By Neena Chaudhry, Senior Counsel, National Women's Law Center
The New York Times' recently featured an article about the rise of flag football as a varsity sport among girls in Florida. I was quoted in the article as questioning whether the sport provides girls with equal educational opportunities when compared to boys' sports. Unfortunately, some have characterized such comments as unsupportive of girls who are playing the sport. While I understand the appeal of such a critique (after all, controversy sells), nothing could be farther from the truth, or the point. Flag football is an exciting sport (I was an avid football fan in high school so I understand the appeal), and I think girls should be able to play whatever they want.
My questions are directed towards the educational institutions who decide what sports to offer-namely, the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) and its member schools. The real focus should be on whether their decisions provide equal educational opportunities to male and female students, as required by Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. (While athletic associations may claim that they are not subject to the civil rights laws, several courts have held otherwise and noted that these associations, not their individual member schools, have the power to set up state championships, decide the seasons for sports, and much more.)
Looking at the issue from this perspective, some key questions emerge. When these educational institutions were deciding to add flag football as opposed to many other sports that girls still want to play, did they consider the educational opportunities provided by each sport, such as the availability of athletic scholarships or advanced participation opportunities? Of course sports are valuable regardless of the opportunity to play at a higher level or to get a college scholarship, and only a fraction of those who play in secondary school will want or be able to play competitively in college or beyond. But shouldn't we ensure that those limited opportunities are equally available to boys and girls? After all, college athletic scholarships are of the utmost importance to girls who could not attend college without them, and girls who have dreams of becoming Olympic or professional athletes need further opportunities to develop their skills. Would anyone argue that college scholarships and advanced opportunities are not relevant if we were talking about a boys' sport? Significantly, every single boys' sport sponsored by the FHSAA provides them with higher-level participation opportunities and/or the chance to receive an athletic scholarship, whereas more than one girls' sport does not. (The FHSAA also sponsors competitive cheerleading for girls and counts it as a sport for Title IX purposes, which may be legally problematic and is a subject for another day.) And this is against the backdrop of the larger picture where the playing field is still not level for young women. While they represent half of the students in our schools, girls receive only a little over 40% of the athletic participation opportunities and are not often not treated equally in terms of benefits and services when they do play.
Assuming that the Florida educational institutions did not consider the above questions when they chose to add flag football to try to increase their female participation numbers after the state legislature required schools to report them, what is their plan to help girls now that it is one of the fastest-growing varsity sports in Florida? What are they going to say to girls who want to continue playing the sport beyond high school? One could argue that the FHSAA should have chosen another sport to sponsor first-one that already had these opportunities available for girls. But at the very least, the association and its member schools now have an obligation to help create a future path for those young women who are invested in playing this sport.