Playing Hardball

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Owasso, Okla.

When it comes to high school sports, the boys in Owasso, Okla., get all the breaks. Now, the girls and their parents are crying foul.

Ron Randolph is about the last person you'd expect to be fighting for women's rights. A longtime resident here, Randolph works as a firefighter in nearby Tulsa. He's got a double chin, a potbelly, a thick Okie drawl, and a nasty cigarette habit. At first glance, he seems like a typical Oklahoma good old boy. So it comes as something of a surprise to learn that Ron Randolph is accusing the Owasso Independent School District of discriminating against its female athletes, one of whom just happens to be his daughter, Mimi. "I'm not a libber by any means," he says. "But if it's right, it's right. And if it's wrong, it's wrong."

Randolph, a single father, freely admits that his newfound role as a defender of equal treatment for women is the direct result of having a 15-year-old softball-playing daughter. (He also has a 17-year-old son, Logan.) Otherwise, he says, "I wouldn't notice any of this. I would have no reason to." But Ron Randolph is a changed man. He's like a religious convert who suddenly sees the world through different eyes. And when he talks about the situation in Owasso, he can't help but do a little preaching. "To me," he says, "this is just another step in the total evolution of women, starting with 100 years ago when they couldn't vote, right on through to where they are now. This is just one more step."

It's a warm, sunny Saturday morning in April, and there's a strong wind blowing across the prairie. Randolph is showing off Owasso, which in recent years has grown from a sleepy small town to a popular bedroom community for Tulsa.

In particular, he's pointing out the difference between the boys' athletic facilities--especially the baseball diamond and the football stadium--and the girls'.

The Owasso High School baseball stadium is an immaculate field with lush green grass, aluminum stands, an electronic scoreboard, and lights for playing at night. The outfield fence is covered with advertisements from local businesses ("Hardee's," "A-1 Fence Co."). "The field cover," Randolph says, "is the same exact one that the Kansas City Royals use." The park is now empty, but it is obviously a first-rate place to play baseball. Randolph is clearly rankled by the sight of the stadium--not because he doesn't think the boys deserve such a nice facility, but because he thinks his daughter deserves the same. "I don't come here much," he says finally, shaking his head.

A short drive across the parking lot in Randolph's white Oldsmobile Royale is the boys' football stadium, which towers over the high school campus. It, too, has beautiful green turf, aluminum stands, an electronic scoreboard, and lights. Incredibly for a high school stadium, it even has an enclosed press box.

"This football stadium is two seasons old," Randolph explains. "The exact cost of it, I don't remember. It was in the millions. It's one of the top football stadiums in the state. It's been filled up one time, for the opening game, and it's probably half-full most of the time. It was a bond issue. It failed the first time, then they brought it back about a year later."

"If I pay $100 every year to this school in taxes, and $10 goes to athletics, I think $5 ought to go to my boy and $5 ought to go to my girl. To me, it's simple math."

Ron Randolph,
plaintiff seeking equality in girls' athletics

Randolph points out a low-slung building near the football stadium. "That's the football field house. It's full of weight equipment, a dressing room, and stuff for the football boys. Only boys are allowed in it. The girls are run out." Until recently, he says, only the football team and boys' soccer team could use the football field for their games. Now, however, the girls' soccer team has that privilege.

To Ron Randolph, the football stadium is the most glaring example of just how male-dominated athletics are at Owasso High School. But Oklahomans take their football very seriously. In small towns like Owasso, there's not much else to do on a Friday night in the fall but go see the high school boys tear it up on the gridiron. You just don't go around bad-mouthing football without raising some eyebrows. So Randolph wants to make one thing clear: He's not anti-football. In fact, when the Owasso Rams are playing at home, he enjoys going to the games just as much as anyone else. "Oh, it's a nice place," he concedes, "and I come to it. But I've got a boy and a girl. And if I pay $100 every year to this school in taxes, and $10 of it goes to athletics, I think $5 ought to go to my boy and $5 ought to go to my girl. To me, it's simple math."

