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We Have No Idea How Many High Schools Are Failing Title IX Athletics

Photo: Mark Wilson (Getty)

No one is keeping tabs on the high schools. Title IX, passed in 1972, guarantees that all institutions that receive federal funding must provide equal opportunities, facilities, and supplies to students regardless of their gender. In athletics, that means that for every position on a team available to a boy, there must be a position for a girl. Since the passage of Title IX, girls’ participation in varsity high school sports has increased tenfold, to almost 3 million players.

Last week, I published a story about a group of high school girls fighting to get their schools to include football for them. The school district they are fighting (Jordan School District in Salt Lake City, Utah) failed the first two prongs of Title IX. They did not have the same number of athletic opportunities for girls, and they had no historic pattern of attempting to create new opportunities for girls. Whether these girls win their lawsuit will be decided based on whether or not a judge determines that girls in the school district desire more athletic opportunities.

When I looked at the data for their school district and the historic data for public school sports played in Utah at large, though, it became clear that this isn’t a new problem. There have been fewer opportunities for girls to play sports in this school district since it was founded. So how did it get away with it for so long?

I spoke with a half dozen lawyers who specialize in Title IX law and have worked on cases at the high school level, and all of them said the same thing: it is a safe bet to say that most high schools in the United States are providing more athletic opportunities to boys than to girls.

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There is no accurate count of how many high schools are not compliant with Title IX. Unlike at the college level, where data is kept by the NCAA, there is no centralized group paying attention to high schools. (The High School Sports Information Collection Act, which would have gathered this data, never made it past the Senate floor after being introduced in 2009.) On top of that, even if there were, there are so many high schools in America that it would be difficult to gather all the necessary data. According to data provided by the Women’s Sports Foundation, 3,415,297 girls played high school sports in the 2017-2018 school year. They made up 42.8 percent of participants. That means girls are provided with 1.15 million fewer opportunities to play sports at the high school level.

So why do so many high schools still fail Title IX in athletics?

“The first problem with Title IX [compliance] is that too many people don’t really understand what the law says,” Sarah Axelson, Senior Director of Advocacy at the Women’s Sports Foundation, says. “Every school is supposed to have a Title IX coordinator, but too often they’ve been taught incorrectly. No one is teaching these schools the intricacies of the law.”

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Because Title IX also encompasses sexual harassment and assault allegations, Title IX coordinators are (perhaps correctly) focusing on that aspect of the law more intently. But structural inequalities in girls athletics still matter.

Many Title IX coordinators, including three I spoke to in the past month, did not understand some of the basic tenets of Title IX law. In reporting about the Utah girls’ football league, a Title IX coordinator was deposed. He said that because the number of sports (10 for boys and 10 for girls) was equal, the school was in compliance. That is not how Title IX compliance works. There have to be an equal number of athletic positions available.

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It’s not just the sheer number of athletic opportunities that decides whether a high school is Title IX compliant. Everything has to be equal: locker rooms, play facilities, fan opportunity, and provided gear. That means if a high school boys team has better jerseys, or a better weight room, or fancier soap in their locker room, or fields closer to the school, or nicer playing surfaces, or even better nights to play on than the girls teams, that high school is not in compliance with Title IX.

“As a 14- or 15-year-old girl, you know enough to know when something is unfair,” Axelson says. “But girls see a little bit of discrimination throughout all aspects of [their] lives. [They] don’t know [they] should tell someone about this.”

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In her book Getting in the Game: Title IX and the Women’s Sports Revolution, Deborah L. Brake describes one case in Florida in which a judge ruled in favor of the girls softball program because of inequalities in “electronic score boards, batting cages, bleachers, signs, equal bathroom facilities, concession stands, press box, announcer’s booth, and lighting on the field.” Any inequality is enough for a school to fail Title IX.

That’s the second problem with Title IX: its enforcement relies on reports by individuals. The onus in these cases is on the person who is discriminated against to understand the law, understand the situation, understand the recourse, take action, and report it. A girl who sees—for example—that her softball field is never mowed and the dirt is full of rocks while the boys baseball field is kept in immaculate condition is seeing a lack of compliance with Title IX, but to solve the problem, she would have to report it herself.

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But that onus on the individual means that many cases (especially at the high school level) are never reported. As a freshman, are you going to risk your chances at making a varsity team by creating a stir over unequal weight rooms? As a senior, you already have one foot out the door.

What you can do if you see something at your high school:

1. Report it internally

The easiest way to get an inequality fixed is to report it to the school or school district in the hopes that they can just solve it themselves. The Women’s Sports Foundation offers to help guide students with complaints through the process if you need help.

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2. Report it to the government

Technically, there is a governmental department within the Office of Civil Rights that looks into non-compliance cases in Title IX. The department, many lawyers told Deadspin, is understaffed, and often takes years to get to a case. It is also unlikely to take up cases of minutia. You can report your school here.

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3. Take them to court

If your school is not taking your Title IX complaint seriously, you may have a legal case. Lawsuits require time and money, but if you can swing it, winning one can create mandated, enforceable change.

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4. Talk to a reporter

If you can’t afford a lawsuit and your school hasn’t responded to your complaint, it might help to get some public awareness of the problem. If your or your child’s high school has unequal play opportunities or unequal facilities and support for girls, you can contact me at kmckinney@deadspin.com.

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About the author

Kelsey McKinney

Kelsey McKinney is a staff writer for Deadspin.