A family who cries 'foul'

Despite Title IX, some say female high school athletes aren't getting a fair shake

Pat Egan didn't think he'd ever get into a fight like this. Not over something like girls' softball. Not against the same high school from which he graduated.

Mr. Egan is in the construction business, a man's world. Mention the phrase "political correctness," and his face turns sour.

Then his daughter Chrissi got involved.

Chrissi, a junior at Boone County High School in Florence, Ky., has been a pitcher on the girls' softball team since sixth grade. During that time, she has seen success and failure on the field. Last year, her team finished third in the state with a 36-8 record.

But there's one thing Chrissi has come to expect every spring, as sure as the running of the Kentucky Derby: Her team, she says, will get second-string treatment at Boone County High School.

"It's horrible," Chrissi says of her team's softball field, which is actually at another school a few miles away. "There are dips in the field. The fence is falling apart. There are weeds everywhere. It's horrible compared with the boy's field."

Since coming to that conclusion - and doing a bit of research - Chrissi and her family have become plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Boone County School District, based on a federal measure called Title IX.

Title IX, part of the Education Amendments of 1972 passed by Congress, prohibits sex discrimination in schools. Although it covers a wide range of issues, it's most often applied to the field of athletics, in which generations of boys have received favorable treatment over girls.

The Egans, wielding the full force of Title IX, are an unlikely but formidable team: a construction worker who funds his own legal battle, a shy student with a 50 m.p.h. fastball, and an outspoken mother who is a member of the school's Parent Teacher Association.

Already they have squeezed concessions out of the school system - including a plan to build a new, on-campus field for the softball team. But, they say, equity is still distant, and a bitter fight seems likely to continue.

"When will we give up?" asks the mother, Kim. "Not until we have complete compliance with Title IX."

A fresh battleground - high schools

While such lawsuits are hardly new, their emergence at the high school level represents a fresh battleground involving the 29-year-old law.

According to Title IX experts, the fight for athletic gender equality is steadily trickling down from large universities to small towns like Florence, where passion runs high, and solutions are difficult to find.

Oftentimes the conflicts divide small communities. Girls say they need complete equality for their self-esteem. Schools struggle with the monetary cost of rebuilding athletic programs.

At Boone County High School, Chrissi is picked on and ridiculed.

"In Title IX, it's turned into these diffuse little guerrilla wars where there are a handful of kids and parents on one side and a local school district on the other side," says Herb Dempsey, a grass-roots Title IX activist from Graham, Wash.

Mr. Dempsey estimates that there are "thousands" of high school Title IX complaints throughout the country, although there is no way to track all of them. He's helped file more than 300 of them himself. Most, he says, focus on girls' softball. Some are settled with a phone call, some by teams of lawyers.

It's hard on kids, and hard on schools.

"It's been a nightmare," says Bryan Blavatt, the Superintendent of Boone County Schools, about his protracted battle with the Egans. "It takes you away from your focus as an educator."

Mr. Blavatt, a former University of Maryland football player, says the Egans keep expanding their demands to the point where every detail of the school's athletic facilities has come under scrutiny. Whereas other complainants in the class-action suit initially accepted a compliance decree, the Egans thought the deal did not go into sufficient detail, and they formed a sub-class with a different lawyer.

Although few grievances make it to the federal level, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights in Washington, D.C., reports that there were 154 complaints filed last year regarding inequality in girls' high school sports - up 50 percent from 1998.

In Grand Rapids, Mich., female athletes are taking their athletic association to court for scheduling basketball games during a nontraditional season (spring rather than winter). In Tacoma, Wash., a mother complained to an athletic director after noticing that her daughter was wearing a hand-me-down jersey from the boys' team. In Brevard County, Fla., a school is accused of "mothballing" the boys' baseball field to bring it down to the same level as the girls' softball field.

Complaints are myriad, and often resolved begrudgingly.

"Lawsuits have encouraged change," says Ellen Staurowsky, a professor at Ithaca (N.Y.) College who specializes in Title IX. "But at the same time, lawsuits are hardly resolving the fundamental issues. There's a difference between changing something because you want to and changing something when you have a gun to your head."

Title IX's 'three-prong' test

For sure, Title IX has its ambiguities. It's often misunderstood and often scapegoated for other ailments within the education system.

It was modeled after Title VI, which mandates racial equality, and its legitimacy has been affirmed by the Supreme Court and Congress - despite the efforts of some Republican lawmakers to overturn it.

In 1979, the federal government created a "three-prong" test to determine compliance with Title IX. Under those guidelines, schools had three choices:

• Have a similar gender ratio in the student body and among student athletes.

• Prove there is constant improvement in providing gender equity.

• Or show that the school accommodates athletic interest and ability for both sexes equally.

Most of the early Title IX battlegrounds were colleges, where female athletes lacked equal facilities, budgets, and scholarship opportunities. In 1994, Congress passed a law requiring colleges to disclose such information, making compliance easier to measure.

