Do girls have access to team sports? Many California schools aren’t telling, despite law

July 12, 2017
Two girls holding lacrosse sticks.

Lacrosse came to Avonna Usher, a 16-year-old junior at Granite Bay High School northeast of Sacramento, the way sports come to many young athletes — at school. The pure pleasure of hurling a 40-yard pass has driven her to attack her learning disability, improve her grades and win a verbal commitment to play lacrosse for the University of Oregon Ducks.

But a new study finds that many California schools aren’t reporting their data, as required by a recent state law, to show that girls are getting the same shot at team sports as boys.

“Many are just ignoring the law altogether,” said Kim Turner, a senior staff attorney at the nonprofit Legal Aid at Work, which runs the Fair Play for Girls in Sports Project and produced the study. The law, Senate Bill 1349 by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, is a data disclosure statute. It’s meant to force K-12 schools to tell the story, through data, of how they are serving girl athletes, a cohort historically relegated to worn-out fields, undesirable practice schedules and meager sports options compared to boy athletes.

Without the data, it’s tough to tell if schools are complying with the 1972 federal Title IX law and the California Education Code, which require equal sports opportunities for girls and boys in federally funded K-12 schools. Title IX applies to athletics in colleges and universities as well.

“To be a girl and woman and showing the world I can do this, it’s good,” said Avonna Usher, a junior at Granite Bay High School who has a verbal commitment to play lacrosse for the University of Oregon.

Fewer than half of the high schools surveyed by the Fair Play for Girls in Sports Project have posted their sports participation numbers on their school or district websites, as the law requires them to do every year, the study found. The first deadline was June 30, 2016 for 2015-16 interscholastic sports team participation; data for the 2016-17 school year were to be posted by June 30 of this year.

The data that were posted, the study found, indicated a six-point gap between the percentage of girls enrolled in schools and the percentage of school athletes that are girls. “Girls across California are getting far fewer chances than boys to play sports, despite accounting for approximately half of students, and despite studies that show that girls are equally interested in sports in comparison with boys,” the study said.

The study surveyed 107 California high schools, randomly selected, and found that 48 percent had posted the required three elements of data: the number of girl and boy team athletes, the number of teams offered to girls and boys, and total enrollment of girls and boys. From that information, parents and students could calculate whether the percentage of girls and boys on sports teams is proportional to their enrollment, as required by Title IX. The Fair Play for Girls in Sports Project has posted an online tool for users to enter school data and calculate whether there is a gap in sports participation rates by gender.

The schools that posted data had the same demographics as the schools that did not post data — about 54 percent of students were eligible for free and reduced price meals based on low family income, and about 70 percent of those enrolled were students of color. “Inequities in sports for girls in California — and failure to post data that could shed a light on the issue — seem to cross all racial and socioeconomic lines,” the study said. The study did not list the names of the schools.

No research has found that girls are less interested in competitive athletic teams than boys, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation, a nonprofit founded by tennis great Billie Jean King. Obstacles include a lack of teams and, more subtly, the sense that girls’ sports teams don’t matter as much as boys’ teams, according to the foundation. At a forum with new Oakland Unified Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell last month, Jayda Hicks, a 16-year-old Oakland High student who plays first base on the softball team, said school leaders “don’t take the girls’ sports teams seriously.”

Jayda added, “We don’t get as much recognition as the boys do.” And school leaders, she said, don’t pay attention to the way slighting the girls’ teams deflates the players. “They don’t notice how that affects us,” she said. “That can affect our daily lives and it can affect our performance in schools.”

At Granite Bay High, part of the Roseville Joint Union High School District, Avonna said boys’ teams are held in higher esteem by school staff. Administrators show up to cheer on the male athletes, she said, but the only fans at girls’ lacrosse games are parents of the players. “The only time the principal comes is when we’re in the semi championships, and that’s because it’s required,” she said.

Before Title IX passed in 1972, fewer than 300,000 girls played high school sports across the nation. In 2012, more than 3.2 million girls played on high school teams, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. But girls are still underrepresented in school athletics. Schools have three ways to prove they are serving girl athletes: provide data that show gender representation on teams is proportionate to overall enrollment, prove they are moving toward that goal or prove through a school survey that girls are not interested in playing on a sports team.

In California, a court ruling and the data-disclosure law are pressing schools to do more. In 2014, the Ninth Circuit District Court upheld a lower court ruling that the Sweetwater Union High School District had “not fully and effectively accommodated the interests and abilities of female athletes” and was out of compliance with Title IX. Veronica Ollier, a member of the softball team, was the lead plaintiff in a class action suit that charged that the district gave girls’ teams subpar playing fields, facilities, schedules and transportation vehicles compared to the boys’ teams. In addition, the suit charged the district with retaliating against the girls who complained by firing the softball coach. The court agreed with those charges.

The new data-disclosure law could provoke additional lawsuits. On the collegiate athletic level, Title IX lawsuits surged after 1994, when colleges were required to publicly disclose sports participation by gender, similar to the requirements of the California law, said Michael Smith, a partner at the Lorenzo Smith law firm that represents many California school districts. Smith declined to be interviewed, but in a video presentation on Senate Bill 1349 he said, “That’s the kind of scenario we could be facing after the full implementation of SB 1349 here in California.”

He urged districts: “Let’s look comprehensively at our sports programs and decide whether or not we are providing equity at both the female and the male athletic competition levels.” He added, “Let’s in fact achieve sports equity in all of our California school districts.”

Girls who play team sports are more likely to have better grades in school, higher levels of self-confidence and earn more money in future employment than non-athletes, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation.

In Granite Bay, Avonna said sports are a way to counteract the cultural put-down of women.

“We are already degraded as women,” she said. “It’s usually a guy thing — they go out and play sports. To be a girl and woman and showing the world I can do this, it’s good.”

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