About a mile west, across U.S. Highway 169, is a city park that is home to a nondescript ballpark with a chain-link backstop, a dirt infield, wooden bleachers, and two small dugouts. The outfield grass is dotted with dandelions. "This is where the girls' softball team plays," Randolph says, surveying the diamond. "It's not a bad place to play. We like playing next to the highway, where people can drive by and see us and say, 'Oh, let's stop and watch.' But it's not functional. When it rains, the water washes across the parking lot and onto the field. And the wind blows the dirt out of the infield and onto the parking lot." He points to the wooden bleachers, which are in dire need of a fresh coat of paint. "You can sit on those bleachers and get splinters in your butt."

During softball games, Randolph explains, he and the other parents set up a few trash cans and string up fluorescent rope around the park's perimeter, creating a makeshift boundary. This allows them to charge admission to the 50 or 60 spectators who turn out for the games. "And from that," he says, "we generate somewhere around $700 a season. But we have to buy all the dirt for the infield, and that costs about $500 a year."

Behind center field, there is an electronic scoreboard that says, "Home of the Lady Rams" and "First Bank of Owasso." It is, Randolph says, a recent addition to the park. "The school district just went out and hustled it up to shut us up. And then they put it in the wrong place. They put it dead center. And it's got real bright white lights on it. And when it's on, you can't see the ball for squat if you're standing at home plate. So in the evenings, we can't use the scoreboard."

Randolph lights up another cigarette and points to the lights overhead. "Last fall," he says, "at the final home game, there were 23 light bulbs burned out. The girls were running in and out of spotlights on the field. It was quite dangerous. So I went to the athletic director and told him about it, and his response was, 'Well, I didn't know.' Well, he should have known."

"Hell hath no fury like the parent of an athletic daughter scorned."

Ray Yasser,
law professor,
University of Tulsa

Compared with the boys' baseball park back at Owasso High, the Home of the Lady Rams is clearly substandard. It is essentially a Little League diamond that had been converted for girls' fast-pitch softball, which is played on a smaller field, and it offers few of the amenities that the baseball team enjoys at its own facility at the high school. But none of that mattered last fall, when the Lady Rams surprised everyone, including themselves, by winning the Oklahoma state championship. To Ron Randolph and his daughter, winning the softball crown was a sweet victory, made sweeter by the fact that it had been achieved with little support from the school district.

But now, Ron and Mimi Randolph are hoping for a victory of a different sort. Last February, they, along with 10 other parents and their six daughters, filed suit in U.S. District Court alleging that the Owasso Independent School District is violating Title IX--the portion of the Education Amendments of 1972 that prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funds. The class action is the first Title IX lawsuit to be filed in Oklahoma, and it is one of only a handful of such cases that have been brought at the precollegiate level.

"I guarantee you," Randolph says, "I lost a lot of sleep before I filed the lawsuit. I asked both of my kids what they thought about it. Of course, we prepared for the worst. But it has not been nothing like I expected it to be. I expected nasty phone calls, vandalism, and stuff like that, but we haven't had anything like it. Which kind of shows me that maybe there are more people on our side than I thought."

"It's a big step," says Ray Yasser, a University of Tulsa law professor who is representing the Owasso parents. "These are not at all litigious people. But they are frustrated people. And hell hath no fury like the parent of an athletic daughter scorned."

Until last fall, Ron Randolph wasn't even sure what Title IX meant. "Nobody really knew nothing about it," he says. "We didn't know that you actually had a legal course that you could take. We thought that you just sat there and griped and moaned and hoped that they would treat you right." When someone told him about a seminar being given on the topic by Ray Yasser, Randolph decided to attend. At the seminar, Yasser, the author of Torts and Sports: Legal Liability in Professional and Amateur Athletics and a noted authority on sports law, passed out a booklet published by the Women's Sports Foundation titled Playing Fair: A Guide to Title IX in High School & College Sports. "I got to looking through this book," Randolph recalls. "Well, Owasso flunked every court case that had already been settled." (The booklet contains this pertinent passage: "For a school to be in violation of Title IX, female athletes generally must receive less than male athletes. For example, a women's softball team may have to use a city field several milesaway from school.")

The class action is the first Title IX lawsuit to be filed in Oklahoma, and it is one of only a handful of such cases that have been brought at the precollegiate level.

