June 18, 2012

Lax oversight kept sports equality in backfield

Maine's success in leveling girls' and boys' playing fields is not typical nationwide.

Four decades after legislation took effect mandating equal opportunity for girls and women in education and any program receiving federal funding, compliance remains a challenge.

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UMO’s Cindy Blodgett drives to the basket in 1996, showing why children at the time wore her No. 14 replica jersey.

1996 Staff File Photo by John Ewing

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Andrea Cayer

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You can test the effectiveness of Title IX in your town. Just go to the local high school and compare the baseball field to the softball field. Are they in similar condition? Do they both have dugouts of similar quality? Do they both have scoreboards?

Even if booster funds or a generous benefactor is responsible for the impressive facility for boys, the corresponding facility for girls must be of similar quality under Title IX legislation enacted in 1972.

If the boys have sweatpants, go on spring break trips and have a pitching machine and batting cage, the girls should, too, regardless of who pays for them.

"The reality is that (any money raised) is still supposed to be managed by the institution," said Janet Judge, a North Yarmouth lawyer who has specialized in Title IX cases since 1993. "Kids play sports for a school, and they're supposed to be treated equitably by the school without regard to whether somebody's parent is more willing to give money to buy sweatpants than another parent."

Judge is also a former three-sport athlete at Harvard and the mother of two girls involved in high school athletics. She said enforcement of Title IX at the collegiate level was lax during the most recent Bush administration, and pointed to one discrimination complaint filed in 1998 on behalf of female athletes at the University of Southern California that still hasn't been resolved.

Linda Joplin, who filed the original complaint, is now chair of the Athletic Equity Committee of the California chapter of the National Organization for Women.

In response to an email question about the case, she wrote that she has yet to receive an update from the Office of Civil Rights -- the Education Department agency responsible for enforcing Title IX's mandate of equality in athletics (as well as in any education program or activity receiving federal money).

Thus, she doesn't consider the matter closed. "USC has added two sports for women," she wrote. "But they did it many years after they should have."

From 2002 to 2006, the Office of Civil Rights received 375 formal complaints concerning lack of opportunity for female athletes or unequal treatment of those who were playing collegiate athletics.

The number of compliance reviews the OCR initiated during that time, according to the National Women's Law Center:

One.

"That's not what we're seeing now," Judge said. "What we've really seen since the Obama administration has come into office is a renewed focus on Title IX enforcement."

Instead of simply responding to complaints, the Office of Civil Rights has begun spot-checking schools, conducting compliance reviews at institutions without a pending complaint. It happened at Butler University in Indianapolis, which agreed to make changes after a review showed that women make up 59.6 percent of the student body but only 36.5 percent of Butler athletes. It also happened at Pittsburg (Kansas) State, a Division II school.

The Obama administration also overturned a Bush-era policy that counted failure to respond to a survey about sports offerings as a demonstration of no interest.

TAKE BLODGETT, FOR INSTANCE

Although enforcement of Title IX has been inconsistent over the years, the law has changed the culture of athletics. It has been particularly noticeable in Maine.

The image of young children -- boys and girls -- around Orono and Bangor wearing the No. 14 replica jersey of basketball star Cindy Blodgett still brings a smile to Suzanne Estler, a retired professor at the University of Maine.

(Continued on page 2)

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