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Leveling the Playing Field

A Break in Tradition
"Jack, Jack -- he's our man! If he can't do it...Susie can!"

Opportunities for girls and women in sports are on the rise, but leveling the playing field often means altering some old and very popular traditions.

This winter at Shore Regional High School in West Long Branch, New Jersey, the girls' basketball team ran the floor while the school's band rocked out tunes of encouragement from the stands. The players were pumped. The crowd roared.

After the game, a male student said this to girls' athletic coach Nancy Williams: "That was awesome, but it's not fair. How come the girls' basketball team gets the band and the boys don't?" Williams laughed and answered: "Oh yes it's fair. The girls' teams get the band for ten games, and the boys' teams get the band for ten games. The band played at ten football games this year. If you want them to play at a boys' basketball game, take it up with the football team."

Getting Equal Treatment
To Nancy Williams, equal is equal, fair is fair, and that's all there is to it. As a former student at Shore Regional and a girls' coach there since 1970, she has fought long and hard for equal treatment of the school's female athletes. In 1995, she became frustrated by the school's "token gestures" and "general ignorance of the law," and filed a Title IX complaint with the Office of Civil Rights. The school and the Office reached a settlement last July. Since then, there have been some big changes at Shore Regional.

In 1996, the girls' field hockey team played for the first time under the lights on the football field, the band played, and the concession stand was open. Cheerleaders cheered at four girls' field hockey games. Additional coaches were hired, and the administration learned a lesson that Williams says is simple. "When it comes to Title IX, you can't pick and choose where you want to comply. It's either equal, or you're breaking the law."

Did you know that public schools in the U.S. must allow female athletes to try out for boys' teams if no girls teams exist? It's the law under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act. Passed in 1972, Title IX prohibits sexual discrimination in public schools.

"The sports opportunities for both men and women have increased dramatically since Title IX came into effect," says Julie Sommer, Advocacy Coordinator for the Women's Sports Foundation. In 1971, 1 in 27 girls participated in high school sports; in 1996 that figure was 1 in 3. Boys' participation has stayed about the same, but for every two female college athletic slots added from 1982 to 1992, 1.5 male slots were also added.

As the number of women playing sports begins to equal the number of men, Title IX complaints have shifted in emphasis from how many sports schools offer to how schools "treat" women athletes.

Playing by the Rules
Take a look a good look around your child's school. Does it meet the Title IX requirements listed below? Male and female public school athletic programs must provide the following:

  • The same equipment, uniforms, supplies.
  • The same access to weight rooms and training rooms.
  • Equal practice facilities.
  • The same size and quality locker rooms and competition facilities.
  • Equal access to practice and games during prime time.
  • The same quality coaches as the boys teams.
  • The same awards and awards banquets.
  • The band and cheerleaders must perform at the same number of boys' games as girls' games.
  • The total programs must be equal; Title IX can't be applied from sport to sport.
Chances are your child's school is not in complete compliance with Title IX. Many communities are very comfortable with the status quo. They won't change their programs voluntarily, and the Office of Civil Rights won't investigate until a claim is filed. To these schools, Nancy Williams says: "Hey, you can choose not to be in compliance and hope you don't get caught, but remember, any taxpayer, parent, or kid can file a complaint.How can you ensure that your daughters receive equal athletic opportunities and treatment? Williams has this advice:

  • Have your girls join the Women's Sports Foundation, and get a copy of its book, Playing Fair: A Guide to Title IX in High School and College Sports .
  • After you have read the material, do a "compliance check" of your school.
  • If you find the girls are being treated unfairly, write a letter to the school.
  • If you don't get a satisfactory response, contact the U.S. Office of Civil Rights
As Williams discovered, going up against years of school policy and tradition is an arduous and alienating task. Even though hundreds of parents supported her cause, for the first time in 16 years, the school did not renew her softball coaching contract.

Not deterred, Williams still firmly believes that "the point of school sports is not to produce stellar athletes, but stellar human beings... Girls and boys must have equal opportunities and exposure to sports so they both can learn leadership skills, gain self-confidence, and develop self-esteem."

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