Imposing Gender Equality Rules in Sports: Discrimination or Necessary Evil?

Gil Imber@RefereeOrganistAnalyst IIDecember 18, 2011

A high school cheerleading squad with hopes of placing in a recent statewide competition was disqualified when the contest ended in the lakeside city of Port Huron, Michigan.

The team's lone infraction? One of the team members is a boy. 

As initially reported by ABC affiliate WXYZ, the Lakeview High cheerleaders were formally disqualified only after the competition had concluded. They received no final score—only a "DQ".

Though the disqualification came into play just this past week, Lakeview High's story of a male cheerleader has been brewing for several months. 

Long before the recent Port Huron competition, Lakeview High welcomed 14-year-old Brandon Urbas to its cheerleading team. The squad was looking forward to the upcoming 2011-2012 season's series of meets and tournaments.

Upon becoming the school's only male cheerleader earlier this year, Urbas had received support from the school and his peers since day one.

In regards to his association with the Lakeview High football team, Urbas summed it up as a very reassuring alliance: "They just tell me that if I have any problems to let them know and they always have my back."

However, neither the school nor its football players could prevent the disqualification issued last week based solely on gender. 

Despite Lakeview High's widespread support for Urbas' endeavor, the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) disqualified Lakeview High's cheerleaders for violating an association rule—a rule the MHSAA indicated they were not willing to change.

The MHSAA oversees just about every high school sporting event played in the state of Michigan—from bowling to skiing, it all falls under the jurisdiction of the MHSAA and its rules.

One MHSAA's rule bars males from participating on teams which generally include only females. When asked for comment, the MHSAA issued the following statement:

Boys may not participate on a girls team in MHSAA sponsored postseason meets and tournaments. Schools have adopted this position to preserve participation opportunities for the historically underrepresented gender.

In other words, girls are not prohibited from participating on boys' teams, but boys are forbidden from participating on girls' teams.

In even simpler terms, the MHSAA is imposing a double standard because of a historical trend of underrepresentation.

The question then becomes, is this a fair rule or is this a case of unconstitutional or otherwise illegal discrimination?

Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments specifies that "no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in...any educational program or activity."

However, the MHSAA and other associations are permitted to designate certain sports as girls-only, boys-only, co-ed mixed, or co-ed separate.

The MHSAA offers 18 sports, 14 of which offer a boys team and 14 of which offer a girls team—separate, but equal, right?

Wrong. Because girls historically are underrepresented in sports, they are allowed to participate in all 18 sports offered by the MHSAA. The boys? Only 14.

Earlier this season, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association banned a 16-year-old boy from participating on his school's girls field hockey team. When pressed for comment, the NJSIAA provided a rule similar to the MHSAA's: "males shall be excluded from female athletic teams although there are no teams for boys in the same sport."

As is the case with the MHSAA, the NJSIAA allows females to play on male teams if there are no teams for girls in the same sport.

At this point, it is important to note that the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) allows boys to play on girls' teams just as they allow girls' to play with the boys.

As the NFHS oversees the entire country, the boys-girls exclusion argument should be considered a states' issue.

For instance, while Michigan and New Jersey are two of several states which currently prohibit boys from playing on girls' teams, there are others which allow it.

States which allowed boys to play on their school's girls' field hockey team during the 2010-2011 school year when a boys' equivalent was not offered included California (123 males on female teams), Kentucky (19), Massachusetts (36), Ohio (33) and Vermont (97).

Based on participation statistics from the 2010-2011 season, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, New Hampshire Oregon, and Washington have also allowed boys to play on select girls' teams. Idaho, Maine, Missouri, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Tennessee had additionally authorized the practice as recently as 2009.

Even New Jersey had previously allowed for the male-to-female crossover when no schools in the state were willing to offer a boys' gymnastics program from 2005 through 2009. This exemption has since expired.

As far as girls playing on boys' teams is concerned, Pershing High recently welcomed a female right tackle to its boys' football team. For those keeping score, Pershing High is located in Detroit, Michigan and is subject to the MHSAA's jurisdiction.

In April, the Wheelock College men's tennis team featured female freshman Claire O'Donoghue, who at the time said, "Because it's a men's sport, I feel like it's a greater honor." Wheelock did not offer a women's team at the time.

Complicating matters, high schooler Joel Northrup willingly forfeited a wrestling match last February when he refused to compete against female challenger Cassy Herkelman, stating "I have a tremendous amount of respect for Cassy('s)...accomplishments...however, wrestling is a combat sport and it can get violent at times."

