Title IX and the “Level Playing Field”

By Doug Abrams

Rick Wolff and I had another stimulating conversation on “The Sports Edge” last Sunday morning, this time about Title IX’s dramatic effect on the lives of boys and girls in sports.  Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, of course, is the landmark congressional legislation that prohibits gender discrimination in “any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”  The prohibition reaches public school districts and the governing bodies that administer interscholastic sports.

The impetus for Sunday morning’s Title IX conversation concerned a tentative decision to deny ninth-grader Keeling Pilaro’s request to continue playing on the girls’ field hockey team at Southampton High School, which does not field a boys’ field hockey team.  By all media accounts, the 13-year-old Keeling plays clean; fits in well with his coaches and teammates; holds the support of his school’s administration; and poses no safety risk to girls because, at 4’8” and 86 pounds, he is smaller than many or most of them.  According to Section 11 (which supervises Suffolk County’s high school sports), Keeling may not play next season because he has become too talented in the two years that he has already played on the high school team with the Section’s permission, and without incident.

“Not a Denials Committee”

The Suffolk County Title IX dispute reminds me of a story that makes the rounds here at the University of Missouri Law School.  A few years ago, one of my colleagues took a special approach to his role as chair of the Admissions Committee, the four-member faculty group that determines which applicants are admitted and which ones are denied.  Like other law schools of our caliber, we have a selective admissions process, with less than half the applicants gaining admission.  Denials remain unpleasant because they affect people’s lives, but denials are inevitable in any academic admissions process.  In close cases, however, my faculty colleague always gave the applicant the benefit of the doubt because, he said, “We are the Admissions Committee, not the Denials Committee.”

School administrators and league officials should take a similar approach when they affect the lives of children in sports.  These authorities should consider themselves sports providers, not sports deniers.  

With the demise of choose-up sandlot-style play in the past generation or so, boys and girls today usually face the prospect of either playing adult-organized sports or playing no sports at all.  It is no answer to say that a player like Keeling Pilaro can simply try to “find another sport.”  Participation in youth sports is meant to be fun and fulfilling, an avocation and not a vocation.  The real question is whether the player gets to compete in the sport that engages his or her passions, and not whether the player might search for some other sport.  

Title IX helped remake America for the better, but adults administering high school sports should not exclude a student from participation except for solid reasons, when no alternative appears.  Reasons for exclusion may exist, for example, when a team’s roster cannot accommodate all players who try out, when a player lacks the requisite skills, or when a player poses a chronic discipline problem.  Under Title IX and the federal Constitution’s equal-protection law, however, talent and hard work should tip the scales in favor of a boy who plays by the rules and raises no plausible claim of physical danger to girls, but who has no other high school opportunity to pursue his game. 

[I had planned to continue last week’s column with “The Power of Thank-You — Part II” this week, but I think that the field hockey case calls for timely discussion.  Unless something else develops, I will present “Part II” next week.]