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.

For more than a decade, Estler served as the school's director of equality, dealing with issues of gender equity and compliance with Title IX. She was there when Blodgett -- the Fairfield native who led Lawrence High to four consecutive state titles and, to the delight of Mainers everywhere, turned down offers to play college basketball out of state -- enrolled at Orono and led the Black Bears to four appearances in the NCAA tournament from 1994-98.

"When you saw little boys around town wearing Cindy Blodgett's number and T-shirt, that's powerful," said Estler, who still teaches a course on higher education and the law. "Title IX can be portrayed, particularly in the male-dominated sports media, as taking something away from men. So when you have a phenomenon like Cindy -- I remember hearing about her when she was in sixth grade -- I think that helped everyone, male and female.

"How could you not embrace that hometown hero?"

Of course, not every state has a Cindy Blodgett, and even Maine may have to wait decades before anyone similar comes along. Still, it's that change in culture -- that female athletes can be admired and celebrated and deserve equal opportunities to play sports -- that is at the heart of the progress made.

High school girls in Maine, when measured against total school populations, have three times the sports participation rate as high school boys in Florida, said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, senior director of advocacy for the Women's Sports Foundation, citing a 2004 study.

NUMBERS STILL LAG

Still, more needs to be done, say proponents of the law. More high school girls took part in athletics nationally in 2010-11 than ever before -- nearly 3.2 million, according to the National Federation of High School Athletic Associations -- but that number remains 1.5 million fewer than the number of boys currently playing sports, and it is still half a million shy of the number of boys who played sports in 1972-73, the first year of Title IX.

Equality of participation in Maine schools is better than in many other states. According to the NFHS, last year's participation numbers -- one student playing three sports is counted as three participants -- were about 30,000 for boys and 25,000 for girls. In contrast, Alabama had about 61,000 for boys and 30,000 for girls.

"Let's close that gap," said Hogshead-Makar, who won three swimming gold medals in the 1984 Olympics before becoming a law professor. "Title IX has taught us a lot because there was a before and an after. We can look at those girls who didn't have athletic opportunities and 10 years later, see where they are health-wise, in the work force, and in dealing with obesity."

She said research clearly shows that girls who participate in sports get better grades, complete more education, are more likely to find full-time work in nontraditional careers, are less likely to have unwanted pregnancies, are less likely to smoke or use illegal drugs and are less likely to become obese, depressed, suicidal or develop breast cancer, heart disease or osteoporosis.

SO MANY POSITIVES

Andrea Cayer, a health education teacher at Cape Elizabeth High School, started teaching and coaching there in 1970. She coached a girls' track team in the 1970s that included a young Joan Benoit, who was then limited -- as were all girls in Maine -- to races no longer than 880 yards.

Anything longer was thought to be detrimental to their health and possibly a danger to their future reproductive capabilities, Cayer said. A decade later, Benoit famously won the first Olympic Women's Marathon in the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

She also gave birth to two healthy children, both of whom grew up to be collegiate athletes: Abby Samuelson skied for Bates and Anders Samuelson runs for Bowdoin.

"The impact is tremendous in terms of self-esteem, of confidence, of taking good care of their body and keeping it fit," Cayer said of participation in athletics. "The sense of winning but also of losing, and the lessons that come from that. How to get along with more adults, to be disappointed, to be elated, to learn how to manage your time."

As educators such as Cayer retire and stories from the early days of Title IX are told less often, complacency can creep into a system already challenged by shrinking budgets. Ceding financial control to booster groups and parental fees is resulting in "the beginnings of some real inequities in sports," said Judge, the North Yarmouth mother and lawyer.

One potential solution is a sunshine law similar to the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act, which requires colleges to make annual reports of their participation rates, expenses, revenue and athletic scholarships. That information is easily accessible on the website ope.ed.gov/athletics.

U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, has introduced a bill, the High School Data Transparency Act, the House version of which, the Athletics Accountability Act, is sponsored by Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y. Neither bill has made it out of committee, although Snowe first introduced the bill in 2003 and both she and Slaughter have submitted similar versions in 2007, 2009 and 2011.

"With this new information," said Snowe, "we can ensure that young women all over the country have the chance not only to improve their athletic abilities, but also to develop the qualities of teamwork, discipline and self-confidence that lead to success off the playing field."

Either that, or wait for another Cindy Blodgett to come along.

Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:

gjordan@pressherald.com

Twitter: GlennJordanPPH

 

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