Playing Fair

Originally published in Lake & Sumter Style, August 2009 •


At my small-town high school, girls sports teams were virtually non-existent.

The co-ed tennis team was the only opportunity for girls to compete, but it was still male-dominated. I, like many of you, graduated before the federal law known as Title IX established gender equality in athletic programs.

More than 37 years after Title IX was passed, the law is still as controversial and confusing as it was in 1972. The debate reached a new crescendo in Florida this summer after the Florida High School Athletic Association asked schools to reduce regular season varsity schedules by 20 percent and junior varsity schedules by 40 percent to keep from cutting some athletic teams altogether. The decision, however, did not affect football or cheerleading.

The FHSAA, the governing body for high school sports, was immediately slapped with a lawsuit alleging that its decision violates Title IX. Florida Parents for Athletic Equity, led by Jacksonville attorney and former 1984 Olympic gold medalist Nancy Hogshead-Makar, rightfully said the decision could force girls athletics to shoulder a disproportionate burden of budget-cutting.

“There’s an old expression that justice delayed is justice denied,” Nancy told the media when the injunction was filed. “If we didn’t act quickly, there was nothing the girls were going to be able to do about it.”

Nancy had hoped that pointing out the inequity of the ruling and its violation of federal and state law would change the association’s mind. And the FHSAA may very well reverse the decision after an upcoming board meeting as this issue goes to press. [Editor’s note: They did.]

Nonetheless, the problem of what programs to cut and what not to cut persists. Athletic programs around the state are being asked to assume an equitable share of the funding cutbacks that are affecting academic programs.

However, reducing schedules of non-revenue producing teams isn’t going to solve the problem in the long run. In fact, no one has been able to put a number on how much money would be saved if schedules were reduced.

What will help is for parents, booster clubs, coaches, and athletic directors—even the students themselves—to find creative ways to keep these teams operating in the black. It can work, as proven by our own Lake County, one of the few districts in Florida where fundraising by boosters is keeping athletic programs intact during these tough times.

To those folks who argue that all sports and extracurricular activities should be removed from schools, I have to say that would be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Eliminating sports from schools is not the answer either.

Numerous studies have proven that participating in sports promotes social interaction, cooperation, and friendship. Athletics also provide opportunities for students to develop critical thinking skills, learn discipline, and set goals—all things that are useful in academics and in future careers.

Sure, women’s athletic teams usually aren’t the revenue-producers that football teams are. In most cases, though, neither are basketball and baseball. For the players who participate, however, the rewards are immeasurable.

“It’s not just about athletics,” explained Olympic gymnastics champion Dominique Dawes on how she directly benefited from Title IX. “To first become a leader in life, you have to become a leader yourself. And I think I learned that in the gym.”

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