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Examining Wilson and title IX

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Examining Wilson and title IX

Allie O'Brien and Ella Pearlman-Chang

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Over the past decade, Wilson’s athletic programs have maintained steady compliance with Title IX. Annual reports submitted by the school athletic department for review by the DC Interscholastic Athletic Association (DCIAA) confirm this. Despite compliance, however, female athletes and teams at Wilson have often felt shortchanged in comparison to their male counterparts over the years. So what exactly is Title IX, what does it mandate, and how does it apply to sports at Wilson?

For all of its massive implications, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is surprisingly short. In just one sentence, it prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational institutions that receive federal funding. The law is applicable to all aspects of a school–academics, housing, and financial assistance, to name a few–but it garners the most attention in athletics.

Throughout Mitch Gore’s eight years serving as Wilson’s Athletic Director, student participation in sports has doubled. In the 2011-12 school year, roughly 25 percent of the student body participated in sports, compared with nearly 50 percent in the 2016-2017 school year. In this same time period, the discrepancy between male and female participation in sports was nearly eliminated. In the 2011-12 school year, there was a ten percent difference between female enrollment and female participation in sports. In other words, females represented 49 percent of Wilson’s total student body, but only 39 percent of Wilson’s athletes. Thanks to efforts by the athletic department, this gap was all but eliminated the very next year–there was only a one percent difference between female enrollment and athletic participation.

Every year after submitting their annual reports to DCIAA, the Wilson athletic department is commended for full compliance with Title IX. Yet Title IX Coordinator and Women’s Sports Liaison, Patrice Arrington, is no stranger to internal complaints of gender inequality in Wilson’s athletic programs. This paradoxical discrepancy has a simple explanation: the minimalist nature of Title IX.

Counterintuitively, many issues of alleged gender inequality at Wilson are not punishable on the basis of Title IX violations. The law, in its simplicity, demands less than one might expect. In order to achieve compliance, the Wilson athletic department must prove to be meeting two primary standards: providing an equal number of programs of interest to both boys and girls, and allocating facilities fairly.

In 2013, the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) filed a complaint against DCPS for violations of Title IX. Citing data from school year 2009-10, Gore’s first year as Athletic Director, and the year Wilson temporarily relocated to UDC, the NWLC claimed that girls in DCPS were provided an inadequate number of athletic programs to join, inferior coaches, and unequal access to playing fields.

The complaint was filed with the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR), but the OCR receives a plethora of complaints, and not all of them are lucky enough to trigger a response.

Gore does not recall Wilson taking any action specifically in response to the NWLC. The OCR did not mandate an audit of DCPS as the NWLC had requested. Gore personally felt that the claim of unequal access and facility allocation was much more applicable to other DCPS schools than it was to Wilson, so he made no changes.

However, action was taken the next year when then-Chancellor Kaya Henderson responded to a second complaint filed against DCPS. First, she signed an agreement mandating DCPS schools to annually disclose summaries of athletic participation by gender. These are the aforementioned reports the Wilson athletic department submits to DCIAA every year, and are accessible to the public online. Second, Henderson initiated an audit, which consisted of a review of financial documents, participation rates, and photos of facilities (such as locker rooms and fields). According to Gore, the audit found no violations of Title IX at Wilson.

As the 2013 complaint had no repercussions for DCPS, and the 2014 audit found Wilson to be in full compliance with Title IX, Gore’s athletic department has never been required by a governing body to implement any gender-based changes. When Gore has chosen to make these types of changes in the past, it has been due to internal complaints.

Over the years, many individual girls sports teams have taken issue with Wilson’s allocation of field space. The softball team, for example, takes a daily twenty minute bus ride to practice at Guy Mason Recreation Center, a baseball and softball diamond in Glover Park, whereas the baseball team is able to practice across the street from Wilson at Fort Reno. Two years ago, girls soccer approached the athletic department with a complaint of insufficient practice time on the main turf field, as football typically has priority to practice on the turf. Field hockey has made this same complaint over the years.

Gore claims that field allocation is more complicated than meets the eye. For example, Softball and Baseball are unable to share the ideal Fort Reno location because the infield has 90-foot base paths–regulation size for high school baseball, but too big for softball.

Gore adds that football’s privilege of ample practice time on the turf is more or less beyond his control. Fort Reno’s field space is rented to Wilson sports teams by the Department of Recreation, and, cognizant of football’s tendency to tear up grass quickly, DPR would rather allot space to teams like field hockey that will leave the area intact.

