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Iowa Girls' Athletic Union Sued Over 'Six-on-Six' Basketball Rules

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When Lisa Becker first considered playing intercollegiate basketball, the thought did not occur to her that she might have a better chance for a scholarship if she played the sport a state other than Iowa.

Iowa is one of two states in the country--Oklahoma is the other--where girls' high-school basketball is played with six players on each team. It is also a state that produces some of the top prospects for women's college basketball, and a state where the major girls' basketball tournament grosses four times as much money as those of neighboring states.

But early this month, an organization representing three girls sued the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, charging that the so-called "six-on-six'' rules violate the equal-protection clause of U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment.

According to the lawyer for Five-On-Five Inc., the nonprofit citizens' group that has pressed for changes in the rules, six-on-six basketball is discriminatory because it reduces the chances for girls to receive college scholarships, take part in interstate competition, and receive coaching in all aspects of the game.

Under the rules, three players are forwards who never play defense and three players are guards who never play offense. Players are not permitted to dribble more than twice each time they handle the ball, or to stray beyond the middle of the court.

But Ms. Becker, who last week enrolled at the University of Iowa under an athletic scholarship, contends that the rules do not restrict girls' opportunities.

"Fundamentally, basketball is the same," said the young woman, a forward who averaged 58 points a game last year at Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids. "Six-on-six gives more kids the opportunity to play, which is what high-school sports is for. It's like an Iowa trademark."

More Exciting Basketball

She and others also say that six-on-six is a more exciting brand of basketball. Because of the two-dribble rule, players never hold the ball long. "There's a lot of passing and I think it livens the game up,'' said Robert Liddy, the athletic director for the Davenport Community School District.

Their defense of the Iowa rules appears to be borne out further by statistics. According to Mr. Liddy, 182 Iowawomen were playing college basketball nationally last year. The number of Iowa men in college competition was 149.

Last year's state tournament for girls' basketball, held in Cedar Rapids, grossed $450,000. The state with the next-highest "gate," said Mr. Liddy, was Illinois--with $110,000. He said the figures have been about the same for years.

But Mark Bennett--the lawyer for Joleen Enslow of Indianola, Shauna Russell of Lamoni, and Kari Wolff of Des Moines, all 12 to 14 years old--said the sport would be even more successful with five-on-five rules.

The history of girls' basketball in Iowa tells more about its apparent success than the six-on-six rules, Mr. Bennett said. The state has offered basketball programs longer and in more high schools than all but a few other states, he said. That and generous funding--not the excitement of a the six-on-six rules--have been responsible for attracting the interest of potential players and coaches.

Assertions that scholarship opportunities are plentiful "are probably true for forwards," Mr. Bennett said. "But you should also ask how many guards receive scholarships. My question would be: How many more would there be without the six-on-six rules?"

Although Mr. Bennett said he has no way of knowing the answer to that question, he said "several" top college coaches have told him that they recruit little in Iowa because of the six-on-six rules. He declined to name the coaches.

Mr. Bennett also argues that the rules would violate the 14th Amendment even if they did not put female athletes at a disadvantage--simply because they differ from the rules for boys' basketball. This issue, he said, is "simply equal protection."

Surveys showing that most schools favor six-on-six basketball do not have any bearing on the case, Mr. Bennett said. "The notion that popular votes outweigh constitutional rights is ludicrous," he said. "I don't care if 100 percent of the [school administrators] say they like it."

The controversy over the rules--instituted in 1898, according to a state athletic-union official--is not new. Some administrators and parents--especially on the state's borders, where interstate competition is frequent in other high-school sports--have sought a change for years.

"There's always a few people in Iowa who have been trying to change the rule," said John McClintock, the lawyer for the athletic union.

According to a survey commissioned this summer by the group, 98 percent of the high-school administrators and coaches from Class 2-A schools, which have fewer than 225 students, favor the six-on-six rules. Sixty-six percent of the administrators from the larger Class 1-A schools favor the rules.

In general, officials say, most people are content with the rules but would not fight to keep them if most other schools in the state switched to five-on-five.

Legal History

The legal history of the six-on-six rules is mixed.

The Iowa Civil Rights Commission in 1980 rejected a complaint that included a proposal for a rule change, and found lacking the argument that girls were deprived of scholarship opportunities because of the rules.

In a 1978 opinion, then-Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph A. Califano said Title IX does not require schools to offer identical versions of a sport to both boys and girls.

"Whether a school has six-player, half-court basketball is entirely up to it, if its overall athletic program is nondiscriminatory," Mr. Califano said.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in 1977 overturned a lower court's ban of similar rules in Tennessee, asserting that "distinct differences in physical characteristics and capabilities between the sexes" justified them.

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma upheld six-on-six rules in Oklahoma, but the District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas found the rules unconstitutional in Arkansas.

Since those decisions, Tennessee and Arkansas both have adopted five-on-five competition.

Whether the state organization keeps the six-on-six rules or drops them because of a court order or an internal decision, most people involved with the sport consider six-on-six to be part of Iowa's heritage.

In many states, the fans' interest in girls' basketball is so low that girls' games are scheduled before boys' games--so that spectators do not leave the gymnasium just prior to the girls' game.

"But here, if they have a real hot girls' team and a mediocre boys' team, they'll play the boys first," said Mr. Liddy. "It [girls' basketball] is just real popular." And the six-on-six rule, he said, is at least partly responsible.

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