By Emily Riley
If you’d searched Pentucket Regional High School’s Twitter account for school sports news five years ago, you’d have come across many posts about the boys teams. Updates about the girls teams at the Massachusetts school were harder to find.
From the beginning of the 2014-15 school year to early 2017, 26% of tweets from the school’s athletics Twitter account covered girls team sports, according to an analysis by the region’s Office for Civil Rights. When live game updates were tweeted, 60% of the updates were about boys teams and 32% were about girls teams.
Title IX requires equal opportunity for girls in school-based sports programs receiving federal financial assistance. That requirement extends to a category often overlooked by officials at many schools, including Pentucket Regional High School: publicity.
Publicity covers a range of attention-grabbing promotion: social media, school news coverage, marquee announcements, pictures on the school athletics website, use of the cheerleaders and band — even trophies on display at the school.
Unequal opportunities for publicity can vary widely. In Ball-Chatham Community Unit School District 5 in Chatham, Illinois, there were concerns over cheerleader and band attendance at boys and girls games. At Stephenville High School in Texas, the issue was equity in team nicknames.
“If only male athletes are highlighted, girls get the message pretty quickly that they don’t matter, that they’re not as important, that their achievements are not valued.”Elizabeth Kristen, director, Gender Equity & LGBTQ Rights Program for Legal Aid at Work
“This is really about the message of equality or inequality,” said Elizabeth Kristen, director of the Gender Equity & LGBTQ Rights Program for Legal Aid at Work. “If only male athletes are highlighted, girls get the message pretty quickly that they don’t matter, that they’re not as important, that their achievements are not valued.”
For students in Chatham, unequal opportunity for publicity meant girls teams had less access to school cheerleaders, the band and the dance team, factors that contributed to a Title IX complaint filed against the Ball-Chatham Community Unit School District 5 with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights in 2019.
According to the complaint, the cheer team at Glenwood High School performed at each home and away game for varsity football, varsity boys basketball and junior varsity boys basketball in the 2018-19 school year. The cheerleaders at home varsity football and boys basketball games were joined by the dance team, which performed before and at halftime. The band performed at all home varsity football games and varsity boys basketball games.
However, girls teams played without such support. According to the complaint, the cheerleading, dance team and band only played at one home varsity girls basketball game during the 2018-19 school year.
Andrea Beckford, an attorney and author of “We Need Equal Cheers for Boys and Girls: How the Absence of Cheerleaders at Women’s Sporting Events Is a Violation of Title IX,”said we’ve been conditioned to associate cheerleaders with sports like football.
“Theoretically, cheerleading is just supporting a sports team; it should not matter, the gender of said sports team,” Beckford said.
Dusty Burk, athletics director and Title IX coordinator for the Ball-Chatham School District, said that since the civil rights complaint in 2019, the school district has taken steps to ensure the cheer and dance teams perform at every girls and boys junior varsity and varsity home basketball game starting in the 2021-22 season.
“We believe our changes will improve the experience for all students involved in athletics and extracurricular activities, and remain committed to looking for future opportunities to enhance equities between the sexes.”Dusty Burk, athletics director and Title IX coordinator for the Ball-Chatham School District
Publicity disparities in social media are relatively easy to track. A 2017 civil rights complaint looked at social media at Pentucket Regional High School, located about an hour from Boston. That review covered approximately 5,000 tweets from the athletics department’s Twitter account (then @SachemAthletics) from the start of the 2014-15 school year through February 2017.
The imbalance of tweets was just one factor that spurred an investigation of the Pentucket Regional School District for Title IX violations by the Office for Civil Rights. In 2017, the school agreed to address the problems.
While some Title IX violations can put girls at risk of physical harm –– poorly maintained fields, for example –– unequal opportunities for publicity can send a message about what the school deems important, according to some former athletes.
Cara Hawkins-Jedlicka, an assistant professor at Washington State University, remembered running high school track in Tennessee feeling like girls teams had to reach an extreme to be recognized by her school, while the football team was celebrated even when it had a less-than-perfect season.
“I thought we had to do better to get coverage,” Hawkins-Jedlicka said. “I think it’s just a very harmful statement to give a teenager that ‘you don’t matter as much and if you do matter, it’s only if you’re winning.’ … If you’re not feeling important, and you’re not feeling covered, if you’re not feeling like this is useful, that’s something that would probably push you to quit.”
As of March 2022, the @SachemAthletics Twitter account no longer exists. Pentucket Regional High School’s athletics director did not respond to requests for comment.
Some violations of publicity are more subjective, like the use of mascots and nicknames for boys and girls teams.
A civil rights complaint against Stephenville Independent School District in Texas included a statement about use of different mascots and nicknames for boys and girls teams.
Stephenville’s boys teams are called the Yellow Jackets and the girls teams are referred to as the Honeybees. A 2015 resolution letter found that the different nicknames did not violate Title IX in regard to publicity. However, some Title IX advocates point out that using different nicknames for girls and boys teams can be problematic.
“Naming is really important and it sends a lot of important messages, so I would say that it is a violation of Title IX,” said Kristen, who is also project director and senior staff attorney for Fair Play for Girls in Sports. “I strongly feel that schools should not create these diminutive nicknames because it is definitely, to me, an indicator of female athletes being treated as lesser.”
While other Title IX violations often seem more egregious compared to equal publicity or use of the school band, providing equal opportunity for publicity is often inexpensive, Kristen said.
“This is not like you have to build a new softball field. … This does not involve construction,” she said. “A lot of this is free media, you know, putting out your own social media, on Twitter, on Instagram.”
Still, lack of publicity remains a reality for high school girls across the country, many of whom are unaware of their rights under Title IX.
“This is a place where it’s really easy for members of the school community, parents, coaches, grandparents, even just interested community members, to try and pay attention to what’s happening at your local school,” Kristen said.
“It’s not fair to just expect high school girls to take on all of that burden.”
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.