The Equity of Extra-Curricular Education

It goes without saying that the role of the educational communities extends beyond the final bell of the school day. In most communities where I’m from, schools provide a variety of extra-curricular activities that are athletic, artistic and academic in nature. In general, most of these clubs are small and get very little publicity for their efforts.

Equity isn’t an issue in many of these clubs and activities because boys and girls can participate together. Clubs and activities like robotics, art club, drama, quiz bowl, for example, typically don’t deal with equity issues (at least not based on gender) because the main factors of inclusion tend to be interest, ability, and availability.

However, there is one huge area of extra-curricular activities where gender segregation is standard operating procedure: athletics. Within this realm, there are male sports (e.g., football, wrestling, baseball) and female sports (e.g., volleyball, softball). There’s sports where both genders can play, but they each have their own teams (e.g., soccer, basketball, golf, lacrosse). There’s also sports where technically the teams compete separately, but typically schedule, practice and travel as if the teams are co-ed (e.g., cross country, track and field, bowling).

Just so we are all on the same page, I’m going to state the obvious: institutional segregation of any kind is asking for some extra scrutiny. That does not mean the segregation is wrong or harmful, but it does mean that we need to be sure that the methods, reasons, and relationships between the segregated groups are arranged deliberately and equitably.

An article written by Graham Couch appeared in my local paper on May 27, 2013, that addressed this issue of gender equality in dealing with extra-curriculars.

As I stated before, almost all extra-curricular clubs and groups are low-publicity groups whose non-participant supporters tend to be parents of the participants. In mid-Michigan, there’s a small handful of exceptions to this. Fine arts clubs (theatre, choir, art, band and orchestra) tend to draw big crowds and certain athletic events: typically basketball and football. These events are advertised in the newspapers, they have billboards, news reporters are on-site during events along with lot of spectators.

To add an additional level of complexity to this, money is involved in a few of these. Big ticket fine arts events are normally free for spectators (theatre being the exception, and if you include the marching band performances at halftime of the football games). Schools also charge admission for big ticket sporting events like football and basketball.

The issue of money isn’t a small issue. Theatre departments can be expensive clubs. Continuing the program is dependent on filling the auditorium with paying spectators for every performance. Also, most schools depend quite heavily on revenue from football and basketball games to balance their athletic budgets. So, it would make a ton of sense to schedule these events carefully to maximize their attendance. Football owns Friday nights in the fall.  Theatre performances tend to be multi-day weekend events. Thursday-Saturday in the evenings and a Sunday matinee. No gender equity issues, right?

What about basketball? Both boys and girls play it. In Michigan communities, boys basketball is typically much more popular to spectators than girls basketball. That is, it draws bigger crowds. That is, it makes more money. So, schools have worked hard to keep varsity boys basketball games on Friday evenings to maximize admissions revenue. Seems reasonable… right?

Well, there’s a civil right complaint going through the Michigan Department of Education right now that’s forcing us to deal with that issue.

From the article: “There is no perfect way to schedule girls high school basketball. There never really was and there might never be. It’s a matter of meshing equality with what’s best for student-athletes and what’s accepted by communities. And those three ideals, most places, don’t work in concert.”

Things we’ve tried in Michigan:

  • Girls’ basketball season to be played in the fall to avoid direct conflict. Courts ruled in several years ago that fall scheduling was an unnecessary detriment to female athletes getting recruited to play at the college level as most of the recruiting work was done in the winter.
  • Girls’ being played on different days. But this added bus trips and made scheduling within conferences more complex. Especially considering that the gyms in most schools are also being used in the winter for volleyball and wrestling. Plus each basketball program has at least a junior varsity team, and many have freshman teams.
  • Replacing the typically slot for JV boys (right before the varsity boys) with varsity girls on Friday nights. But, as Couch puts it: “The argument against that schedule, however, is the girls game feels like a JV game.”
  • So, we’ve tried alternating the schedules, putting boys varsity games first followed by girls’ games. But, as Couch puts it: “When the girls play second… many fans leave as they’re warming up or beginning play. And the athletes notice.” He continues: “Is it equitable to have your fan base walk out on your girls game on a Friday night?” Fulton AD and CMAC president Chad Podolak said. “Maybe it is, because you’re playing on a Friday night, but the girls I’ve talked to just feel terrible about it.”
  • How about both varsity teams play the same nights, but at opposite locations. So, the same two schools are competing just one school hosts the girls games and one school hosts the boys game. Well, as Couch puts it: “And, if the teams are instead separated — one on the road, one at home — the fan base is split, but not equally.”

So, it there seems an equity issue. But, I am concerned that this might be bigger than high school sports.

Consider that Michigan is a fantastic sports state. The fans are enthusiastic and loyal. Michigan supports six major programs (Red Wings, Lions, Tigers, Pistons, Spartans, and Wolverines). Not all of these teams are good all the time. In fact, the Lions are almost always frustratingly poor. The Pistons have been one of the worst teams in the NBA the last three or four years. The Tigers have gone through several stretches where they have struggled mightily (although right now, that is not the case). There has never been any talk of these teams leaving Detroit. You never hear that. Ever.

The Detroit Shock were a WNBA team that started in 1998. In the first twelve seasons, all they did was make the playoffs 8 times, the finals 4 times and won three WNBA championships. (If the Lions supported those winning percentages over their existence, they’d have won 11 super bowls by now.) In 2009, The Shock franchise moved their team to Tulsa, hoping for more enthusiastic support from its local fan base.

From Couch: “The issue, and often proverbial elephant in the room, comes down to this: Basketball is the only spectator sport in which girls and boys go head-to-head, in high school or college. And it’s a sport built around height and athleticism, one where the physical differences in genders are pronounced.”

So, here’s my question: To what degree is it the individual high school athletic departments responsibility to help solve this social preference? The athletic departments, conferences and schedule-makers are contorting themselves to no end to try to balance out a social imbalance that seems to exist beyond the scope of the school. Do we really think that schools are responsible for causing the issue?

And before we explore the issue of schools having the responsibility to solve this problem, let’s first discuss is local school districts have the ability to solve this problem?

Let’s get back to what extra-curricular activities of all sorts are designed to do: give young people an additional way to be engaged by the school curriculum to support the overall educational experience for their 13-run from kindergarten to graduation.

Does forcing girls’ basketball to bear the civil rights burden in a way that the girls bowling team doesn’t make it a better educationally-supportive activity for the students? Are the schools (whose lack of adequate funding is always used as a political tool) at fault for trying to maximize their revenue? At what point are the schools simply called upon to create equality of opportunity and the community is on it’s own to respond? Do these problems all go away if we outlaw charging admission at games? Might the loss of revenue make the sports go away, too?

I don’t know. And it seems that I’m not the only one asking these questions.

From Couch: “The question is, at what age or level do these realities matter? When does it stop being strictly about educational opportunity and begin to morph into spectator-driven sport?”

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