Girls just want to play ball – so sue town hall

Kathy Richard is up against the dugout screen, shouting encouragement, urging a breakthrough in this pitchers' duel that's gone into its last inning without a run being scored. "You're all right, Clair!" she yells. "Make it happen, make it happen!"

Clair Highfield digs in fiercely, waits for her pitch, and belts a single through the infield, pushing home what will be the winning run in a 1-0 fastpitch softball game. Her Grants Pass High School teammates leap as one.

For many of the girls on this small-town Oregon team, what they're likely to remember about this spring – even more than this hard-fought win over Ashland High School – is the recent day when they stood up with their lawyer and told the world they were suing their hometown.

The essence of their case is that the city has failed to provide adequate fastpitch softball fields, while Little League, Babe Ruth, and American Legion baseball leagues that are mainly for boys get the nice facilities – covered dugouts, electronic scoreboards, hot dog cookers, and all.

The principle is simple, says Kathy: "We just want to be equal."

She's one of six girls – five high school athletes and 9-year-old Krystin Jantzer – who are suing Grants Pass under Title IX. They're players with the "Blaze," a local fastpitch softball organization that includes some 65 girls ages 8 to 18.

The case, Ashley Bellum et. al v. City of Grants Pass, has won national attention because it's at the front edge of a growing trend: taking legal action under Title IX against a city. That's the 1972 landmark federal law forbidding gender discrimination in "any educational program or activity receiving federal aid." Most lawsuits to gain equal treatment in sports activities for girls and young women have been brought against schools and universities.

"We're simply looking for a place where girls can play," says Stephanie Franklin, who plays outfield and second base, and who – like most of the girls on the team – pulls her ponytail through a hole in the back of her batting helmet. But like most things involving politics and the law, the case is not all that simple.

Pitching to a conservative town

For most of its history, Grants Pass has been a logging and mill town, conservative in its politics and conventional in its culture and outlook. The last time it made national news was when the Grants Pass Daily Courier newspaper fired a local columnist who had criticized President Bush for "hiding" in a secure location rather than immediately returning to Washington on Sept. 11. The sacking came in response to local patriotic pressure, but was derided around the country as an attack on free speech.

That an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer from Los Angeles is part of the girls' legal team adds to the controversy. In this town of 23,000 tucked in the mountains of southern Oregon, the ACLU is seen by many as occupying a political perch just this side of the Communist Party. Even one of the girls' coaches confides that he's supported conservative groups fighting the "anti-Christian" ACLU. One of the girls' main complaints was that they were given only a few hours on Sunday morning to use a practice field – a time when they'd rather be in church with their families.

Still, after years spent trying to get a field of their own – or at least sufficient time on one of the better city-owned fields – the girls and their supporters felt they had no choice but to make a federal case.

"I thought as adults we could sit down and talk about this," says Clay Rounsaville, the girls' softball coach at Grants Pass High who started the Blaze league five years ago. "We're doing something we had to do."

For their part, city officials (who now direct all questions to their lawyer) say they have made efforts to accommodate girls who want to play the kind of competitive, fastpitch tournament softball the Blaze league aims to be part of. This has included offers of more practice time on city fields and the possibility of city land on which to build their own field. At the same time, the city notes that the number of recreational baseball and softball teams in the Grants Pass area has grown to nearly 200 – all wanting to use city-owned facilities.

From impasse to mediation

Until last month, things seemed to be at an uncomfortable impasse. But now, it looks like there'll be a happy outcome, which comes as a relief to all sides in this small town.

A federal magistrate from up the road in Eugene, Ore., has been assigned to mediate a settlement. Judge Thomas Coffin knows something about sports. His order in the case involving pro-golfer Casey Martin's right to use a motorized cart was upheld by the US Supreme Court, and in his spare time, he coaches a high school soccer team.

In his first meeting with both sides, Mr. Coffin negotiated an initial settlement under which the Blaze teams will have more practice and game time this season on the one good city field that will work for fastpitch softball (which requires 60-foot base paths, no pitcher's mound, and no grass in the infield).

The point, says ACLU lawyer Rocio Cordoba, is not just the field, but other benefits of girls' equal access: the skill-building that develops self-confidence and can lead to college scholarships, Olympic experience, and perhaps professional athletic careers – as is the case with publicly supported boys' sports.

"Being relegated to play sports in unequal and inadequate facilities effectively makes girls feel as though they are second-rate themselves," states the legal complaint in the Grants Pass case.

But, says Ms. Cordoba, "Happily, in a lot of these cases, the girls are able to negotiate a settlement without going to court."

"There are some cities out there that are doing a wonderful job," she adds.

As a result of all this, the girls (and the city) are learning about legal rights and community. The issue has been discussed in school government classes, and argued in letters to the editor.

"Some people have been against [the lawsuit]," says Brin Tamblin, the diminutive shortstop who dreams of playing in the Olympics. "But we've also found out that a lot of people are supporting us."

For now, Judge Coffin's efforts are seen by all as a good first step. "This is a case that can lend itself to all kinds of sensationalism," says Robert Lowry, the lawyer hired to represent the city. "But the main point now is, they've all come together because of the sometimes not-so-gentle prodding of Judge Coffin."

It's expected that the city will provide land for the girls' league to build a field, using donations and volunteer help.

"I think everybody's feelings will calm down, and we can sit down as adults and settle this," says Coach Rounsaville. "At least, that's my hope."

As she heads off to Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore., this fall, catcher Kathy Richard hopes to play college ball and perhaps become a coach. Her first experience in fighting for women's rights no doubt has shaped her career plans as well. She'll major in political science, she says, and then go on to law school.

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