After the seminar, Randolph explained to Yasser what was going on in Owasso. To the law professor, it seemed pretty clear that the district was not in compliance with Title IX. "But people there were nervous to get involved in litigation," he said. "And Ron still thought he could work things out with the school district. He had a list of things that he wanted changed. He wanted them to sign a contract, agreeing to do all these things. He thought that if he could convince them that they were not in compliance with Title IX, they would change things."

Back in Owasso, Randolph began organizing meetings with other parents, including Coy and Candace Brown, whose oldest daughter, Jaime, now in college, had once played on the Owasso High softball team. "Candy's a lot more aggressive than I am," Randolph says. "I'm more worried about hurting other people's feelings and stuff than Candy is. Plus, her oldest daughter had already graduated. She put up with four years of this nonsense. So Candy had an extra motivation that I hadn't been put through yet. She didn't want the same thing for her second daughter, Hayley."

Brown, an outspoken woman with frizzy blond hair and Coke-bottle glasses, says that when she and her family moved to Owasso five years ago, "I was quite unpleasantly surprised that the high school just didn't do anything for their softball girls." At the time, Jaime and her teammates played at a private park several miles outside town. "The girls had to leave the field at 6 o'clock. Plus, we had to pay for their uniforms." The boys on the baseball team, on the other hand, played their games in the early evening, and the school provided theiruniforms.

In 1994, when Jaime was a junior at the high school, her mother--unbeknown to Randolph--began learning everything she could about Title IX. "I called the office for civil rights," she recalls. "I called the Department of Education and talked with them, and, at that point, I told them, 'I'd really, really prefer going to the school board and seeing if they won't do something.' So I prepared a paper, because I tend to lose my temper sometimes. I really feel strongly about these issues." In March 1994, Brown read her paper, which outlined her grievances, to the Owasso school board.

"I told the school board that I believed that they were out of compliance with Title IX," Brown says, "and I specifically listed the things that I thought could be done better or more fairly. Ultimately, what happened is that the softball girls got new uniforms for the first time in five years, which was good. And nothing else. That was it."

Later, Brown got a letter from Dale Johnson, the district's superintendent, expressing concern about her allegations and promising that a task force would be created to look into the problem. "Well, that was the last communique I ever got," Brown says. "Nothing ever happened."

Then, last fall, Brown, too, heard about the Title IX seminar Ray Yasser was scheduled to give. She couldn't attend, but she called Yasser the next day. "He told me that he had been in touch with Ron Randolph," Brown says, "and that Ron was concerned about what was going on in Owasso. I called Ron, and things just kind of took off." When Randolph and the Browns put the word out that they wanted to talk to other dissatisfied parents, about 10 people showed up for a meeting at the Browns' house. They discussed the possibility of filing a Title IX lawsuit against the district.

Randolph, however, still thought the matter could be resolved before going to court. He arranged to meet one last time with Superintendent Johnson, the athletic director, John Scott, and two members of the school board. When that didn't go anywhere, Randolph and the other parents decided that their only option was to challenge the school district in federal court. They turned to Yasser, who offered to represent the parents in the lawsuit. (He is being assisted by Samuel Schiller, a Tulsa lawyer, and Deborah Brake, a lawyer with the National Women's Law Center in Washington.)

The parents braced themselves for a negative reaction from the citizens of Owasso. "I talked to a lawyer in New York," Brown says, "who warned me that we would have a tough time. She said, 'Get ready for it. You would not believe the ugly things that people will do.' But knock on wood, we haven't had any of that."

Brown's daughter Hayley, an exuberant 14-year-old who enters 9th grade this month, hopes to follow in her sister's footsteps and play softball for the Lady Rams. Did she have any qualms about being named a plaintiff in the lawsuit? "Not really," she says. "I was ready for everybody to start jumping in on me, but the day after it came out in the papers, so many of the kids I hang out with were like, 'Go! This is not fair.' And most of the kids I hang out with are guys. And they were all going, 'You're doing the right thing.'"

Sarah and Rebekah Parker love soccer, but they're tired of being embarrassed by their mismatched uniforms and second-rate equipment.

"Many people," Candy Brown says, "when you tell them about Title IX, they say, 'You're just trying to destroy the football and the basketball program at the high school.' But we're not asking for them to cut out other programs and just pour big bucks into the softball program. We'd like to have nice uniforms, we'd like to go to tournaments. We'd like Owasso to have a state championship more than once because most people around here think it was a fluke."

