MAXWELL:  “I can’t make young ladies participate’

9/10/1997 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


John Burns, the athletic director at Northeast High School in Oakland Park, understands bean-counting and “gender equity” in sports. He also knows the legal headaches that bean-counting can cause if the figures do not satisfy Department of Education bureaucrats in Tallahassee.

He first practiced this dubious, statistical craft in 1993, when he coached girls varsity basketball at Northeast. During the initial months of the season, he could not find enough girls to form a team, so he stalked the hallways for recruits.

Finally, by January, eight girls had come on board, and they played the 12 games left in the season. But Burns was still in trouble because Northeast did not meet state guidelines requiring the percentage of female athletes to be no more than 5 points below the number of females in the school population.

Today, Burns, like many athletic directors elsewhere in the state, is in trouble again.

A report recently released by the Education Department cited Northeast, along with five other Broward schools and more statewide, for not complying with the Florida Educational Equity Act and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. These laws guarantee that female athletes will be treated equitably.

Although the report claims that 90 percent of Florida’s schools are either in compliance or have demonstrated substantial progress in reducing sex discrimination in sports, Burns and others believe that merely counting heads misses much of the real story behind the shortage of female athletes, and it unfairly brands school officials.

“Kids have too many outside interests today,” Burns recently told the Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale. “There are other things to do. Kids want cars, and if the weather is nice, they’d rather be outside.”

William Gillespie, the principal of Boyd Anderson High School, is also in trouble with Tallahassee. His school was sanctioned because it fielded 11 varsity sports for boys but only nine for girls. Worst of all, the school did not play girls softball, the most popular sport for females at most schools in the state.

If Gillespie does not comply with the law soon or show good faith to do so, the state could shut down his athletic department and cut off all funding. Gillespie, who has worked hard to attract girls to sports, is angry. “I can’t make young ladies participate,” he said. “We provide every sport . . . but we can’t make them play.”

At Northeast last year, only one girl wanted to wrestle, so the school did not have a female wrestling team. The lone girl wrestled with the boys. Clearly, this is a case in which officials should not be blamed for the lack of female interest, Burns said.

Officials at Miramar High School are worried, too. Last year, so few girls showed interest in softball that the team broke up mid-year.

While state education officials are good at writing threatening letters and regularly blaming the wrong people, they are short on real solutions.

Most of the schools cited have made real efforts to remove sex discrimination from their programs. In Broward, for example, all athletic directors met to share ideas on how to bring more girls into sports.

But a few sobering realities confronted them. For one, many female students are apathetic toward sports. But a larger problem is that many of the schools in Broward offer magnet programs that have demanding, specialized curriculums and non-traditional boundaries that bring students from other parts of the county.

“I have to catch the bus to Miramar,” said a Dillard High senior who is in the magnet program. “I have homework every night. I would love to play on the girls basketball team, but I don’t have time. I mean, we’re on the bus an hour and a half after school. Plus I have a job at Broward Mall.”

The bottom line is that school officials cannot shoulder the entire responsibility for gender equity. Parents also should get involved if they believe that sports are important. Another problem is that most of the community-based programs, such as recreation leagues, that used to develop young athletes who later participated in school sports have been eliminated or drastically cut back.

Bean-counting for gender equity, therefore, is such an inexact science that it should be used along with other measures and, of course, with an eye on critical factors such as demographics, the level of female interest in sports and a consideration of whether or not the school offers a magnet program.

The biggest danger in relying on bean-counting is that it leaves little room for common sense.