Title IX Cases Warn Administrators to Address Facilities Disparities
John T. Wolohan
A key battleground in the fight for gender equity over the past decade is the softball diamond. Few school and athletics administrators foresaw this development. When Title IX was enacted in 1972, most administrators believed that the law would be used mainly to give girls and women equal opportunities to participate in athletics at the expense of male athletes. Male athletic participation, in fact, was not adversely affected at the high school level, while female participation simply exploded as administrators put their focus on offering a greater range of opportunities. Administrators' understanding of the need for equitable facilities, however, was not as quick to take root, and so Title IX case law has increasingly focused on this area.
In determining whether an institution is in compliance with Title IX, the law requires the court to specifically look at the quality, availability, exclusivity of use, maintenance and preparation of practice and game facilities, as well as locker rooms. In a lot of high school sports, such as soccer and basketball, boys' and girls' teams share the same competition and practice facilities, so the only facility-related equity issues involve availability and scheduling. Baseball and softball, however, are a different matter. The two sports, while similar, require different fields of play, and as in the suit filed against the Sweetwater Union High School District by the Castle Park softball players, it is not uncommon for schools to provide their boys' baseball team with state-of-the-art facilities while their girls' team plays on lower-quality softball diamonds.
Significant disparities in the quality of facilities can lead to legal challenges, whether or not the school's athletic program has directly overseen facility development. In a notable early case, Daniels v. School Board of Brevard County [985 F.Supp. 1458 (M.D.Fla. 1997)], a booster club had made significant upgrades — new bleachers, an announcer's booth, a scoreboard, a batting cage, restrooms and lights for night games — to the baseball field at Merritt Island (Fla.) High School, while the girls' softball diamond had none of these features. The father of two members of the girls' softball team filed suit against the school, which responded by beginning to dismantle the baseball field improvements, claiming it did not have the budget to bring the softball diamond up to par with the boys' field. The U.S. District Court in Orlando ordered the district to cease the dismantling and directed it, instead, to make improvements to the softball diamond.
As these cases illustrate, it is essential that school and athletics administrators take a close look at their facilities and immediately begin to correct any disparities. If you believe that you cannot afford to make improvements or are unwilling to do so for whatever reason, do not be surprised when yours becomes the next school district hauled into court on a Title IX claim.
The San Diego area continues to keep Title IX lawyers busy. In April, U.S. District Court Judge M. James Lorenz ruled in a summary judgment that Castle Park High School in South Bay, Calif., has allowed "significant gender-based disparity" in sports at the expense of female athletes. The ruling stems from a suit filed against the Sweetwater Union High School District in April 2007 by Castle Park softball players, who alleged girls had lower-quality sports facilities than boys and fewer chances to participate in athletics. The suit was granted class-action status last August on behalf of all present and future Castle Park female students who seek to play sports.
While that takes care of one of the plaintiffs' four claims against the district, three remaining claims will go forward in court, including an allegation that the district retaliated against the plaintiffs by firing their coach after they complained of discrimination.
The case represents the fourth San Diego-area Title IX complaint in the past decade to stem from subpar softball facilities, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune.
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