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Published: Tuesday, 8/3/2004

Equal opportunity sports

FEMALE sports participation in schools is light years ahead of where it was when Title IX of the federal Civil Rights Act took aim at entrenched gender bias in school sports programs. But over 30 years later, stubborn vestiges of the old discriminatory system still linger, often putting male athletes and their chosen sports on a higher footing than their female counterparts.

In places like Michigan, high school sports seasons for some female teams put them at a disadvantage not only in nationwide competition but for college recruitment and scholarships. So ruled a federal appeals court in upholding a lower court's decision that Michigan's high school sports scheduling violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution.

In its unanimous and welcome ruling, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with a 2001 opinion by U.S. District Judge Richard Enslen in Kalamazoo. He clearly understood how scheduling girls sports - notably basketball and volleyball - in seasons different than boys hurt female players in lost opportunities.

Michigan is one of the few states where high school girls play basketball in the fall and volleyball in the winter-instead of the other way around. As a result, female basketball players miss out on the "March Madness" experience as well as the most active time in college recruitment because their state tournaments are in the fall.

Judge Enslen ordered the Michigan High School Athletic Association to submit a more equitable sports schedule that would bring girls sports seasons more in line with the rest of the country and not saddle them with predominantly school night games when the boys are given preferred Friday and Saturday night slots.

The athletic association thought the arrangement it had was pretty good and appealed. But the three-judge panel in Cincinnati sent it back to their court, saying the association's scheduling was unfair and must be realigned.

If 47 states, including Ohio, can schedule both male and female athletes to play certain sports in the same optimal seasons, it's not an impossible mission.

True, it may require more effort to juggle practice times in limited school facilities but, as one athletic director at a Wood County high school said, athletic officials as well as players learn to adapt.

So there's hope for Michigan. But it will take less resistance to change and more acceptance of equal opportunity sports for all high school athletes.

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