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Turns out scheduling soccer games in months when fields are frozen is disadvantageous to the players. So a federal judge told the Michigan High School Athletic Association in a 97-page opinion directing the organization to reschedule sports seasons in a way fair to both genders. The case, a Title IX dispute three years in the making, began in 1998 when plaintiffs — mothers acting on behalf of their under-18-year-old daughters — filed a gender discrimination class action against the athletic association. Kristen Galles of Equity Legal, an Alexandria, Va.-based Title IX specialist, and Debbie Brake at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) took the case and settled all but one of the issues. That issue — the scheduling of girls sports in allegedly nontraditional and disadvantageous seasons — went to a bench trial last fall. By then, Brake had left for academia, but new NWLC attorneys Neena Chaudry and Barbara Burr had taken up her work on the case. Brought on for his trial experience, Philip Cohan, a partner in Piper Marbury Rudnick & Wolfe’s D.C. office, joined the case pro bono a couple of weeks before trial. The team had to show that the athletic association — no longer officially affiliated with the public education system — was a state actor and, as such, subject to Title IX rules, and that it had violated those rules by treating girls’ teams differently from boys’ teams by scheduling girls’ sports in disadvantageous seasons. Girls played volleyball in the winter; basketball, tennis, swimming, and diving in the fall; and soccer and golf in the spring. Soccer seasons often started on frozen or snow-covered fields. Basketball games were scheduled on weeknights to accommodate the football schedule. Swimming and diving season ended several months before national club tournaments start. The disadvantages ranged from missing college scholarship recruiting seasons and national shoot-out competitions to decreased community support due to weeknight games and season overlap with more-popular boys’ sports. “Historically, women’s athletics has come later. Men’s athletics hold front and center and in many communities are part of the culture,” says Cohan, who has a daughter involved in intercollegiate sports at Williams College. “One of the consequences is that the girls themselves and their parents are uninformed or unaware that this is gender discrimination. These kinds of cases are often not supported initially by the community.” “Michigan is one of the last — if not the last — of all 50 states to either lose by litigation or voluntarily conform” to fair season distribution, says Cohan. “When the other 49 states have figured out ways to resolve the discrimination, it’s pretty hard for one state to say that it is unique in its inability to conform.” The court ruled that the athletic association — comprising 700-plus high schools, more than 80 percent of which are public — is subject to Title IX and must reschedule the seasons in one of two ways: Either boys’ and girls’ sports of the same kind are to be scheduled in the same season, or the disadvantageous seasons are to be shared equally by both genders. Title IX issues are being challenged across the country, and the Michigan ruling is important for testing coverage under the law. “Other state high school athletic associations have been watching it all along,” says Equity Legal’s Galles. “It’s definitely a wake-up call to state high school athletics associations.”

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