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Published in Print: April 11, 2007, as Justices Turn Down Case On Mich. Sports Seasons

Justices Turn Down Case on Mich. Sports Seasons

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The U.S. Supreme Court declined last week to hear the appeal of Michigan’s high school sports governing body in a case alleging discrimination by the group against girls in the scheduling of athletic seasons.

The court’s unanimous action on April 2 was not a ruling on the merits of the lawsuit, but it was the final buzzer in a legal contest that lasted nine years. The victor was a private group that argued in court documents that the Michigan High School Athletic Association “put the boys in the seasons that they and their coaches wanted and gave the girls the leftovers.”

Communities for Equity is a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based group that sued the MHSAA in 1998 for itself and on behalf of several parents and female high school athletes. The group argued in the suit that girls’ sports were held in seasons that were either nontraditional or otherwise disadvantageous, had shorter seasons than boys’ sports, and were sometimes assigned inferior facilities.

The group and the MHSAA entered into a consent decree on all issues except for the question of seasons. The advocates for girls’ sports argued, for example, that because Michigan girls played basketball in the fall instead of the traditional winter season, girls were at a disadvantage in being recruited for college.

A U.S. District Court judge in Kalamazoo, Mich., ruled for Communities for Equity in 2001, concluding that the unequal treatment of girls’ sports violated the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment, as well as a state civil rights law and Title IX of the federal Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination based on sex in federally funded educational programs.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, affirmed the district court’s decision in 2004. But the next year, the Supreme Court tossed out the appellate ruling and ordered the 6th Circuit court to re-examine the case in light of a recent high court ruling about a broad federal civil rights statute. The justices essentially asked the 6th Circuit to consider whether plaintiffs in school-related sex-discrimination cases could assert claims under the U.S. Constitution as well as Title IX.

Taking a fresh look at the case, the 6th Circuit court ruled last year that the existence of a Title IX claim didn’t prevent the plaintiffs from raising constitutional claims, as well. The MHSAA appealed that ruling to the high court in Michigan High School Athletic Association v. Communities for Equity (Case No. 06-1038), but the justices declined without comment to review it.

Changes Start in Fall

John E. Roberts, the executive director of the MHSAA, acknowledged that the association’s defense of its sports schedule had reached the end of the line.

Girls’ Sports in Michigan

The U.S. Supreme Court last week declined to review lower-court rulings that held that the Michigan High School Athletic Association discriminated against girls in the scheduling of high school sports seasons. The sports at issue were:

Michigan girls play in the fall instead of the traditional winter season, which is when the state’s boys play. A federal district court said this meant missed opportunities to participate in “shootout” events and on “March Madness” tournament excitement that prevails in high school and college basketball at that time.

Girls in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula play in the spring; boys in the fall. The court found this disadvantageous for girls because courses are in poor condition in the spring and girls face more competition with the public for tee times then.

Girls play in the spring; boys in the fall. While the district court acknowledged that 22 states schedule girls’ soccer in the spring, it ruled that Michigan girls were disadvantaged because fields are sometimes frozen at the beginning of the spring season, and the girls may have less exposure to college recruiters then.

The Lower Peninsula girls’ season is in the fall; the boys’ season is in winter. The district court said this is a disadvantage because there is a long gap between the girls’ school season and national and amateur swim meets held in the spring.

Girls play in fall; boys in spring. The fall season is 20 days shorter and thus disadvantageous, the district court said.

The sport is not offered to Michigan high school boys, but despite a shortage of winter sports for girls, the district court said offering girls’ volleyball in the winter instead of fall put Michigan girls at a disadvantage in comparison with girls in other states, where the sport is typically played in fall.

“It’s unfortunate at any time, much less at a time of such severe financial stress on our state and our school districts, that Michigan’s most efficient, fair, and proactive system for utilizing community resources must now be changed,” he said in a video from an April 2 news conference posted on the association’s Web site.

Beginning with the 2007-08 school year, the association will adjust seasons as ordered by the district court. Among the changes, girls’ basketball will move from fall to winter, and volleyball will move from winter to fall. Boys’ golf and girls’ tennis in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula will move from fall to spring, while girls’ golf and boys’ tennis in the Lower Peninsula will go from spring to fall.

“The court-ordered change means that thousands of boys and girls who had been planning on playing one combination of sports in high school will now find that combination impossible,” Mr. Roberts said.

But the lengthy court battle left an apt lesson, he said.

“You must accept the final result with grace,” Mr. Roberts said. “Accepting the result gracefully is what we expect of our student-athletes, and it is what we expect of ourselves now.”

Neena K. Chaudry, a lawyer with the National Women’s Law Center, in Washington, represented Communities for Equity and the parents and female athletes in the case. She said she hoped its conclusion “encourages schools to take a look at their own programs and make sure they are providing equal opportunities.”

“If they are approached by parents with complaints,” Ms. Chaudry said, “they should address them and correct them instead of fighting them in court for a decade.”

Vol. 26, Issue 32, Page 27

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