Like Ron Randolph and the Browns, the Parker family--Bobby and Sue and their daughters, Sarah and Rebekah, who play varsity soccer at Owasso High School--were upset with the district's lack of attention to girls' sports. Fed up with what they perceived as discrimination on the soccer field, the Parkers, after some soul-searching, decided to become plaintiffs in the lawsuit. They hope to see some changes, but they aren't expecting things to happen overnight, even if they win the case. "Basically, we got into this thing knowing that it probably wouldn't affect Becky and Sarah that much," says Bobby Parker, a Tulsa native who works as a signal maintainer for the Burlington Northern Railroad. "But hopefully, the children who are in the elementary schools now will grow up in a better environment."

Like Randolph, Bobby Parker doesn't come across as someone who would fight for women's rights. "I was probably just as sexist as anybody else before I had children," he says. "But after having three girls, your perspective changes. I look at the world differently." (Parker's oldest daughter is 28.) Now, he spends his free time scanning CompuServe looking for information about soccer scholarships for his daughters. "I downloaded this from my computer," he said, clutching a recent printout. "It's the NCAA ranking of schools as of Nov. 19. And these are the teams that you can contact. That's why we take soccer seriously. There's a lot of opportunity because of Title IX."

Sarah, 17, and Rebekah, 15, started playing soccer at ages 6 and 5, respectively. They love the game, but they're tired of having to put up with mismatched uniforms and second-rate equipment. When they play other teams, they can't help but feel slighted by their own school. "It's embarrassing," Sarah says. "At our home games, we all wear different colored shorts. And then the other team will come out, like Broken Arrow, with black-and-yellow sweats--club sweats--and matching windbreakers."

"We look like a bunch of ragamuffins," her mother adds.

"Most of the equipment," Bobby Parker adds, "the girls get themselves."

Since the suit was filed, the district has made a few positive changes. For one thing, the high school recently added a junior varsity girls' soccer team, and it bought new goal nets and leather balls. "We used to have these ancient plastic balls," Sarah said. Also, the girls are now allowed to play their home games on the football field.

The Parkers welcome these changes, but what they really hope to do is change the school culture at Owasso. "The football team is the center of the school," Sarah says. "Absolutely. Everything is centered around it."

"That's the way it's always been in small-town America," her mother, who is originally from England, says. "But we feel that there are so many other sports that aren't being recognized."

Bobby Parker notes that when his daughters were young, they wanted to be cheerleaders. "We were really against that," he says. "We saw it as a sort of a secondary activity. I always explained to them, even when they were little, 'Wouldn't you rather do it than watch somebody else do it?' And that's my big thing--for girls to have the opportunity to play for their school, and all the rewards that come from that."

The 28-page complaint filed by Randolph and the other parents names three individual defendants: Superintendent Dale Johnson, Owasso High School Principal Rick Dossett, and athletic director John Scott. The suit alleges that the district officials have "intentionally violated Title IX by knowingly and deliberately discriminating against female students, including the daughters of plaintiffs, by, among other things, failing to provide female athletes at Owasso with the same treatment and benefits which are comparable overall to the treatment and benefits provided to male athletes." Softball, it turns out, is only part of the story.

"A lawsuit won't get it done. It just alienates people. I just hope it doesn't cause problems among the kids."

Rick Dossett,
Owasso High School

The male athletes, the parents allege, have newer equipment than the girls. The boys have better uniforms. The boys get better playing times for their games. The boys practice during their 6th-hour period, for credit. The girls' teams have fewer coaches and more players per coach than the boys' teams. The girls' coaches are selected "with less care and attention" than the boys' coaches, and, as a result, they often have less expertise. The district "consistently provides less publicity" for its female athletic teams than for its male teams. The boys have better access to medical and training facilities. The district spent a "large sum of money" to build the new football stadium but has not spent any comparable sum of money to build or renovate any of the girls' facilities. The district built a "high quality" baseball stadium yet has refused to provide any comparable girls' softball facility, even though land is available on campus. The defendants have refused to endorse girls' volleyball as an interscholastic sport at the school, "despite the requests of parents and students." And so on.

