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Girls high school basketball may get primetime payoff

After 15 years with little improvement, a glimmer of hope emerges for girls to play basketball on the best nights more often


12:00 AM, Feb. 19, 2013 EST

Amber Parker, the coach who filed a Title XI suit, does not expect to receive any coaching offers when she returns to Indiana. / File photo

Stephanie Mavunga is one of the best high school basketball players in country.

Yet on Friday nights, when Hoosiers fill basketball gyms, they rarely saw the Brownsburg senior forward play -- even though that's against federal law.

An Indianapolis Star analysis into 80 area programs revealed 78 of them are violating federal Title IX laws, which prohibit gender-based discrimination, by having boys' teams play in primetime nearly twice as often as girls on average.

"I don't think it's necessarily fair," said Mavunga, who has signed with the University of North Carolina. "I talk to a lot of my friends who say they can't make it (on a weeknight) because they have this or that to study. But on Friday night they can make it."

It's too late for Mavunga; her career ended Saturday in regional. But the era of ignoring the 15-year-old Title IX rules when setting Indiana high school basketball schedules may be coming to an end.

* A federal lawsuit filed by a former girls basketball coach was recently settled and will force one school district to be in compliance by 2016-17.

* The Indiana High School Athletic Association had previously taken a hands-off approach on the issue because it isn't involved in regular-season scheduling, but recently sent an email encouraging schools to balance their schedules, and included a link to the consent decree from the case.

"Hopefully for the girls of the future they do change it, because it would be more fun and beneficial for the girls' teams in Indiana," said Hamilton Southeastern forward Taya Reimer, who has signed with Notre Dame.

While some question the importance of having balanced schedules -- including girls basketball coaches and female athletic administrators who spoke to The Star -- there are three concerns: less time for homework when playing more often on weeknights; more difficult for fans to see the team play; and the implication that girls are less deserving of primetime exposure.

Some schools are implementing creative solutions, but there are two big deterrents. Reducing the number of boys games on weekend nights can have serious financial implications for a school. And Title IX isn't easily enforced -- a complaint must be filed with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights, or a lawsuit must be filed.

Then Franklin County girls coach Amber Parker first spoke publicly of filing a lawsuit on behalf of her daughter against the school in January 2009 because the boys team received more favorable playing dates. She filed the suit in July 2010 after her contract was not renewed following the 2008-09 season.

"I was very shocked at the level of resistance I encountered when I began to pursue this," said Parker, who moved to Massachusetts in July 2010 when her husband received a promotion. "I had people tell me, 'We know it's not fair and it's not right but this is the way we've always done it and we're going to keep doing it.'

"It was appalling to me and unacceptable."

Substantial equity

After Parker's case was settled in October, IHSAA commissioner Bobby Cox told The Associated Press: "Friday and Saturday opportunities for girls have increased over the years. (However) some schools may feel the Friday and Saturday nights are not the best opportunities for girls."

Though in violation of Title IX -- the schedules must have "substantial equity" according to the law -- that attitude reflected the organization's long-time approach to the issue. The IHSAA was first contacted about its scheduling inequity in 1997 by the Office of Civil Rights in Chicago when 38.5 percent of the girls games were in primetime (Fridays, Saturdays and the Wednesday before Thanksgiving) compared to 81.2 percent for the boys. Those figures have slightly improved to 44.4 and 76.6, respectively, this season.

Cox has now changed his position.

Less than two weeks after his initial comments, Cox sent an email to the schools saying, in part: "I would encourage you to examine all your athletic schedules with an eye toward achieving equality for both genders. An effort in this area may prove to be propitious in the future for your school and community."

Cox added more recently: "To my mind, it's a pretty strong piece of enforcement that has been provided to every member school. I think it's prudent for schools to look at their schedules and make sure they are in compliance."

The Department of Education can rescind federal funds in Title IX cases, though Office of Civil Rights spokesman Jim Bradshaw said it's able to negotiate resolution agreements with the school districts to get them into compliance.

The primary reason there has been little change in scheduling philosophies is financial. With caps to property taxes that help fund public education, athletic departments are absorbing increased transportation costs.

An analysis of ticket revenue acquired through the Freedom of Information Act indicate moving boys games to weeknights in favor of the girls could cost larger athletic departments as much as $5,000, the amount it costs to operate a team, according to Lawrence North athletic director Grant Nesbit.

"The reality is that a number of our members' concerns are in regards to how do we make ends meet if we have to move games off that primetime to a different night," Cox said. "(They believe) people are not going to come out on Tuesday like Friday. If that's the case, that creates a negative reaction to trying to do what is right by the law."

There are other solutions, however.

The Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference voted on Feb. 6 to have the girls and boys play every Friday -- one on the road, one at home -- to comply with Title IX without costing the boys the potentially more lucrative dates.

"From a fan standpoint, there will always be a game at home on Friday nights," Nesbit said. "Many of the girls and boys are good friends. It's unfortunate they won't get to see each other play, but at a school our size that's common in a lot of the sports.

"Time will tell whether we see an increased gate for the girls games (by playing more often on Fridays). In my opinion, it's not the day of the week but the product you are putting out there."

Nesbit noted the Lawrence North-Lawrence Central boys and girls games were held on weeknights but brought in a season-high $7,345 for the boys and $1,635 for the girls (second only to the $1,765 for a weeknight game against highly-ranked Bedford North Lawrence). Nesbit said he also favors having the boys and girl play on alternating Tuesday nights because Saturdays tend to draw the smallest crowds, despite their legal definition as primetime.

"High school athletic directors advocate for our boys and girls athletes, but that being said we still have to meet our budget needs," Nesbit said. "With the property tax caps, the budgets have become more and more strained.

"So we can't move boys games away from Friday night, all we can do is move girls games to Friday night."

Another possibility is to have the boys and girls play on the same night at the same site.

The Sagamore Conference has been playing boy-girl doubleheaders for a majority of its games for more than 15 years and some of its programs are among those closest to compliance. An analysis of Lebanon's ticket revenue from 2011-12 indicates the school is neither helped nor hurt financially by doubleheaders as opposed to playing a girls game on a weeknight and the boys in primetime.

"Pairing the boys and girls together in a great basketball community like Lebanon allows out kids to play in front of tournament-type crowds night-in and night-out," girls basketball coach Beth DeVinney said in an email. "Our student body supports both teams and it lends itself to great school spirit and pride."

Hamilton Southeastern's ticket revenue indicates doubleheaders can be more lucrative. It made $7,130 for a doubleheader with Hamilton County rival Noblesville on a Friday night last season. But having Carmel, another county rival, on a Saturday for the girls ($2,690, its top single-game figure) and Thursday for the boys ($3,885) produced less revenue. That, of course, assumes the teams could find a date for both teams to play.

'The price you pay'

Amber Parker moved to Massachusetts in the middle of her lawsuit when her husband, Jason, was promoted from a cable manufacturing plant in Richmond, Ind. (Tammy Hurley, a parent of another Franklin County girls basketball player, was added to the suit so it could continue after Parker moved.)

But because the company is based in Indianapolis, Parker, who received no money from the lawsuit, expects to return to Indiana. By then she hopes the precedent-setting case she filed to force balanced schedules will be a distant memory.

"I'm hoping when my 4-year-old (Gentry) plays on Friday nights in Indiana, it will be water under the bridge," said Parker, who is now an assistant volleyball coach in Massachusetts. "No one will even remember there ever was a different way. But I understand when I move back to Indiana I will never coach again.

"It's the price you pay."

 

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