Progress has been made. According to the United States General Accounting Office, the number of female college athletes increased from 90,000 to 163,000 between the 1981-82 school year and 1998-99. In high school, 294,000 girls played sports in 1971-72, compared with 2.4 million in 1996-97.

Yet, advocates say, Title IX needs to go further.

"Its biggest problem is that it hasn't been enforced strongly enough to get women's athletics into a position of equality," says Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center in Washington, D.C. "It's been too moderate."

If there are groups that have received the short end of Title IX, they are the less mainstream, all-male sports, such as wrestling. Wrestling organizations argue that the rule encourages universities to cut wrestling in favor of more lucrative sports (see story, above right). In the last 20 years, as many as 150 college programs have been cut. As a result, scholarships have dried up, ending most wrestlers' careers in high school.

Wrestlers often compare Title IX to an illegal quota system - because, they say, the law encourages universities to create an artificial numbers balance between the sexes.

"It's the quotas that are killing the programs, not Title IX," says Tom Owens, the founder of InterMat, an organization promoting amateur wrestling.

According to Mr. Owens, wrestling is among the least expensive sports for a university to administer. Yet, because it usually does not have a female counterpart, and because it does bring in revenue, it is frequently targeted.

"The school has to make money," Owens says. "They have nothing to do but cut programs."

Tracking the money isn't easy

Whereas money trails and numbers are easy to regulate at centralized universities, it is more difficult to pinpoint gender inequality at the high school level.

In high school, teams can be funded by the school, booster clubs, the county, or the state. Unlike universities, high schools are not required to disclose Title IX-related statistics.

In Boone County, the Egans are disputing the funding sources of everything from scoreboards to bleachers to the new lights recently put on the boys' baseball field.

On a recent weekend, the Egan family gave an impromptu tour of the school's athletic facilities. Although it was clear that the school had made an effort to improve conditions for the girls, it was also obvious that the boys still had far better resources.

Kim Egan and other experts say it is helpful to view a Title IX case as if it were based on race rather then sex. The laws are virtually the same.

"Let's say the baseball team is the white team and the softball team is the black team," she argues. "The white team has dugouts, a locker room, weight room, and electronic scoreboard. The black team has to practice two miles away [from school] and nobody takes care of its fields.

"What would you think then?"

New czar of Title IX?

No government official has a greater impact on how Title IX is implemented than the head of the federal Office for Civil Rights.

During the Clinton administration, that post was held by Norma Cantu, an accomplished civil rights lawyer and former teacher.

Now, Title IX observers are carefully watching President Bush's nominee, Gerald A. Reynolds, who is expected to face a Senate confirmation hearing soon.

Mr. Reynolds, an African-American, is a lawyer for the Kansas City Power & Light Co. and a former president of the conservative Center for New Black Leadership. He opposes affirmative action and has been compared to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

In 1997, he told the Monitor that he preferred a "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" approach to civil rights for blacks.

It is for that reason that some experts are concerned about the effectiveness Mr. Reynolds could have seeking equality for women in sports.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, recently said he had "serious concerns" about Reynolds based on his conservative views and lack of experience in education.

"There's a question about some of his views on affirmative action and Title IX," says Jim Manley, the Education Committee spokesman.

Administration officials say that Reynolds has never publicly elaborated on Title IX, and that he would not attempt to weaken it.

"The suggestion that [Reynolds] wouldn't be supportive of Title IX comes out of nowhere," says Education Department spokeswoman Lindsay Kozberg. "It's not true."

Victims of Title IX: wrestlers at Marquette U.

On June 15, Jim Schmitz's fears became reality.

He walked into the athletic department at Marquette University in Milwaukee and was told that the wrestling program had been canceled.

Mr. Schmitz, the wrestling coach for more than a decade, had known the program was in trouble. Nevertheless, he was shocked.

"I was in a daze," he recalls. "It broke the cycle of my life."

The decision was not easy for Marquette. A few years prior, it had been warned by the NCAA that it was not in compliance with Title IX, the law requiring equal athletic opportunities for men and women. The student body was 54 percent female, yet women were only 46 percent of the school's athletes.

Athletic director Bill Cords subsequently examined the three legal options for reaching compliance.

One possibility was to prove that Marquette had made steady progress over the years in improving female sports. But it was too late for that. Another escape was proving the school would meet demand for athletic participation equally. That would be too expensive, however, because there were women's clubs that wanted varsity sports status.

Mr. Cords determined that the most feasible way to comply was the third option: bringing the proportion of women student-athletes into line with the overall school population.

He looked around and saw wrestling as an obvious target. It had many participants, no female version, and the team was performing poorly. The fact that the program supported itself through fundraising didn't help.

"Our problem was numbers," Cords says. "We could have added a large women's sport or dropped a large men's sport."

In the end, the wrestling program was canceled, decreasing the school's male athlete population by 32 athletes. No women's sports replaced it. But now, Cords says, the school complies with Title IX.

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