In a long-running sex-discrimination case, a federal appeals court has ruled for the second time that the Michigan High School Athletic Association discriminates against female high school athletes by scheduling their sports—and not male athletes’ sports—in nontraditional and less advantageous seasons.
The association’s policies violate the equal-protection clause of the U.S. Constitution and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded educational programs, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, held on Aug. 16.
Communities for Equity, a group of high school athletes and their parents, sued the state association in 1998, charging that the mhsaa scheduled girls’ interscholastic seasons for six sports outside of the traditional seasons. Michigan girls’ basketball, for example, takes place in the fall season; most other state athletic associations schedule that sport in the winter. The suit alleged that, as a result, girls were harmed by missing opportunities for athletic awards and other recognition and by having fewer opportunities than boys to be seen by college recruiters and to compete for athletic scholarships. (“High Court Orders New Review of Michigan Title IX Case,” May 11, 2005.)
A federal district court ruled in 2001 that the association’s scheduling practices violated Title IX, the equal-protection clause, and a state civil rights law.
In an initial decision in 2005, the appeals court ruled for the girls on the federal constitutional claim, without addressing the applicability of Title IX or the state law. That same year, the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ordered the appeals court to consider whether girls can sue under the Constitution while also pursuing a claim under Title IX.
Upon reconsideration, the appeals court ruled this month that a plaintiff who sues under Title IX is not precluded from also suing for an equal-protection claim under the Constitution. The court went on to hold for a second time that the mhsaa, based in East Lansing, violated the equal-protection clause, Title IX, the state civil rights statute.
“Although we acknowledge that schools in Michigan may have limited facilities, mhsaa’s claim that the inadequate facilities require the female athletes to always play in the disadvantageous seasons is without merit,” U.S. Circuit Judge Ronald Lee Gilman wrote for the three-member panel. “Mhsaa could, after all, rearrange the schedules and require some of the male sports to play in disadvantageous seasons without increasing the overall use of the facilities.”
One judge concurred in part and dissented in part.
The decision may not end the eight-year legal battle. The state association announced that it would not change the scheduling of girls’ sports for the 2006-07 school year. It may yet ask for the full 6th Circuit appeals court to reconsider the panel’s decision.
A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2006 edition of Education Week