Thanks to Title IX of the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act, gender doesn’t determine the number of sports available to high school students. Or at least it plays a lesser role than it did 30 years ago. But inequality has persisted in Michigan, with high schools required only to assure that male sports coincide with their respective college seasons. Until last week, no such guarantee existed for women’s sports.
The advocacy group Communities for Equity took the Michigan High School Athletic Association to court over its sports seasons in 1998. After a nearly nine-year battle, the case is finally decided, and it turns out they were right. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from the MHSAA last week, meaning that sports seasons must change beginning next fall. This case has finally brought Michigan in line with every other state, and it has also drawn attention to lingering gender inequality in high school athletics.
The case was straightforward. Girls basketball, soccer, volleyball, golf and tennis are played in the off-season in relation to colleges, while all boys sports are scheduled to match the college seasons. Playing in the off-season hurts girls’ access to regional and national tournaments and lessens top athletes’ chances of receiving athletic scholarships. It also didn’t help that the off-season scheduling meant girls’ basketball, soccer and volleyball seasons were several weeks shorter than seasons in other states.
The MHSAA argued that practicality trumped Title IX. If boys and girls basketball were both played in the fall, for instance, the teams would compete for practice space and fans. What was commonly understood, if not explicitly stated, is that any change would hurt female athletes. No one would dare jeopardize male athletes’ access to practice space, and few would watch girls’ basketball when boys are playing at the same time.
Although this rationale may be true, it should be interpreted to mean that more action, not less, is necessary to address gender discrimination in sports. If balancing limited space is a serious concern, then why don’t boys play their basketball in the off-season?
As of last week, the situation is fairer. The final decision will move girls basketball and volleyball seasons to their appropriate national times, leave girl’s soccer and swimming in the off-season and shift boys’ golf and tennis to the off-season as an equalizer to satisfy Title IX.
Schools will have to juggle facilities and resources in order to accommodate the ruling. For some female high school athletes, new conflicts between sports seasons mean they will have to pick between sports. The Detroit Free Press dedicated several pages of coverage to the “new hurdles” the switch will bring. The current female athletes who will be negatively impacted by the ruling have every right to be angry. But the switch is not the fault of Communities for Equality; Michigan should have adjusted its sports schedules years ago.
The MHSAA and individual high schools are not yet off the hook. Female athletes still face gender discrimination, most notably in the attention and prestige they receive. During the court battle, MHSAA agreed to provide female athletes with better publicity, more television coverage and expanded facilities for state championships. These long overdue changes show that while treatment of female athletics has significantly improved, the status quo is still a long way from true equality.