Jay Roberts-Eveland

(WOMENSNEWS)–Jay Roberts-Eveland is a Grand Rapids, Mich., mother on a mission, and the manner she has chosen to pursue it may result in dramatic changes for high school sports not only in her home state but also across the country.

In a case scheduled to go to trial in September, Roberts-Eveland is challenging her state’s high school athletic association on behalf of her four athletically inclined daughters as well as all Michigan female high school athletes. She claims that the association denies female high school students equal facilities, scheduling and treatment.

Roberts-Eveland has chosen to pursue her case as a class action, that is, on behalf of all Michigan high school girls, and therefore a victory would likely benefit all the state’s female high school athletics immediately and over time. In addition, other states with similar practices are likely to take note.

Roberts-Eveland, through a nonprofit group called Communities for Equities, alleges in the 1998 complaint that the association violates Title IX equity requirements by scheduling shorter athletic seasons for some girls’ sports than for boys’ sports, scheduling girls’ team competitions during non-prime times or during the week, and providing, assigning and operating inferior athletic facilities for girls for state games.

In addition, the suit states that the association allocates more resources to the support and promotion of male programs and requires that girls play under rules different from those provided by the National Collegiate Athletic Association and national governing organizations–standards usually applied to boys’ sports.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association has argued that it was not subject to enforcement of federal laws, including Title IX, because of its private, nonprofit corporation status and voluntary membership.

Association spokesman John Johnson declined to comment because of the pending litigation, saying that no statements would be made until the judge makes a decision in the case.

Supreme Court Ruling Likely to Help Case

Now her case, to be heard in federal court in Kalamazoo, is likely to be bolstered by a Feb. 20 U.S. Supreme Court decision that state athletic associations were “state actors” having a public character and, therefore, subject to the same constitutional requirements as other public entities, such as public schools.

The court’s opinion did not directly address Title IX, the name of the 1972 federal law that requires equitable treatment, facilities and access for girls and boys in educational institutions that receive federal funds.

However, lawyers are studying the Title IX implications of that decision and, while the impact of a major ruling is almost never certain, the decision bodes well for the Roberts-Eveland suit in that she is pressing her case against the Michigan High School Athletic Association and her complaint alleges that the association regularly violates Title IX.

Women'sWhile this case stands out because it comes so quickly on the heels of the high court’s decision, Donna Lopiano, the executive director of the Women’s Sports Foundation, said she has been seeing “much more action” in terms of Title IX disputes on the high school level in the form of both lawsuits and legislative action.

Lopiano, a potential expert witness in the Michigan case, said state athletic associations could play a major role in ensuring gender equity.

“These changes have taken the burden off of parents, and retribution off their daughters,” Lopiano added. Many parents often back down from lawsuits because of the fear of retaliation against their children or ridicule from coaches and even fellow teammates.

High Schools and Athletic Associations Usually Escape Title IX Scrutiny

While colleges receiving federal funds receive considerable Title IX scrutiny, high schools have been largely overlooked. Nationwide, some state athletic associations have been working toward Title IX compliance, while others have made little or no effort to comply.

These are usually nonprofit associations that regulate interscholastic sports among public and private high schools in a state, drawing up rules, eligibility requirements and tournament schedules. State boards of education usually recognize associations as governing bodies and public school teachers and officials are policy-making members of the association.

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case that on the surface had nothing to do with women and gender equity. In 1977, the private co-educational Brentwood Academy sued the Tennessee School Secondary Athletic Association, alleging that the association’s recruiting rules violated constitutional protections of free speech and assembly and equal protection of the laws. The athletic association countered that it was a private organization and as such should not be held to constitutional requirements of fairness. The Supreme Court disagreed, calling it a “state actor” and ruled against the high school athletic association.

Mother Watched Two Daughters Miss College Athletic Scholarships

Roberts-Eveland filed her suit in 1998 after her first daughter, Mya, now 24, missed her chance to compete for a college volleyball scholarship. Roberts-Eveland watched the same thing happen to her second daughter, Kele, then 18, a two-time, all-state volleyball player with a stellar grade point average. She had been confident that she would receive an athletic scholarship to a Big Ten college of her choice. But by the end of her senior year, in 2000, she had come away empty-handed.

Roberts-Eveland says she knows why: Kele Eveland’s high school volleyball team played in the nontraditional winter season, unlike most other states. That put her at a disadvantage because college recruiters scout promising high school athletes who are playing in the fall. For this reason–to increase girls’ chances of college scholarships–Montana, South Dakota and North Dakota athletic associations will be switching their seasons for girls’ volleyball from winter to fall for the 2002-2003 season.

Kele Roberts-Eveland is now a business management student and sophomore volleyball player for the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.

“She could have been at a Big Ten, but because we are at Michigan it could not happen,” Jay Roberts-Eveland said. “It’s the Dark Ages,” she said, “and the Michigan High School Athletic Association is responsible for that discrimination.”

High Schools Not Required to Disclose Equity Information on Athletics

The experiences of the Robert-Eveland daughters may in fact not be atypical. Lax Title IX compliance in state high school athletics is apparently common. The Detroit News on Wednesday published an article that found that girls in Michigan’s 33 largest school districts “are routinely shortchanged out of a chance to play athletics.” They also found that in Detroit, three out of four athletic scholarships to Michigan universities go to boys.

In recent years, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, among other newspapers, also have exposed inequities between boys’ and girls’ high school sports. The Journal and Constitution noted that 75 percent of local school districts’ salary supplements for coaching go to boys’ sports.

Unlike colleges and universities, which must adhere to the 1994 Equity Disclosure Act, high schools are not required to publish information on their athletic participation, staffing, revenues or expenses. As a result, most high school-level discriminatory practices go unchecked, experts say, until someone files a lawsuit or states pass their own laws.

But the Supreme Court decision and the influence of media watchdogs and legislators who want their daughters to have fair and equal access to sports promise to strengthen the enforcement of Title IX on a high school level.

“State governments are becoming more actively involved in state associations around the country,” says Bruce Howard, publicity and communications director of the National Federation of State High Schools, whose members include a state high school association from each state and one from the District of Columbia.

And, while the lawsuit has been tough on her family, Roberts-Eveland said she had no choice.

“I have been around athletics forever,” she says. “We knew we were right in our hearts and in our soul and in our research.”

Her 17-year-old daughter, Breanna Eveland, agrees.

“The more I live through this, the more I realize how much I am discriminated against. I only wish that we had started fighting sooner.”

Jessica McRorie is a free-lance journalist in New York.

For more information:

Women’s Sports Foundation:

Supreme Court decision:

Detroit News:

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

Atlanta Journal and Constitution:

National Women’s Law Center: