Michigan Trial Key Test for Girls' Sports

A Michigan mother's lawsuit claims the state's nontraditional seasons for girls' high school sports keep them out of interstate competition, exclude them from national championships and limit their chances to land scholarships or play college sports.

Girl basketball player

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOMENSENEWS)-A trial is underway in this small city's federal courthouse that may lead to a dramatic shift in the attention given to sports equity in high schools.

At issue is the fairness in scheduling girls' sports seasons and games.

Relying on the federal law that requires public educational institutions to provide equal access to education and related activities, including sports, a group of parents here, known as Communities for Equity, sued the state athletic association that manages high school sports tournaments. They claim the association is discriminating against female high school athletes by scheduling their seasons out of sync with the vast majority of other states.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association, representing 750 high schools, argues that it is not subject to the requirements of the federal education equity law, known as Title IX, because it is a private, nonprofit corporation and does not receive federal funding. It also argues that the sports seasons are determined at the local level and that the association is not responsible for changing Michigan's schedule to conform to that of the rest of the country.

Until now, most of the enforcement of Title IX has been on college and university campuses. Now, high schools are in the spotlight, and the outcome of the trial could have implications well beyond the borders of Michigan.

In Atlanta, Anne Harper, a school board member instrumental in a successful effort to have Title IX implementation written into Georgia's state laws and founder of the Coalition for Gender Equity in Sports, said it is common for state associations to “hide” from Title IX responsibilities.

“The most important thing that could come out of winning the suit is it would send a message to these athletic associations that they have to clean up their act,” said Harper.

State Athletic Associations Have Tried to Duck Responsibility for Equity

“For years they've said, ‘It's not our problem, we're not responsible for implementing Title IX,' and they've tried to push it onto local school boards. These athletic associations have to recognize that the state department of education has essentially delegated to them this responsibility of making sure there is equity.”

Federal Judge Richard A. Enslen is hearing arguments in the bench trial expected to end next week. He will rule later.

Throughout the week, lawyers for the plaintiffs called witnesses, including coaches, parents, former athletes and Title IX expert witness Donna Lopiano, executive director of the New York-based Women's Sports Foundation.

The suit began at a very ordinary occasion on a very ordinary night. In 1994, a Michigan high school chemistry teacher took her three pre-teen daughters to a girls high school basketball game, and one asked her mother where were the cheerleaders-a fixture at boys' games.

In an instant, Diane Madsen, the teacher, realized when her daughters reached high school that they would be treated as second-class athletes. She quickly began to work to change what she saw as an institutional inequity. Eventually, she and other parents sued the Michigan High School Athletic Association, the organization that operates the statewide tournaments for high school sports.

The key issue at the trial is whether the state's out-of-sync schedule for high school female sports puts girls at a disadvantage when it comes to college recruitment and national attention.

The National Women's Law Center, co-counsel on the case, reports that three states, Michigan, Hawaii and Rhode Island, still schedule girls' basketball and volleyball in off seasons. The high school athletic associations in West Virginia, Virginia, Montana, Arizona and South Dakota changed their athletic seasons after being sued. Alaska and North Dakota changed their seasons voluntarily.

In Michigan, for instance, boys play basketball in the winter and hold many games on Friday nights. However, Michigan girls' basketball is a fall sport, and games are held on Thursday nights to accommodate boys' football, which plays on Friday. Plaintiffs argued that it was more inconvenient for girls than for boys and that few if any college recruiters went around to see the girls during their out-of-sync seasons, and girls lost chances for sports scholarships.

In Scheduling Girls' Seasons, Michigan Marches to Its Own Drummer

In winter, girls play volleyball, as opposed to most every other state in the country, where volleyball is or soon will be played in the fall. Other sports that are out of sync with other states' are golf, soccer, tennis and swimming.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association argues that the seasons are determined by individual school districts and that the association is not responsible for changing Michigan's schedule to fit the rest of the country.

Communities for Equity lobbied for changes in the seasons for four years before it filed suit in 1998 on behalf of their daughters and all Michigan high school girls.

In his opening statements, attorney Philip Cohan argued before Judge Richard A. Enslen that Michigan's nontraditional scheduling of girls' high school sports seasons prevents girls from participating in interstate competition, puts them at an academic disadvantage, leaves them out of national championships, and limits their opportunities to play college sports or receive scholarships.