What the parents want is parity. In the words of the complaint, they want the 5,600-student district to "provide the girls' athletic teams at Owasso with equal treatment and benefits as Owasso already provides to its boys' athletic teams." The parents want to be compensated for the money they have had to spend on equipment and supplies for their daughters, and they are asking for damages associated with their daughters' "reduced opportunities to obtain college athletic scholarships" and for the "emotional distress" caused by the district's discriminatory practices. As is customary in such cases, the school district must pay the plaintiffs' lawyers' fees if they lose in court.

On the advice of their lawyer, Karen Long, the defendants aren't talking about the lawsuit. However, in April, they filed court papers denying all of the parents' allegations. According to those documents, the Owasso school district has "worked and continues to work toward effective accommodation of the interests of female students."

Naturally, when the lawsuit was announced in February, it was big news in Owasso. The Owasso Reporter, a weekly newspaper whose motto is "Local News About People You Know," played the story on page one. The article quoted Principal Dossett as saying, "A lawsuit won't get it done. It just alienates people. I just hope it doesn't cause problems among the kids."

Meanwhile, the paper denounced the lawsuit on the editorial page: "Such actions draw lines. Students, teachers, adults naturally get on one side or the other. At a time [when] we need to be coming together, [this] is no time to be torn apart if another way could be found to settle a grievance. ... As best we can determine, this is a dispute between one segment of the community which has demanded certain things and will not be satisfied until it has everything it wants. ... Comparing girls' sports is often like comparing oranges with apples." The newspaper seemed embarrassed by the dispute. "This is the first suit under Title IX in Oklahoma," the editorial pointed out, "so Owasso will have the notoriety of having that distinction, and everyone will be looking at us to see the outcome."

"The community is largely not too thrilled with it," Peggy Robinson, the paper's news editor, says of the lawsuit. "It's going to cost a lot of money. And we're a pretty conservative town. I'm sure they have some legitimate complaints, but it could have been worked out differently. People here take a dim view of frivolous lawsuits. I wouldn't call it frivolous, but it's just kind of a blow to the community. The feeling here is, 'We don't need that.'"

Ron Randolph wasn't at all surprised at the Reporter's reaction to the lawsuit. In fact, as he sees it, the newspaper is part of the problem. "The boys get better coverage than the girls," he says. He admits that the paper did a good job of covering the softball team's victory in the state championship, but he thinks that was the exception. "Their sports reporter will go to a football practice, take some pictures, and then write a bigger story than if he goes to a softball game," he says. When Owasso High hired a new football coach last March, the Reporter trumpeted the story at the top of page one, using type of the size normally reserved for fires and floods. "Football is a big deal here," Peggy Robinson admits. "That's not just an Owasso thing; it's an Oklahoma thing."

It seems that what Randolph, Brown, and the other Owasso parents really are fighting is a traditional way of looking at high school athletics, a tradition that places boys in the center and girls on the outside, looking in. As Frank Deford observed in a recent Newsweek cover story on women athletes, "Neither culturally, figuratively, nor sexually has the woman who plays sports in America ever been accepted. Barely was she tolerated; when not thepariah, the female athlete was the oxymoron."

Randolph agrees that much of what they are up against is tradition--the old "that's the way we've always done it around here" line of defense. "That's 99 percent of it, I think," he says. "People are just so set in their ways. They just can't see it any other way." Brown, who grew up in nearby Bartlesville, says, "I can remember the battle to have a tennis team at my high school. I think things have changed, but they're changing very slowly. And I'm not always a patient person. You've got to remember that Owasso still has a small-town mentality."

"What is this? Why do they get more than what we get?"

Mimi Randolph,
Lady Rams softball team

Title IX has had an enormous effect on the number of women who participate in school sports. In 1972, when President Nixon signed the law, only 295,000 girls competed in high school sports, compared with 3.67 million boys. By the 1994-95 school year, the number of girls had grown to 2.24 million, while the number of boys remained about the same. Before Title IX, athletic scholarships for women were practically nonexistent. Now, according to the East Meadow, N.Y.-based Women's Sports Foundation, more than 100,000 such scholarships are available.

