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Who's on First?

Who's on First?
August 17, 2010

A sports conference that always scheduled weekday basketball doubleheaders in which women’s teams played the first game — letting the men play in the later time slot — has altered the practice, after an anonymous sex discrimination complaint charged that this made the women’s games appear to be a “warm-up” act for the men’s games.

Now, hoping to avoid possible gender equity suits, other athletic conferences are considering similar scheduling changes.

Last month, the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletics Conference announced that it would alternate from season to season the order in which men’s and women’s teams would play in doubleheaders. The men will play first this season, and the women will play first next season.

Dell Robinson, the conference commissioner, said the decision was made after the league received an inquiry in March from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. An anonymous complaint filed with the agency argued that the negative connotation conveyed by always having women’s teams play first in these doubleheaders was detrimental to women’s athletics.

Robinson did not identify the group that filed the complaint, but news briefs from the National Collegiate Athletic Association noted that it was filed by a “special interest group” in Grand Rapids, Mich., that “helped influence a similar decision the Michigan High School Athletic Association made a few years ago.”

Robinson said that he was not convinced that the civil rights office had jurisdiction over a conference as opposed to over each of its member institutions individually. But he said he had concluded that such qualms were “not worth the fight” and that he was doing what was best for his member colleges by getting rid of any potential gender equity issue.

Robinson noted that, in the past, women’s teams had always played first in such doubleheaders and that, in his opinion, this did not always mean one game was more important than another. Still, he said that his conference was taking a prudent stance.

“We were told by our consultants about this that it doesn’t matter if your women’s coaches and players like this or not, that there could still be an issue with the law,” Robinson said. “The offices out there in the federal government are getting more aggressive, so we just wanted to be more visionary and ahead of the curve.”

Robinson said that the conference would evaluate the process of alternating start times in a few seasons to see how, if at all, it affected fan interest in women’s sports. If the change ends up having an unintended effect — such as decreasing attendance at women’s games — he said the conference would consider altering it in the future.

Because the league voluntarily altered its approach to doubleheaders upon receiving the complaint, OCR never issued a ruling on its views on doubleheaders, starting times and gender equity. Robinson said he now considers the matter moot.

The Fallout

Still, the government inquiry into the matter has created a ripple around the world of college athletics, and some conferences are so concerned they could face scrutiny in the future that they are eyeing changes for their doubleheaders as well.

Donna M. Ledwin, commissioner of the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference, said her members will carefully consider how to handle the scheduling of doubleheaders at their annual meeting next month. Faculty athletics representatives within her conference have already brought the matter to her attention.

“Their concern is that, as the women always play first in the mid-afternoon, the women are consistently more likely to miss class than the men, whether they are at home or on the road,” Ledwin said. “Why do women play first? Well, that’s just traditionally been the way. No one has internally advocated for change.”

If the conference's faculty representatives can prove that there are academic inequities in women's always playing first, Ledwin said she would seriously consider making a change. Still, if the women’s games have all of the “bells and whistles” of the men’s games — equal promotion, access to concessions and use of facilities it is hard to make a case that their games are “warm-up acts,” she said.

The obvious solution to the problem, if there is one, would be for men and women to not play doubleheaders. But that is not always an option for Division II and III institutions, which often have their men’s and women’s teams travel together to save money, Ledwin said. If forced to make a decision, she said she would rather alternate starting times. For now, she said her conference was taking time to investigate whether this was really a gender equity issue for them.

“I think you can sleep at night if you provide the same resources for both games,” Ledwin said. “Still, I think there’s some validity for an academic claim. I just know I don’t want to go to the mat with OCR on this. I don’t know we have the resources to fight it and arguments to refute what they say.”

Others are not waiting to investigate the pros and cons of doubleheader scheduling and are instead making changes to avoid gender equity complaints.

Christa Parulis-Kaye, spokeswoman for the New England Collegiate Conference, said her league’s member institutions have been instructed that they are to alternate the opening games for their doubleheaders this season. She insists, however, that the change is being instituted not because of outside complaints but because of internal debates about what is best for “student-athlete welfare,” echoing Ledwin's concerns that women may be missing more class time on weekdays because they play games earlier than the men do.

Rob Douthit, spokesman for the University of West Georgia, noted that his institution had decided to have the women play in the later time slot for all of its non-conference doubleheaders in all sports this season. Its decision was spurred by a separate OCR complaint.

“We had a complaint from a parent of one of our women’s soccer players about changes that had been made in accommodations for athletes in hotels or something,” Douthit said. “The parent was disgruntled by this and, I guess, filed some sort of complaint. The thing that [OCR] dinged us on was the doubleheader scheduling.”

The Experts’ View

Gender equity experts had a range of thoughts about the issue of scheduling and compliance, but generally agreed the inquiry could have an impact on how other conferences schedule men's and women's games.

Erin Buzuvis, associate professor at Western New England College School of Law and co-founder of The Title IX Blog, said this is “not a scheduling controversy of the usual variety.” More often, she noted, “there is more attention to scheduling inequities in the season of the year and the day of the week than there is over the time of day.” Still, she could note at least one similar case at the high school level from 2007.

“There certainly seems like such an easy fix to this,” Buzuvis said. “I don’t see the issue if you just alternate who goes first. If the earlier or the later time has benefits, then why shouldn’t you let both of those be shared?”

Regardless of whether or not there are “hard factors” that make one start time more valuable than another — such as the ability of parents to come watch, or the likelihood of missing class time — Buzuvis argued that the general sense that the first slot is somehow less important could form the basis of a gender equity case.

“The question is, ‘Would the alternative time slot also be acceptable to the men?’ ” Buzuvis said. “If they said they wouldn’t want to trade places with the girls, but didn’t say why, then there’s an issue there.”

Nancy Hogshead-Makar, legal adviser to the Women’s Sports Foundation and professor at Florida Coastal School of Law, acknowledged that she has not heard many complaints regarding starting times. Still, she said she understood some of the feeling associated with playing first in such doubleheaders.

“In most NCAA doubleheaders, almost always, the major game is the last game,” Hogshead-Makar said. “If that’s the impression that gets left with students, you know, that they’re not in the real game, then that’s not a good thing.”

Valerie M. Bonnette, an independent consultant on gender equity issues who worked at OCR for 15 years, said conflict over scheduling is “an old, old issue that may well be resurfacing again.” Whether having women play first in a doubleheader is a gender equity issue, she said, depends on the facts of each individual case. She said she is not surprised that the federal office has not ruled directly on the issue.

“OCR is not going to make an issue out of this,” Bonnette said. “All they can do is give general advice. Such as, ‘If this is the reason why you’re doing it, then it’s not okay.’ You have to look at this on a case-by-case basis. This is an issue that OCR dealt with all the time in the 1980s.”

Still, Bonnette said she did not appreciate those outside of college sports filing complaints and making an issue out of scheduling in circumstances where female coaches, players and fans did not perceive there to be a problem.

“If they are happy with the scheduling the way it is, then I think it’s not appropriate for someone to say you should be unhappy with your scheduling,” Bonnette said.

 

 

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