Nontraditional Seasons Found Disadvantageous

By Staff

Athletic Management, 14.2, February/March 2002,

On Dec. 17, 2001, a long-awaited decision was handed down in a Michigan case over who is responsible for scheduling competitive seasons for girls' and boys' high school sports and whether those seasons can be discriminatory to either gender. The case was brought against the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) by a group of parents who argued that by scheduling certain girls' sports in "nontraditional" seasons, those girls were being discriminated against.

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan found that scheduling certain girls' sports outside the traditional seasons puts the female athletes at a disadvantage. The practice does so, the court said, by limiting the athletes' access to college recruiting and scholarships, all-America and other honors, club and Olympic-development programs, and their taking part in special events tied to when professional and semi-pro teams play.

"What's at issue here is that the state association has to comply with Title IX, and that they were in violation of those laws by scheduling girls' and boys' seasons the way they did," says Neena Chaudhry, Senior Counsel with the National Women's Law Center, who had an advisory role on the case.

The court also found that it is the MHSAA, not its member schools, that sets the schedules. "The MHSAA determines when seasons occur," the judge's decision states. "The MHSAA prescribes when practice may begin, when competition may begin, when competition must end, and the maximum number of games that may be played. Schools ... set only the practice schedule and game dates within a season."

Specifically, the court looked at six sports and the seasons in which Michigan high school girls play them: basketball (fall), volleyball (winter), soccer (spring), tennis (fall), swimming and diving (fall in the state's lower peninsula), and golf (spring in the lower peninsula). The same boys' sports (with the exception of volleyball, which isn't widely offered) are scheduled during what are considered traditional times: basketball (winter), soccer (fall), tennis (spring), swimming and diving (winter throughout the state), and golf (fall in the lower peninsula).

The judge's ruling does not require the MHSAA to schedule all sports in their traditional seasons, but rather to come up with its own plan to treat boys and girls equally. This means it could change some girls' sports to what have been determined to be advantageous seasons, or move boys'sports to disadvantageous seasons.

The MHSAA has said it will appeal the court's decision. In the meantime, it has been ordered to come up with a plan of action by May 24 that would comply with the judge's ruling. According to Jack Roberts, Executive Director of the MHSAA, the association is likely to propose moving some boys'sports and some girls' sports.

"The most obvious solution is to switch three boys' and girls' sports seasons around," says Roberts. "But we will involve our entire constituency--students, coaches, administrators, school board members, athletic officials--in drafting this plan. The whole state will be involved in evaluating what proposals do the most harm and which do the least harm."

The MHSAA says it does not want to alter its long-standing practice of having boys and girls compete at separate times. This has allowed many coaches and officials to focus on one sport and work with both boys and girls, Roberts explains, and it helps maximize the efficiency of facilities and provide more opportunities.

"We have schools who have great numbers of boys and girls participating in the same sport, but doing so in two different seasons," says Roberts. "One of the classic examples is swimming and diving. If the boys' and girls' teams are using the pool at the same time, the numbers of participants will have to be greatly reduced."

Would such a plan as Roberts proposes satisfy the plaintiffs? "Even though it's not what we would advocate," says Chaudhry, "they can do that."

"The defendants may argue that any solution they come up with will limit opportunities for boys and/or girls," adds Philip Cohan, lead trial counsel for the plaintiffs. "But Title IX has nothing to do with the size of the swimming team or how many tennis courts you have to have. It has nothing to do with participation except that boys and girls be treated equally and be given the same opportunities."

The MHSAA expects to file an appeal shortly, but it can take several years for the higher court to consider the appeal, hold briefings, hear oral arguments, and render its decision. The appeals court can then, as commonly happens, return the case to district court for more consideration.

"We'll exhaust all avenues in the judicial system," says Roberts, "including going to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary. Aside from that, then we'll try to put a compliance plan in effect that does the least amount of damage to the boys and girls and coaches and officials."

The complete decision of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan in MHSAA v. Communities for Equity can be downloaded as a PDF document at .