Clearly, things are getting better. But until recently, most of the Title IX battles have been waged at the intercollegiate level, and, consequently, that's where the most progress has been made. "There is a lag at the high school level," says Deborah Brake of the National Women's Law Center in Washington. "A lot of high schools have not really thought about these issues. We still hear from high schools that think the law does not apply to them." High school girls, she says, are reluctant to rock the boat because "there's a lot of pressure not to stand out against your peers." Nonetheless, Brake says Title IX lawsuits at the high school level are on the rise, and the law center's participation in the Owasso case is "part of our overall strategy to see that high schools are in compliance with Title IX."

Mimi Randolph, who inspired the lawsuit, is a quiet girl with dark brown eyes and shaggy brown hair. She's casually dressed this spring day in cutoff blue jeans, a striped rugby shirt, white athletic socks, and tan Nikes.

The catcher for the Lady Rams, who will be a junior next month, has her eyes set on a college scholarship in fast-pitch softball. And now that the game--which, according to the National Federation of High School Athletic Associations, is the fastest-growing high school sport in the nation--has been added to the roster of Olympic sports, she dreams of playing for her country in four or eight years.

Mimi says she first became aware of the second-class treatment of female athletes at Owasso High during her freshman year. First she noticed the disparity in the practice facilities. Then she realized that the boys usually had better game times. And their uniforms seemed to be better, too. Her teammates pretty much felt the same way. "It's just that a few of us would stand up and say something about it. The other ones just said, 'That's the way it's always been, and that's the way it's always going to be.'" Her coach wasn't very encouraging, either. "We'd say things to him, but he'd just say that there's nothing we can do about it. That it's just the way things are."

How does she feel when she sees the boys' baseball field? "There's not really a word to describe it," she says. "You just sit there and look at what they have in comparison to what we have, and you think, 'What is this? Why do they get more than what we get?' They should be equal. There's a drastic difference between the two."

The lawsuit, she says, "needed to be done, because we went in and asked for several things, and they wouldn't give them to us. We asked nicely, we tried, but they didn't want to help us. So this is what happens. At first, I was pretty nervous about it because you don't know how the community, and other people that you're around all the time, are going to react. But most of the people I've talked to agree with us. I mean, there are some who say they don't think it should have gone this far, that there are other ways to settle it. But most of them agree that there needs to be a change."

Ray Yasser says he thinks the girls involved in the lawsuit have a newfound sense of empowerment, and that seems to be the case with Mimi. "You have to stand up for what you think is right," she says. "Not necessarily what the whole community thinks is right, but just what you think. And not listen to what other people say. You have to make your own decisions."

Shortly after the Owasso lawsuit was filed, a number of parents in Tulsa filed their own Title IX complaint against that school district on behalf of their daughters. Ray Yasser and Samuel Schiller are handling that case, as well. "I think the Owasso suit kind of emboldened the Tulsa people," Yasser says. "They saw that the fallout wasn't as bad as they expected. The cases are very similar, but Tulsa's going to be a lot tougher to fix because it's nine high schools. It's a much more complex system."

Last April, Yasser hoped the problems in Owasso could be worked out without a long drawn-out battle. "I think the administration there, for a time, just didn't quite get it," he said at the time. "But I think they're beginning to get it, and I'm optimistic about the case. Things are going to get fixed." In other words, Yasser was hopeful that the district would agree to settle the suit before it goes to trial, although he said he wanted the judge to supervise any compliance plan.

Yasser's optimism turned out to be well-founded. In June, when both sides met with the district judge assigned to the case, the lawyer for the district, Karen Long, indicated a willingness to settle. The judge then assigned a magistrate to work with both parties until they agree on the terms of a settlement. If the two sides can't work things out, a trial will begin in December. "I'm pretty sure it won't come to that," Yasser says.

Ron Randolph, too, is feeling optimistic. In fact, he's already got a place picked out for a new softball diamond at the high school, right next to the boys' baseball park. And he wants the new stadium to be dedicated to the seven girls named in the lawsuit, including, of course, his daughter. "These girls took a chance," he says. "They deserve to be recognized." He wants to place a bronze plaque ("Nothing big and gaudy, just a 12-inch-by-12-inch plaque on the fence or in the concrete.") at the facility with these words on it: "To the girls who had the courage to fight for what they believed."

"It's just something that I'd like to see," he says. "I want people to know that the school lost. That they didn't do this out of the goodness of their hearts."

Vol. 16, Issue 01

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