By Tatyana Monnay
When Pennsylvania state Sen. Mary Jo White met with frustrated players on a girls high school lacrosse team about a dozen years ago, she was dismayed by reports of the inferior treatment they were receiving. She wasn’t surprised.
White, who played basketball at her all-girls high school, had already noticed girls across the state received less than boys as she watched her daughter play high school sports.
“You could see they didn’t get the training time,” said White, who is now retired. “They didn’t get the field time. They got it when the boys weren’t using it. They were lucky if they had uniforms, or they just tried to cobble something together. It was not a friendly environment.”
Meanwhile, on the House side of the Pennsylvania legislature, Rep. Tim Briggs read a news article about parents concerned that their daughters were not being treated fairly in school sports.
As the father of three girls, Briggs could identify with those concerns.
Soon, Briggs, a House Democrat, and White, a Republican senator, championed a measure, passed in 2012, that requires public schools to report troves of data on their school programs — about who has the opportunity to play and what resources those athletes receive. The goal is to spot unequal treatment of female athletes.
“We introduced it thinking it was a pretty common-sense thing,” Briggs said.
That makes Pennsylvania one of at least five states that does what the federal government does not: collect in-depth data to measure Title IX compliance and gender equity in K-12 schools. Congress repeatedly has rejected or failed to consider such bills. The most recent failed attempt occurred in 2021.
Nearly 50 years after the passage of Title IX, the federal government still does not have an accurate way of knowing how many high schools and other secondary schools are in compliance with the statute, which requires equal opportunity despite gender, race or disability in education.
The Office for Civil Rights collects participation data, but those figures can be incomplete and differ substantially from statistics kept by school districts, according to an analysis by The Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland.
Shep Melnick, professor of American politics at Boston College, said the gender-equity disparities in athletics are much more severe at the high school level than in collegiate sports.
“I think that the extent to which the Office for Civil Rights would focus more on high schools and less on colleges would be an extremely good idea because the disparities in high school are huge and just really serious,” said Melnick, who has been analyzing Title IX compliance and the law’s evolution.
While college athletics departments have to report a detailed breakdown of participation by gender, the money they spend on scholarships, and other benefits for male and female athletes, K-12 schools don’t face the same scrutiny.
The landmark legislation spurred increased participation by girls in high school sports, but Congress has resisted creating the same data reporting requirements that apply to college teams.
Briggs said trying to pass the bill wasn’t easy in Pennsylvania because his counterparts and school districts complained about the burden of collecting and reporting the data. His Republican colleagues also attempted to cut back aspects of the legislation.
Meanwhile in Washington, former Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and the late Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-New York, were trying to pass a bill similar to the one in Pennsylvania, first introducing it in Congress in 2003.
Since then, more than 100 members of Congress have co-sponsored legislation that would bring more transparency to high school sports. Every attempt failed in both chambers.
The bills would have required K-12 schools to report data that shows how much funding their sports teams receive, how many games each team plays, the staff dedicated to each team and more.
Advocates for girls in sports, gender-equity researchers, lawyers and lawmakers are adamant that secondary schools — high schools in particular — are not complying with Title IX, and teenage girls are paying the price.
“Title IX is turning 50 in June, and we still estimate that the majority of schools are likely out of compliance with the law,” said Sarah Axelson, vice president of advocacy at the Women’s Sports Foundation. “Transparency certainly wouldn’t fix everything, but it certainly would have the potential to bring us closer and have more informed folks on the ground.”
Slaughter’s and Snowe’s bills, which would have required K-12 schools to report funding, dedicated personnel for their teams and other data, have been resurrected in both the House and Senate by Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, and Rep. Doris Matsui, D-California. In 2018, they introduced the Patsy T. Mink and Louise M. Slaughter Gender Equity in Education Act. Since then, they’ve reintroduced the bill twice — in 2019 and most recently in June 2021.
The bills would require the Department of Education to establish an Office for Gender Equity and, like Slaughter’s and Snowe’s bills, would bring more transparency to high school athletics data. If passed, the office would assist schools in following Title IX requirements by creating a handbook and developing training programs.
