Clubs raise question of sports equity

Kentucky schools try to control private athletic funds to level gender playing field.

It's Friday night, only minutes to go until kickoff of the last home game for the Bryan Station High School Defenders, who are bound once again for the state playoffs.

Standing by a card table piled high with souvenirs, Laura Proctor and her husband, D.L., hawk programs for the local booster club. Announcements crackle over the PA system. The smell of grilled hotdogs scents the air.

Behind Mrs. Proctor rises a three-story bleacher painted team green by members of the booster club - one of many contributions the private group has made to the squad over the years. But that may be about to change.

Across the bluegrass playing fields of Kentucky, a fight is brewing over tens of thousands of dollars private booster clubs raise for high school athletics.

The line of scrimmage: Title IX, the federal law mandating gender equity in high school and college athletics. Local school boards, pressed for money to address inequities in sports programs, want more control over the private funds. But many booster club members argue it's their money and they have the right to spend it the way they want. The fight here - being mirrored in many states across the country - could change the face of high school athletics nationwide.

"We're the ones who have been out here working to make money, and ... they're now telling us how we can spend it," says Mrs. Proctor, president of the booster club, whose son is a center and linebacker on the team. "If we would like our boys to go to Louisville and be a part of a passing competition, and we have the money, why can't we send them?"

Here in Fayette County, the school board recently voted to require boosters to sign an agreement that will open their books and membership lists to school officials. District officials would be given veto power over fundraising activities if they're deemed to cause inequities.

While some boosters have accepted the restrictions, others resent the "intrusion." The phenomenon here in the rumpled hills of Kentucky, where athletics is as much a part of the culture as quarter horses and coal, is being repeated in various locations around the country:

* In California, the Title IX Coalition of Fresno County issued a report to the local school board contending that boosters' lavish treatment of boys teams had caused inequities for girls teams. They want closer monitoring of the groups.

* In Washington State, a donor's gift of $1 million to build a boys' baseball stadium led to the first-ever Title IX complaint in the Vancouver school district: A senior softball player charged there was a vast inequity between the gleaming new boys' facility and an off-campus field, with rotting wooden benches and dilapidated fencing, the girls used.

* In Macon, Ga., the school system mandated in September that boys not be allowed to play at an expensive booster-built baseball stadium until a comparable girls' facility can be constructed.

This issue is surfacing nearly three decades after Title IX's passage in 1972, in part because of the growth and popularity of women's athletics and the dearth of school funding. Some critics of the booster clubs argue that they represent the last vestige of gender discrimination that Title IX was intended to eradicate.

Kentucky largely ceded athletic funding to booster clubs more than 20 years ago. In addition to providing such things as routine maintenance - including painting the lines on the football field before every game - a group of parents at one high school guaranteed a loan for an indoor baseball facility built on school property.

Such unrestricted spending has led to inequities. A statewide Title IX audit found three high schools in Fayette County had inadequate girls' softball fields compared to boys' baseball fields. The county vows to build new fields, but some doubt it will follow through.

The Fayette County school board also plans to install "equity monitoring committees" at local high schools, which will include a booster representative, to preempt some of the large-scale - and lopsided - moneymaking schemes.

Many booster parents are chafing at the new controls. Originally, they were concerned that their hard-earned bingo and bake-sale money will be given to a another sports team. That hasn't happened - yet. They also don't understand why they can't raise money to send the boys' baseball team to Florida for spring training, just because the softball boosters aren't able to raise an equivalent sum.

The new policies, say boosters, will lead to reduced parental support and less student participation in sports. As a result, the teams won't do as well, gate receipts will decline, the coaches won't be able to buy equipment. Ultimately, they say, the school district will be forced to eliminate boys' teams to correct disparities. "If you have a son on the football team, are you going to work bingo, or a car wash, or sell hats and sweatshirts to benefit the swimming team?" asks Mr. Proctor. "They're coming in here and telling us exactly what we can and can't do for the benefit of our children."

But education officials say they are bound by law to exercise some control over the private portfolios, if they are to ensure equality on the gridiron and softball field. "The money becomes public funds the moment they receive a donation, and we have to control it," says Danny Reeves, a lawyer for the Kentucky High School Athletic Association. "It is absolutely our responsibility to see that the money is spent equitably."

Although he acknowledges there is a wide spectrum of booster activity, Mr. Reeves is not willing to look the other way, even in the case of small contributions - such as a post-season banquet. "People say you shouldn't worry about the nickel and dime things. But where do you draw the line?" he says. "If you come up with a way to make this stuff standard, you don't have to worry about that."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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