Sounds like that double standard again.

The courts have long held that the "males are stronger, females are weaker" defense is a misnomer—as far as the law is concerned, the issue of boys playing on girls' teams and vice versa has absolutely nothing to do with the perceived strength differential between the two sexes.

Instead, the only legal argument recognized by the courts is the boys-girls participation differential.

According to the National Women's Law Center, girls comprise 41 percent of all high school athletes and according to the NWLC, that implies a lack of equal opportunity in high school athletics.

For this argument to really work, one must assume that males and females are equally enthusiastic about participating in sports and, all else equal, would participate at a rate of 50-50.

For evidence, the NWLC and many Title IX advocates turn to the disproportionate state of sports coverage. Try finding the WNBA section on Bleacher Report. I'll wait.

Did you find it yet? It's all the way on the right hand side of the page under the "More" tab.

Meanwhile, the first few selections on b/r include the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, CFB, Soccer and several other men's sports. Even women's pro soccer and women's college basketball are hidden under the "More" tab.

I'm not simply picking on Bleacher Report. Visit just about any major sports website and you'll observe the exact same thing. From ESPN to Fox Sports and beyond, women's sports simply don't get close to the same level of exposure that men's sports receive.

Plain and simple, interest levels drive coverage, ratings, and money. And men's sports draw far more interest than women's sports.

For example, the Dallas Mavericks' win over the Miami Heat in Game 6 of the 2011 NBA Finals drew a 13.3 Nielsen rating, while Game 3 (the deciding game) between Atlanta and Minnesota of the 2011 WNBA Finals drew just a 0.3 rating, losing out to a Boise State-Fresno State football game and two separate NLDS Game 5s (Diamondbacks vs. Brewers and Cardinals vs. Phillies).


Men's sports are ratings giants, while women's sports are at the bottom of the ratings food chain. This partly explains the dramatic difference between men's and women's professional sports salaries. More money flows to the men's leagues.

Should this keep boys like Brandon Urbas from being allowed to invade the realm of girl's sports? Debatable.

What's certain is that women's sports are in trouble.

The strength and speed argument has been thrown out of the legal arena, but it remains a focal point in the court of public opinion.

Though women like Billie Jean King, Michelle Wie, and even Violet Palmer (female NBA official) have attempted to make strides into the more popular side of sports, the fact is that with limited exceptions—tennis, for one—male sports have continued to greatly outshine their female counterparts in popularity and revenue.

The most visited sport in total attendance is MLB (73,451,522 fans), with over 50 million more fans than any other league. Big-market baseball still draws more fans on its worst day than basketball does on its best.

NBA cumulative attendance in 2010-11 was 21,302,573. For the WNBA, it was just 1,621,467.

But total attendance is misleading. Baseball plays more games than men's basketball, which in turn plays more games than women's basketball. It would be wiser to focus on average attendance.

You might be wondering, "why focus on baseball?"

Just try and find professional softball attendance and revenue figures. That's why.

MLB averaged 30,352 fans per game in 2011, while the NBA drew an average of 17,319 fans per game during the 2010-11 season and the WNBA—playing in many of the very same arenas the NBA plays in—drew just 7,948 fans per game in 2011.

Keep in mind the average WNBA ticket costs just $15, while the average NBA ticket costs $50—over three times as much.

For further illustration, the major league level equivalent of Women's Professional Soccer averaged less fans per game last year than minor league baseball's lowest-level single-A Midwest League. 

Unfortunately, there is just no arguing with this immense disparity in ratings, profits, and attendance.

Armed with this knowledge, the powers-that-be have deemed that the best laid plans of young men like Urbas must be obstructed in order to save a fledgling—if not outright dying—breed.

The question, therefore, shifts to how society should interpret Title IX and define the natural order of things.

Is the ceteris paribus approach of assuming an ideal 50-50 male-female participation rate accurate? Is it fair?

How does one even begin to discuss the influential value of the male-female sports disparity without falling prey to gender and cultural stereotypes?

These questions are so abstract and futile—not to mention controversial—that placing a stay on the ability of children like Urbas to pursue his passion seems rather petty and conceited.

The MHSAA and other like associations might prohibit male-to-female cross-contamination, as it were, and it might impose rules, conjure theories, and possess principles to back them up.

But in the end, such rules, boundaries, and stereotypes seem to run in stark contrast to the very virtues they are designed to protect.


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