Coach Gore vows that every complaint is addressed to the best of his ability. For example, after voicing their concerns two years ago, girls soccer now has the main turf reserved before school. The compromise works well, as sophomore Saige Gootman asserts that her team “love[s] practicing in the morning.”

For the sake of fairness, Gore ensures that, even if teams do not have extensive practice time on the main field, they are guaranteed four home games on the turf across the course of their season.

Other complaints of gender inequality brought to the athletic department fall outside of legislation’s reach.

Title IX does not require that men’s and women’s sports programs receive equal funding. The only monetary requirement of the law holds that “female and male student-athletes receive athletics scholarship dollars proportional to their participation,” according to the NCAA website.

Nonetheless, funding issues are frequently the culprit of complaints brought to Arrington. Often, these complaints more specifically have to do with uniform purchases.

The softball team brought one such complaint to the table in the spring of 2016, upset that the baseball team had received new uniforms multiple times while softball had not. Nora Parisi, a Wilson graduate who contacted the athletic department on behalf of the softball team, says that Gore was extremely responsive to her concerns. “[Gore] did everything he could to fix the gender-based issues,” Parisi said. “[He] bought us new equipment as well as new uniforms, and even helped us organize a team trip to Cuba since the baseball team had been going to the Dominican Republic for three years prior to that.”

However, not all teams are quite as lucky as softball was in this instance, for two reasons. First, since uniform purchases (and athletic budgets generally) are not targeted by Title IX, there is less pressure for the athletic department to resolve this type of complaint. Second, the athletic department’s budget is stretched thin, and new uniforms are often considered a subpar use of dollars.

Coach Arrington’s summary of processing uniform requests is simple: orders are prioritized if uniforms are no longer functional, or if there are not enough for everyone on a team to match. In any other scenario, she says, a team is expected to pay on their own, either by holding a fundraiser or by having team members make direct purchases. Often, Arrington says, requests for new school-bought uniforms are not fulfilled because the Athletic Department’s requirements are not fully met.

The athletic department’s tight budget can be attributed to the many club teams it elects to offer. Of 45 sports teams across the three seasons, 26 are varsity, 19 are club. In this case, the “varsity” tag, counterintuitively, includes teams like JV basketball, JV football, and JV lacrosse. From a budgetary point of view, the difference between varsity and club is not skill level, but whether a school is offered funding for the sport. Wilson receives money to fund varsity sports, while the athletic department is on its own to come up with money for clubs.

It should be noted that these club teams are not obscure sports–the majority are staple programs such as field hockey, ultimate frisbee, and crew.

Often, money for club sports is raised by renting out Wilson’s athletic facilities. Local school, travel, and recreational teams are able to pay for reserved access to Wilson’s track, field, and indoor gyms, bringing in dollars that are in turn used to fund Wilson sports. When this is not enough, money designated for varsity sports must be spent on club teams.

Over the years, Gore has taken note of the often extensive time it takes for complaints to work their way up to the athletic department. When the softball team complained in 2016, for example, frustration had clearly been bubbling for multiple seasons before the athletic department was made aware. In response to this, Gore and Arrington have created a new initiative to catch issues early on.

“Student Advisory Meetings” consist of at least one representative from each sport (per gender) sitting around the long table at the College and Career Center to discuss improvements to Wilson’s athletic programs. Facilitated by coach Gore, the conversations are meant to encourage representatives to share suggestions or relay complaints their team may have. Girls soccer player Saige Gootman and boys track runner Jacob Boss both recall the meetings being a positive experience. Gootman emphasized that the effort was not just for show. “Coach Gore was really giving everyone an opportunity to make suggestions,” she said. Ideas that student-representatives brought to the table included waxing the gym floors (volleyball), fixing the boys’ locker room showers (boys soccer), and velcroing shut the showers in the girls’ locker room (girls soccer).

In the future, the athletic department has hopes of holding these meetings on a monthly basis. Scheduling did not allow such frequent meetings this year–Arrington remembers holding only two meetings, with one more planned for the coming weeks.

Gore emphasizes that equality in sports is all about growth, and points to his expansion of girls’ sports programs in his time at Wilson as evidence of his effort. In his words, he is “very committed to girls having opportunities in sports,” and plans to serve as an advocate until Wilson athletics achieve true gender equality.

PHOTO COURTESY OF MEGHAN DAYTON

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