“This is discrimination, your honor,” said Cohan, a partner with the Washington, D.C.-based Piper Marbury Rudnick and Wolfe LLP.

Cohan, Neena Chaundry of the National Women's Law Center and attorney Kristin Galles, based in Alexandria, Va., are part of the legal team representing the plaintiffs, Communities for Equity,

“This misalignment occurs to the girls,” Cohan said. “Always occurs to the girls. Never to the boys.”

Michigan Girls to Play in Nontraditional, Inferior Seasons

“We would never ask boys to play football in the spring,” said Cohan. “Why is it acceptable that Michigan high school girls play in nontraditional or inferior seasons?”

Among the most harmful effects of the scheduling, said Cohan, is that girls receive less exposure to college recruiters, who generally travel to high schools during traditional sports seasons. In addition, fall dates for athletes to apply for college scholarships take place before senior girls in Michigan even start their seasons in volleyball and soccer.

Lawyers representing the athletic association did not make opening statements, except to state that the association disagreed with the allegations of the lawsuit.

Attorney Carole Bos, representing the athletic association, later displayed a boys' soccer schedule from a Michigan high school, and noted that all boys' soccer games that season were held on Tuesdays and Thursdays. In addition, Bos said, girls' soccer games were frequently scheduled on Fridays.

“Either intentional or otherwise, there is no discrimination,” said Bos.

Madsen, the teacher and mother and co-founder of the organization that brought the lawsuit, was the trial's first witness.

Michigan Mom: Girls Sent Continuous Message of Second-Class Sports Status

Madsen testified that she first saw the inequalities in Michigan's sports programs in 1994, when she took her three grade-school daughters to a girls' high school basketball game.

“It kind of felt like a pickup game, like we'd walked into a gym class,” said Madsen, in her testimony last week. “My youngest daughter said to me, ‘Where are the cheerleaders? Where's the mascot?'” said Madsen. “And I said without thinking, ‘They don't do that for girls.' And she was quiet for about 20 seconds, and then she said, ‘Well, then I guess I'll have to be good enough to play on a boys' team.'”

Madsen said that was when she realized that girls who play sports in Michigan are sent “a continuous message of second-class citizen status.”

“I don't want my daughters to think I'm going to expect less and society is going to expect less of them because they are girls,” testified Madsen, her voice breaking slightly with emotion. “As an educator and as a mother, I could not sit back and watch that happen.”

After that game, Madsen and other parents started Communities for Equity and began a letter-writing campaign to their local schools, asking for changes. Some of their requests, like a girls' locker room, were granted. But according to Madsen and several others who testified, most of their letters were ignored, and most of their questions were left unanswered.

State and School Officials Refuse to Conform Seasons

When they asked schools about changing the seasons, she said, they were told to talk to the athletic association. When they went there, Madsen said, the association told her that, even though the association sets the yearly state tournament schedule, sports seasons are regulated at the local level.

Madsen did not believe the state had no authority to wield.

“If you want to participate in an athletic tournament, then you set your season when they tell you to,” said Madsen. She added that if the association has the authority to set the dates for the championships at the end of the seasons, “they set the rest of the season, too.”

Connie Engel, another member of Communities for Equity, later testified, “Every individual we spoke to at the schools” told the organization's members that it was only the association that could change the dates for sports seasons.

That point is crucial to the association's defense. Its representatives have maintained that sports seasons are not under its control.

The plaintiffs' position will likely benefit from a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that state athletic associations are “state actors” subject to the same requirements as other public entities.

Madsen's daughter, Kristie, who played basketball for several years in high school, testified that she felt she was not treated the same as the boys. Kristie, now 19, said that since girls' basketball games were always on Tuesday and Thursday nights, she and her teammates had to bring their homework to the games and work in the stands during breaks.

She described her feelings of anger at her team never being included in the schoolwide “March Madness” phenomenon associated with the winter basketball season. When asked how seeing boys benefit from traditional seasons affects the self-esteem of a female athlete, Kristie said simply, “I think that hurts it.”

Allison Steele is a journalist in New York.

For more information:

National Women's Law Center:

Women's Sports Foundation:

U.S. Supreme Court decision:

Detroit News: