- While Title IX has made a difference - girls’ participation in high school sports rose from 7% to 43% in the last 50 years - it is still not equal.
- The U.S. Department of Education collects minimal data about how many girls and boys are playing sports. The information that is collected and would confirm compliance with parts of the law is deeply flawed.
- The onus to report violations of Title IX is often left to teenagers and their parents, who know little about the law.
- Enforcement by the Education Department’s Office For Civil Rights is cumbersome and slow-moving. A review of 39 complaints to the civil rights office since 2008 that had both filing and resolution dates showed that it took an average of 700 days to resolve the cases. That means girls who suffered unequal treatment often graduated before they saw results.
As a result, serious questions remain about how many of the 3.4 million girls playing high school sports have experienced violations of Title IX that went unaddressed.
The centers found that violations have affected girls across the country.
In Union City, New Jersey, a highly publicized athletic field that sits on the roof of a $180 million high school building was mostly used by boys’ teams. For nearly 10 years, access for girls was limited.
In Ewa Beach, Hawaii, girls on the water polo team argued that they had to practice on dry land or in the open ocean before their season because they couldn’t get funding for a pool.
In Ventura, California, girls on the softball team suffered injuries on a field that was poorly maintained, while the boys’ baseball team had a field that was better tended at a higher quality stadium.
“Most of these athletes just presume that there must be a reason that they’re getting second-class treatment,” three-time Olympic gold medalist Nancy Hogshead-Makar said. “In high school, in junior high school, in college, men are getting more.”
When girls see that they’re getting worse treatment, their options include challenging their coach or principal, filing a lawsuit or lodging a complaint with the federal Education Department - all daunting for a teenager and their family. When parents step forward to report, they’re often at the center of disputes that can roil their child’s school.
In the late 1970s, Ellen Zavian - the first female agent licensed by the National Football League Players’ Association and a Title IX advocate - wanted to play soccer in high school. But she was told she wouldn’t be able to because there was only a boys’ team.
“If I had known about Title IX, I definitely would have filed a suit against my school when I didn’t have the opportunity to play soccer,” Zavian said. “But I didn’t know about it.”
That information gap still exists. Grace Saad, a former softball player at Buena High School in Ventura, California, didn’t realize she could do anything after noticing the Buena High baseball team has a stadium, dugouts and a permanent outfield fence with a scoreboard while the softball team often didn’t even have enough softballs to hold batting and fielding practice at the same time.
“I knew that things weren’t equal, but I just thought that’s the way it was,” said Saad, who graduated in 2020.
A University of Maryland-Ipsos national poll of more than 1,000 parents found that 58% of them knew nothing at all about Title IX. What little information they did have came primarily from the internet or news reports, not from their schools.
Courses and webinars in public schools could help inform students, coaches and administrators. But the federal Education Department doesn’t require them.
Title IX compliance covers both “treatment and benefits’’ and “participation,’’ which means that if 60% of the students in a high school are girls, about 60% of athletics opportunities should be for girls.
The law doesn’t mandate that boys’ and girls’ teams have exactly the same of everything. It does require that they receive equal treatment in locker rooms, practice and game venues, scheduling of games and practices, publicity and coaching experience.
If local school officials don’t respond to concerns and a federal complaint is filed, the Education Department’s civil rights office investigates. It can issue a resolution letter with steps the school must take to come into compliance.
At Pentucket Regional High School in West Newbury, Massachusetts, the issue was Twitter.
When the school tweeted live updates from its athletics account, 60% focused on boys’ teams compared to 32% for girls’ teams. After a complaint, the civil rights office required the school to monitor publicity efforts to ensure that any inequalities are corrected.
Going to court over a Title IX violation can be costly and time-consuming. Plaintiffs, even when they prevail, often emerge feeling bruised and exhausted.
In Stillwater, Oklahoma, a group of softball parents filed a Title IX lawsuit against the local school district in August 2020. Ten months later, the parties reached a settlement, but at a price.
“It’s been quite an emotional toll,’’ said Angela Morgan, a plaintiff in the case and president of the softball team booster club at Stillwater High School. “I think we’ve all lost sleep over it.”
Schools, advocates said, need to fully embrace Title IX and proactively enforce it instead of dumping the responsibility on parents, students and the courts.
“This is not rocket science,’’ said Peg Pennepacker, the former athletic director and assistant principal who founded High School Title IX Consulting Services. She said K-12 schools “are not really making it a priority. They’re kind of sitting back and … saying, ‘Well, I’ll wait ‘til someone files a complaint, then I’ll worry about it.’’’
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