A new organization of fathers has awarded a Michigan school official for his consistent efforts to level the playing field for girls’ sports. The event is part of Dads and Daughters, a campaign to make the world a more equitable place for female children.

The O'Neill Family

Overlooked in the festivities and hectic commerce surrounding traditional Father’s Day, a national group of activist fathers has quietly honored its own special kind of dad, a school district official advocating for equal sports facilities and opportunities for girls.

Kevin O’Neill, superintendent of Coopersville Area Public Schools outside Grand Rapids, Mich., was honored as Father of the Year by a non-profit organization based in Duluth, Minn., called Dads and Daughters.

His two daughters, Tracey, 21, and Carey, 19, nominated O’Neill in an essay on their "dynamite dad" who successfully lobbied for new girls’ sports facilities, campaigned for a bond issue for its construction and generally has gone to bat for gender equity in the Midwest.

"It is simple stuff," O’Neill insisted. "Are bleachers pulled out for girls’ games? Are programs printed? Is there a pep band?" he asked. "We have to remember the little things that tell girls they are different, like telling girls and boys to line up on different sides of the room."

The award by the year-old group is a $1,000 donation to the non-profit organization of the winner’s choice. O’Neill has selected Communities for Equity in nearby Ada, Mich. Parents in the organization attend school sports events, talk to players and parents of opposing teams and keep a scorecard of gender fairness by comparing the rival schools.

Communities for Equity also recently filed a lawsuit against the Michigan High School Athletic Association for not complying with the federal law, generally called Title IX, that requires schools and other institutions that receive federal subsidies to provide equal access and benefits to females and males. His involvement in the suit is a result of his daughter’s membership in a local women’s group that funds the lawsuit.

O’Neill began advocating 10 years ago for equality in school sports. Galvanized by his own daughters’ needs in school, O’Neill successfully lobbied his school district for $400,000 to install girls lockers district wide. That was just the beginning.

Since then, O’Neill persuaded the school board to authorize a bond issue for $38 million, including funds for new girls’ training facilities and comparable fields for softball and baseball. Ground breaking begins this summer, literally leveling the playing field.

The award is part of an advocacy campaign launched by Dads and Daughters. The 200-member organization is dedicated to encouraging fathers to build strong ties with their daughters and to advocate with and for them on issues ranging from gender equity to realistic body image. "It is very important to publicly recognize fathers who are making an impact in their communities on behalf of their daughters," said Joe Kelly, executive director of Dads and Daughters, the father of two teen-age daughters and a former news anchor of Minnesota Public Radio. He also founded with his wife, Nancy, and their daughters "New Moon: The Magazine for Girls and Their Dreams."

"Many of us [dads] are in denial about the messages that tell girls that how they look is who they are and their purpose in life is to be sexual objects," Kelly said.

In addition to the award, the group has developed a model curriculum for fourth through sixth grades on girls’ healthy body image and eating disorders, created a radio program for the Working Assets radio network and lobbied retailers to drop advertisements and products that exploited girls.

"Let’s face it, since men still control the world, we should help change it for our daughters," said Kelly.