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Published in Print: October 13, 1999, as Fla. Trying To Court Girls for Sports

Fla. Trying To Court Girls for Sports

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The Plant City High School Raiders were pretty much on a roll last year. The school's fast and husky football team made the state playoffs. A nationally ranked female basketball star grabbed the state high-jump title. A varsity cheerleader was named the 1999 Florida Strawberry Queen.

Throughout the academic year, the school community always had another victory to celebrate. And, especially with the national spotlight shining on violent and troubled schools, it was a year that Plant City students and administrators could be proud of.

So when word got out that this 2,500-student high school just outside Tampa was one of three in the county whose sports programs had been singled out by the state for sex discrimination, people here were stunned.

Administrators couldn't fathom how a sports-crazy school that they thought was equally full of male and female athletes could have been flagged for inequities--even in a state considered to have one of the stiffest gender-equity laws. Plant City was cited for having a larger proportion of boys than girls playing junior-varsity sports.

"I was really surprised," Rudolfo Arnao, the assistant principal in charge of athletics, said this fall. "We have learned over the years to be fair to all sports here. There are no barriers [for girls]. Everything's provided equally," he said, gesturing toward an enormous bag of new volleyballs for the girls' team that nearly filled his cramped office. "It's frustrating."

Mr. Arnao and his school have plenty of company.

Plant City High School was among 88 of Florida's 389 high schools cited this past school year by the state education department for not having the same athletic opportunities available to girls and boys.

The designation has forced the schools to take a hard look at virtually every aspect of their sports programs; schools singled out for inequities have had to come up with a wide range of plans to bring about balance. And the policy has also left some administrators wondering if they can ever achieve parity as defined by Florida.

Some schools are adding an array of new--and somewhat controversial--girls' sports to their rosters: flag football, bowling, competitive weight lifting, and rhythmic gymnastics. Others are scouring their corridors and classrooms for prospective female athletes who may need extra prodding to turn out for sports.

Still others are working to change their school sports cultures so that boys' sports don't take center stage. They're scheduling more night games for girls, for example, and celebrating girls' sports in pep rallies and assemblies.

Some evidence suggests their efforts are paying off. Slowly, officials here say, schools are transforming what traditionally has been a male-dominated sports scene. But, they caution, schools still have a long way to go before every sports program treats girls and boys equally.

"Schools have made some enormous strides, [but] there's a lot of work to be done," said Nancy Benda, the director of the Florida education department's equal-educational-opportunity program, which oversees efforts to bring public schools into compliance with the law.

Forced Participation?

At issue in Florida is the state's Educational Equity Act--a 16-year-old companion to the 1972 federal Title IX law on sex discrimination in education--that mandates gender equality in academics and sports in schools. Florida is one of only a handful of states--Alaska, Minnesota, and Washington state are among them--that monitor K-12 sports for gender equity.

Under the state law, which was amended in 1993 to require monitoring of high school athletics, a school is required to have a ratio of male and female athletes that falls within 5 percentage points of its total enrollment. If 50 percent of a school's students are female, for example, at least 45 percent of its athletic program must be made up of girls.

The Florida law also mandates that boys' and girls' sports be equal in the amount of money spent on equipment and coaches; the quality of dressing, practice, and playing facilities; and the level of publicity. School officials are required to submit annual, detailed assessments of their programs to the state; if the numbers don't add up in a particular category, the law requires state officials to take action.

If compliance continues to be a problem despite state intervention, the state can withhold school funding. So far, the state hasn't carried out that threat.

After three of its high schools, including Plant City, were flagged for noncompliance last year, officials of the 155,000-student Hillsborough County district were ordered to present a plan to increase female participation to state Commissioner of Education Tom Gallagher. The commissioner decides, on a case-by-case basis, the length of time a school gets to comply.

The state approved the district's plan, and Hillsborough officials are confident today that they're on the right track.

"Principals and athletic directors have reached an understanding that we've got to increase girls' opportunity to participate, and we've been working hard at it," said Richard M. Martinez, the district's director of employee relations, who also administers Title IX compliance. While adding new girls' sports to the roster is relatively easy, he said, persuading teenage girls who have not grown up playing sports to get physical is anything but.