Hirono declined requests for comment. Matsui did not respond to interview requests.
Slaughter introduced six versions of the bill. Snowe introduced complementary bills in the Senate in 2003, 2007, 2009 and 2011, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, introduced her own version in 2013. They all failed to get a hearing.
Advocates for more stringent reporting said high school administrators are sometimes reluctant to support increased data reporting because of the burden it might place on athletics directors and principals.
But school officials are collecting this information anyway, said Peg Pennepacker, a former high school athletics director who now is a consultant on Title IX issues.
“It’s part of an athletic director’s job. You should be monitoring yourself every single year. It’s not that difficult.”—Peg Pennepacker, Title IX consultant and former high school athletics director
“It’s part of an athletic director’s job,” Pennepacker said. “You should be monitoring yourself every single year. It’s not that difficult.”
Terri Lakowski, CEO of Active Policy Solutions and a former student-athlete, and other advocates said laws like the ones proposed by Snowe and Murray are essential for students, parents and Title IX lawyers.
“Laws like this can become so useful because they provide a tool and evidence as to what the school is really doing to comply with Title IX. They can help keep these schools honest when they’re otherwise not being and not complying with Title IX’s requirements,” Lakowski said.
The difficulties preventing the bills from gaining momentum are indicative of the attitude toward gender equity in athletics, said Gloria Blackwell, CEO of the American Association of University Women. Blackwell likened the struggles to those faced by the Gender Equity in Education Act, which was first introduced in the 1990s and still hasn’t passed despite multiple efforts by members of Congress.
“The mere fact that we’re still talking about something that was introduced initially 20 years ago is also pretty representative of the challenges that are still taking place around gender equity and in education,” Blackwell said.
Congress isn’t alone in its inaction, according to three-time Olympic gold medalist Nancy Hogshead-Makar. She said Title IX advocates have shifted attention to fight other types of sex discrimination and sexual assault that fall under the statute.
“I think that there really has not been the political will, even by women’s organizations, to make it happen. It just has not been high up enough on the list,” she said. “What women’s groups have been doing is nowhere near enough to get it done.”
Lakowski compared the lack of compliance in high school sports to speeding. Most people do it and only the extreme cases tend to get pulled over by the cops.
“The Office of Civil Rights is like the police who’s going to pull you over if you’re flagrantly violating Title IX or speeding 20 or 30 miles an hour over,” Lakowski said. “Otherwise, everything else is really incumbent upon the victim — the student, the athlete, the parent, or an advocate to speak up and stop them from speeding.”
The office collects participation data that details how many girls and boys are playing which sports and how many teams are offered to each gender by sport. While the data is collected from across the nation, advocates for girls in sports said the data doesn’t provide an accurate picture of what Title IX compliance in that school or district looks like.
“Right now, we’re asking high school students and their families, or 18- to 22-year-olds, college students, to be the ones to make sure that for generations to come that girls and women have equal opportunities,” Hogshead-Makar said.
Title IX provides a clear roadmap as to what is required of high school athletics, said Ellen Zavian, attorney and law professor at The George Washington University.
“It’s not that we don’t have a law to implement,” said Zavian, who was a high school athlete.“It’s that no one knows how to implement it — except a few experts.”
Advocates such as Blackwell and Hogshead-Makar said enforcement of the statute through new legislation ought to be top of mind for lawmakers.
“It’s really about protecting all students from sex discrimination, but it’s also about ensuring that there’s compliance with Title IX, because without compliance, without resources, it’s just a law on the books that doesn’t have any teeth,” Blackwell said.
“It’s going to be a long, arduous road,” said Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations and an advocate for federal action.
“But we can’t use that excuse anymore,” Niehoff added. “Why not? We’re the United States, we’re good at hard roads. And this is about our people. It’s about our kids. It’s about our society.”
This story was written and reported by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism and The Shirley Povich Center For Sports Journalism, and it is part of a larger series investigating Title IX and high school sports.