Girls, Boys, Sports, and Fairness
When Medesha Francis made the girls' junior varsity basketball team at Plantation High School last year, she was ready to give her all to win. But all the high school was prepared to give her was half a uniform.
While the junior varsity boys wore matching jerseys and shorts, the girls got jerseys but had to wear ordinary gym shorts for their games.
Medesha felt the discrepancy, but she refuses to criticize her school. Speaking in general about girls and sports, she says, "It's the '90s. [Female athletes] should have been treated fairly from Day 1."
Until recently, the 25-year struggle to get equal treatment for female athletes has been waged primarily at America's colleges. But women's rights experts say the battleground is increasingly spreading downstream into high schools and middle schools, where sports participation involves not only a majority of the student body, but also athletes' families.
Compared with many other high schools, Plantation High here has a good record in offering equitable athletic opportunities to student athletes, female and male. But experts in women's sports say subtle problems can emerge even at the best schools.
Since 1972, every school in the nation receiving federal funding has been required by law to treat its student athletes equitably, without regard to whether the athletes are male or female. But experts say they are still battling an attitude that seeks to treat female athletes as second-class citizens.
In high schools and middle schools, they say, compliance with Title IX of the Civil Rights Act - and the equity it requires - remains an elusive goal.
Moreover, the fight isn't just about numbers of female athletes versus male athletes.
* In Nebraska, four high schools settled lawsuits recently that charged bias in scheduling. Girls' teams played on school nights or during afternoons, when parents couldn't attend, and boys' teams played during the "prime time" slots on weekend nights. That practice has now ended.
* Also in Nebraska, a high school lawsuit challenged discrimination in team transportation. Until the suit, the school provided team buses for boys, but members of girls' teams had to get to games on their own.
* In Oklahoma, a high school was sued after it built a state-of-the-art baseball complex for the boys' baseball team, while the girls on the softball team - who were the state champs - played on a run-down, barely maintained field. The school agreed to upgrade facilities for the girls' team.
Efforts to achieve compliance with the federal law vary widely from state to state, district to district, and school to school.
"We are obviously much better than in 1972, but I would say a majority of the high schools are not in compliance," says Susan True of the National Federation of High School Associations in Kansas City, Mo.
Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, president of the Women's Sports Foundation and an Olympic gold medalist in 1984, says in her view 80 percent of US colleges are not in compliance with Title IX, and an even higher percentage of high schools are in violation.
"It is a problem because it is really limiting opportunities for girls," she says. "We are not treating our daughters and sisters and nieces the same way we are treating our sons and brothers and nephews."
Title IX requires schools to take a series of steps to ensure equal opportunities for all student athletes. One of the major tests is that the population of female athletes approximates the total female enrollment at the school.
Even that basic requirement has left some schools scrambling to offer an array of women's sports sufficient to counterbalance long-established boys' sports programs.
In Broward County, Fla., school officials are trying to find a way to draw schools' large population of cheerleaders into their Title IX compliance calculations. The problem is that cheerleading doesn't qualify as a competitive sport under Title IX. So officials are considering a plan to create new rhythmic gymnastics teams, which could compete at times that would not conflict with cheerleading duties. The school district estimates the program might attract 600 girls countywide and bring seven Broward high schools into Title IX compliance.
Women's rights specialists say they encounter excuses at schools across the country. Some school officials say they don't have the money to fund girls' programs or that girls at their school aren't interested in being athletes.
But experts say girls are reluctant to join a program they perceive as a second-class operation. If the program is run in the same way that boys' sports teams are run, girls respond in large numbers, they say.
The proof exists on a national scale. In 1971, the year before Title IX was enacted, there were 300,000 female athletes in American high schools. Today, there are roughly 2.3 million girls active in school sports.