Field Disparities Prompt Suits

By Staff

Coaching Management, 12.9, October 2004,

When Alhambra (Calif.) High School administrators decided last year to spend $900,000 upgrading their three-field baseball complex, they included state-of-the-art electronic scoreboards, a warning track, enclosed batting cages, and bullpens. They paid attention to every detail except one: How would the new construction affect gender equity at their school?

That omission has landed the school in court. Without access to a comparable softball field, Alhambra softball players have sued under Title IX.

"While the baseball program is playing on these fantastic new fields, girls’ varsity and junior varsity softball are playing on back-to-back dirt fields," says Nancy Solomon, Senior Staff Attorney at the California Women’s Law Center and one of the attorneys representing the softball players. "If there’s a hit into the outfield in one game, play in the other game has to stop." In their complaint, the student-athletes also allege that the softball field is littered with trash, receives no maintenance, and is dangerous.

Former Alhambra Head Softball Coach Tom O’Dell, Alhambra parents, and student-athletes complained to the school board and administration without result, Solomon says. Parents of the student-athletes then filed suit on their behalf.

The Alhambra suit is one of several high school Title IX cases recently initiated over disparities in softball and baseball facilities. Other cases have been settled in Tennessee, Alabama, and Washington. In the late 1990s, a single suit in an Oklahoma school district led to 13 additional cases in nearby districts. And in Kentucky, more than 70 new softball fields have been constructed after a lawsuit prompted the state high school association to review all of its members for Title IX compliance.

Still, Solomon points out, the majority of Title IX cases have been brought at the college level, making each high school Title IX case important. "High school suits are hard to bring because the girls are so young," Solomon notes. "High school girls often don’t label inequities as discrimination, even though they realize they aren’t being treated the same as the boys."

That means high school coaches must be vigilant and advocate for their athletes, Solomon says—particularly softball coaches, since their sport is one where schools have typically lagged behind in Title IX compliance. "Softball coaches are on the front lines of Title IX enforcement right now," Solomon says. "They are often the only people who can see from a broader perspective that discrimination is occurring."

When a coach believes his or her team is the victim of gender discrimination, it is essential to make a formal complaint and document it in writing, according to Solomon. "Make sure you state in your written complaint that you believe this is a violation of Title IX," she adds.

Claudia Center, Senior Staff Attorney at the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center in San Francisco, which also represents the Alhambra athletes, agrees. "A water cooler conversation with your athletic director doesn’t work," Center says. "You don’t have to be confrontational—in fact, simply expressing your concern and asking for help usually works best. But to make sure your concern is taken seriously, put it in writing and mention Title IX."

Coaches who are not able to get relief from their school should contact an attorney, Solomon says. Since coaches do not have legal standing to sue the school over discrimination against their team, they will need to work alongside parents, who can sue on behalf of their minor children if a lawsuit becomes necessary.

One reason glaring inequities still exist at the high school level may be that coaches are afraid that speaking out about discrimination will put them at odds with their administrators, Center says. However, a case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court may provide greater assurance that if a coach makes a Title IX complaint, his or her school cannot retaliate. The plaintiff, Ensley (Ala.) girls’ basketball coach Roderick Jackson, alleges that he was fired for raising Title IX concerns. A decision is expected by June 2005.

High school Title IX compliance could also take a step forward if Senate Bill 282 is passed in Congress. The law would require high schools to collect annual data on Title IX compliance and submit reports to the federal government, as colleges are currently required to do. "At most schools, discrimination is the result of years’ worth of cumulative decisions that don’t take gender equity into account," Center says. "A law that requires high schools to examine their gender equity each year is a huge step in the right direction."

In the meantime, as the Alhambra softball players’ case goes forward, Center and Solomon are hopeful that schools across the country will take notice. "We’re hoping that schools will say, ‘We don’t want to end up in court, so we’re going to examine our programs and make sure we’re complying with the law," Center says. "And we’re hoping that this case will prompt more athletes and coaches to speak up if they see inequities."