"You can't force participation," Mr. Martinez said.

According to district Athletic Director Wayne Williamson, who has overseen sports for the system for 30 years, coaches and physical education teachers have been instructed to search their schools for potential female athletes who may need extra encouragement to go out for a team. And schools have added varsity flag football--similar to touch football--this year and plan to add junior-varsity teams next year.

The Hillsborough County district is also hoping the state will soon bend to pressure to consider cheerleading an official sport. It is currently categorized as a "support activity." Like football, Hillsborough cheerleading, which includes advanced tumbling and choreography, is hugely popular at most Florida high schools. Mr. Williamson said that if the activity, also known as "rhythmic aerobics," were counted as a sport, Hillsborough would have no problem meeting state gender-equity requirements.

"We consider [cheerleading] a competitive sport," Mr. Williamson said. "They train. There are competitions and championships. And it's popular: Hundreds come out."

Other Activities

Nearby Pinellas County, whose 110,000-student district includes St. Petersburg, had the highest number of high schools in violation of the state's Title IX law last school year: Ten of its 18 were cited for problems. Administrators say they also have some problems understanding exactly how to generate interest, and they, too, believe cheerleading should be counted as an official sport.

"I feel like we've been singled out unfairly. This county has never discriminated against either sex in athletics," said Robert Hosack, the district's director of student activities. "And we're doing more than ever" to get girls involved, he said.

He pointed out that the district has beefed up its girls' sports program over the past two years. Competitive varsity and junior-varsity flag football for girls and junior-varsity girls' volleyball have been added to the roster this year; junior-varsity girls' soccer will be added next year.

Mr. Hosack said he and other school officials recently met with dozens of female student leaders to "get a sense of why participation isn't there" even when opportunity is. After those meetings, he concluded that girls had reasons unrelated to discrimination for eschewing school sports, such as being involved in the yearbook, the newspaper, and student government--activities which, he said, tend to be dominated by girls--or having jobs that kept them busy after school.

And, as in Hillsborough County, he said, Pinellas officials would like to see the state count cheerleading as a sport.

"Nowadays, [cheerleading] is actually an athletic activity," said Pinellas Superintendent J. Howard Hinesley, who was recently elected the president of the Florida High School Activities Association, the body that governs the interscholastic sports. "There are pyramids. There's jogging. It's a seriously competitive activity."

Build and They Will Come

But the state, which adopted federal guidelines when it passed its gender-equity law in 1984, considers cheerleading a support activity. "It's ornamental and more typically supportive of male sports," said Ms. Benda of the state's equal-educational-opportunity program.

She also has a hard time sympathizing with administrators who grumble that they can't drum up interest in traditional competitive sports.

"If you add a team with a good, enthusiastic coach, good facilities, and good publicity, [and] if you show that you really mean business, girls will come out," she said. "We looked all over the state, and we never found a school that did all of that and still had problems with turnout."

Parents who believe their athlete-daughters have been shortchanged agree. They complain that the quality of some girls' school sports programs is so poor that it's amazing any players participate at all.

"I was doing battle for well over a year," said William Mullen, the father of a junior olympics softball player at Pinellas County's Tarpon Springs High School. His repeated requests for the district to clean up a softball field went unaddressed for more than a year, he said. "We came to get used to disappointment."

The site in question, a shabby practice field at Tarpon Springs High, was often flooded and was pitted with dangerous rocks and nooks. In contrast, the adjacent boys' baseball field is well-maintained and includes covered dugouts, lights, a scoreboard, and concession stand. The softball team has to travel to a local recreation field for games.

Mr. Mullen eventually filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights.

Superintendent Hinesley, says the Tarpon Springs OCR complaint was "a misunderstanding," and that building a new girls' softball field has been part of the district's renovation plan all along.

But the new field won't be completed until next year, when Mr. Mullen's softball-playing daughter will be a freshman in college.

In the meantime, Mr. Mullen observes, hundreds of girls will miss the opportunity to practice and play on a decent home field.

"But the boys' field," he said, "is gorgeous."

Vol. 19, Issue 7, Pages 1,16-17

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