Life, Liberty, And a Nice Flat Infield

With the April sun bathing the softball field in its soft, early morning warmth, everything seems almost perfect.

That is, until someone hits a ground ball.

Neither the San Fernando sunshine nor the enthusiasm with which the young girls lunge for grounders that careen off the lumpy infield can disguise the fact that the teams are playing on four diamonds so crowded together that outfielders almost bump into each other.

Every year for the past 29 years, the West Valley Girls Softball League (WVGSL) asks the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks for permanent access to first-class facilities. It's still waiting. The 400-member, 31-team league only gets a temporary permit to play on this scruffy field and three others throughout the Valley.

Good playing fields are in short supply, but considering that boys are consistently given access to well manicured, city-owned fields - some just a few miles away - many parents and players have run out of patience.

On their behalf, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a suit earlier this month against the city of Los Angeles, the recreation department, and others seeking an injunction to change the situation.

"I think we should all have the same rights," says Ashley Zwoyer, a 10-year-old pitcher and shortstop. "Just because they're boys doesn't mean that we shouldn't have what they have."

Given the growing emphasis on gender equity in sports brought about by the more stringent enforcement of Title IX, it's a case that could resonate on ballfields nationwide.

The suit will "probably add to the awareness of inequities in these kinds of programs," says Deborah Brake, senior counsel at the National Women's Law Center in Washington. "[When] other park and recreation departments hear of this suit ... they would be very wise to examine their own programs before they get hit with a lawsuit themselves."

To some experts, this case is a logical follow-on to the legal actions taken under Title IX, a law that mandates equal funding and participation for men's and women's athletics at any school that receives federal money.

Title IX has played a large part in raising awareness about the inequities in sports programs at public colleges and universities across the country. And while some problems still exist, "female athletes have enjoyed greater opportunities for participation in all athletics" since the measure was passed in 1972, says Sue Enquist, head softball coach at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Where Title IX doesn't reach

But Title IX does not address sports programs funded only by state, local, or private dollars - such as the WVGSL. The correction of past inequities in nonfederally funded athletics has been much more spotty, says Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation of East Meadow, N.Y.

Currently, many municipal parks and recreation departments around the country allocate facilities to leagues on a seniority basis. That means that the oldest leagues - almost always boys' leagues - get the first choice of times and fields. Meanwhile, the newer girls' leagues are "at the bottom of the heap when it comes to access to reservations for facilities," says Ms. Lopiano. "It is a perpetuation of historical discrimination."

Los Angeles officials, however, say they're doing all they can. Like many other cities across the country, Los Angeles must decide whether it can afford to set aside more potentially lucrative land for recreational use. In addition, declining tax revenues in inner cities has forced reductions of all kinds. But the city officials say they are mulling several options to ease the mounting pressure, including building new fields, improving bad fields, and even shortening games to allow more teams an opportunity to play.

Still, even if there are enough facilities to accommodate everyone, much can depend on who runs them - a city bureaucracy or parents. "We find that ... [in] youth leagues in particular where parents are deciding on opportunities for their sons and daughters, they're not as likely to discriminate," Lopiano says. "They want equal treatment."

Advantages of playing softball

Parents also know that participating in softball gives their daughters a chance to develop team skills and a chance at college athletic scholarships, says Dave Berman, WVGSL league president. Perhaps most fundamentally to some parents, however, is that in a society where the young are easy targets for drugs and crime, the time their daughters spend on the field is time they don't spend hanging out.

Acknowledging that Los Angeles needs more ball fields and perhaps more efficient use and greater sharing of the facilities it already has, a senior adviser to Mayor Richard Riordan has called for a public hearing May 20 in hopes of resolving the matter.

But for Mr. Berman, the issue is a simple: "Our girls just want to play on facilities the boys take for granted."

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