By Ashkan Motamedi

In Vista, California, heroes wear softball uniforms. Their names: Danielle Ellis and Sydney Prenatt.

Ellis and Prenatt resist such praise. But at Rancho Buena Vista High School, where the pair were teammates on the Longhorns softball team for four years before graduating in 2018, that’s exactly how they’re remembered.

“They should absolutely be considered heroes. What they did was selfless and it’s going to help so many girls in the future,” said Ava Bradford, a former Rancho Buena Vista softball player.

Ellis’ and Prenatt’s story is rare. A four-month investigation of Title IX and high school sports by The Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and Howard Center for Investigative Journalism found many high school girls lack the information to recognize Title IX violations and to demand change from school officials.

Not Ellis and Prenatt.

On May 8, 2018, as teammates looked on, Ellis and Prenatt read a letter from the Vista Unified School District board. They learned that the board had approved a new softball field to be built on campus. They’d won their fight for equal treatment.

“It was a really powerful moment,” Prenatt said. “I almost started crying, just because it was really surreal.”

As seniors, the friends and teammates were students in a government class taught by Timothy Leary, a beloved figure at the school for 26 years. In the first unit of Leary’s class, Ellis and Prenatt learned about the five concepts of democracy, specifically civil rights and the full extent of Title IX as it pertains to equal opportunity in sport. As they discussed the law and its purpose, a lightbulb went on about their softball field.

“Sydney and I sat down and analyzed Title IX as a law. We’re like, ‘OK, this is a big deal. This is a very major issue,’” Ellis said. “We always noticed the differences and stuff, but we didn’t realize that there was a law specifically that addressed that.”

There were many differences between the baseball field for boys and the softball field for girls. All favored the boys. The softball field was off campus at Buena Vista Park, where the girls played on the Buena Vista Ballfields about one-third mile from the school. The softball players also had to provide their own transportation, or walk.

Other facilities were lacking. The field conditions were below average. The softball team’s storage facilities did not match those for the baseball team. As a result, the players had to walk to their classes with their softball gear. The bathrooms at the park were also sometimes locked and there were instances when the athletes said they felt their privacy was being violated by passersby.

“It just made us feel underappreciated and undervalued [by] the school,” Ellis said.

The baseball diamond was far superior. It was on campus, had better field conditions, had a clubhouse to store gear, had access to the school bathrooms and had batting cages. The baseball team determined when it got to use the field.

Prenatt explained that playing softball on a field in a public park owned by the city made it difficult to schedule games and practice, knowing other teams needed to use the field as well.

“From our perspective, it was so blatantly obvious, the unequalness,” Prenatt said.

After consulting with their government teacher, Ellis and Prenatt focused their yearlong class project on their softball field and Title IX. They approached the school principal in the fall to ask for help. He was not supportive, they said.

“That’s when we knew that we had to go to the school board,” Ellis said.

Ellis and Prenatt contacted members of the Vista Unified School District board, leading to a tense conversation with the principal, Ellis said. (Attempts to contact the principal, who has since left the school, were unsuccessful).

The girls faced other roadblocks. But Ellis and Prenatt were not going to let each other stop short of their goal.

“[Danielle] and I were both firing each other up and saying, ’No, why would we stop because it’s so blatantly an obvious violation,’” Prenatt said. “We also knew the softball team deserves better and our coaches deserve better. That’s why we weren’t really super discouraged by not hearing [what we want].”

They decided to go to a school board meeting on April 12, 2018, after their softball game against Ramona High School. They were dressed in their uniforms when they gave a speech about their proposal for a new field.

“We are asking you to all stand with us so that future girls don’t have to grow up thinking equality has to be earned,” Prenatt said during their speech to the school board. “They grow up believing that equality is expected.”

On Leary’s advice, they then made an emphatic gesture to get the attention of the school board.

“Basically, [Leary] told us ‘if you really want to make a statement, right after you give your speech you just walk out,’” Ellis said. “That’s what we did, we walked out, and then our teammates, our parents, everybody stood up and just walked out with us.”

About four weeks after the school board meeting, Ellis and Prenatt got the letter with the big news that the district was going to build a new softball field for Rancho Buena Vista High School.

“We read the letter to our entire team and we all started jumping around and screaming,” Prenatt said. “It was a really great moment, and it really made us feel seen and it made me really happy for the future softball players. … It was a really powerful moment. I’ll never forget it.”

The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new field at Rancho Buena Vista High School was held in February 2021. (Courtesy of Matt Doyle)

“The goal was definitely just to get the girls coming after us a softball field on campus, something that was comparable to the baseball field,” Ellis said. “The biggest goal was just to do better by the next generation, to give them something more than we ever had.”

Bradford, who was a freshman at the time of the school board meeting, was one of the softball players who got to play on the new field as a senior when it opened.

“We have so much gratitude for what Sydney and [Danielle] did,” Bradford said. “Just to be able to have the opportunity to play on that field. I’m just really grateful to have had my senior season there.”

Ellis’ and Prenatt’s Title IX story lives on in Leary’s government class when he teaches Title IX to his students.

“I use [Danielle] and Sydney in my class in my explanation every single year now,” Leary said. “What is so inspiring was that they were determined and this demonstrates what you can succeed and what you can achieve … when you don’t take no for an answer.”

The Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism collaborated on a four-month investigation into Title IX and high school sports. Support their work at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.

By Kara Newhouse

Title IX is 50 years old, but a poll has found that nearly three-quarters of secondary school students and nearly 60% of parents said they know “nothing at all” about the landmark civil rights law meant to ensure gender equity in education, including athletics.

The poll, conducted by Ipsos for The Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland, found that parents and students overwhelmingly agreed that boys and girls teams should receive equal treatment.

More than 3.4 million girls and almost 4.6 million boys play high school sports.


Only a third of the people polled said they believe that equal opportunities exist in high school athletics across the U.S. But in their own schools, parents and students judged the situation to be much better, the poll found: About two-thirds said boys and girls had equal opportunities there.

Beyond finding that a majority of parents lack knowledge of Title IX, the poll highlighted some differences among groups. Of male parents, 54% said they knew nothing about Title IX, compared to 62% of female parents. Nearly 80% of respondents with no college degree answered that they knew nothing about the law. That compared to 47% with a college degree.

Enforcement of Title IX largely relies on students and parents to report unfair treatment or unequal athletic opportunities, but many poll respondents expressed reluctance to speak up about potential violations.

In response to the poll results, Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary of the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education, said in a statement: “While we have made tremendous progress, there is more work to do to build educational environments free from discrimination and to educate the public on how important this law is.”

Most parents polled did not know whether their children’s school had a procedure for handling Title IX complaints.

The online poll of 1,008 parents and 506 children ages 12-17 now enrolled in school was conducted from March 18 to 28.

Under Title IX, all federally funded schools with athletics programs must provide equal opportunities and treatment in areas such as practice facilities, coaching and publicity. The majority of poll respondents answered “unsure” to questions that tested their knowledge about Title IX’s application and enforcement, such as whether the law covers all educational programs that receive federal funding (it does) and who can report Title IX violations (anyone).

Parents who said their children played sports differed little from other parents in their knowledge of Title IX.

Among respondents who had some familiarity with Title IX, most said their knowledge came from sources other than school officials or materials. Half of parents who knew about Title IX said they saw, heard or read about it online.

Students were somewhat more likely than their parents to learn about Title IX from school personnel. One-third said they saw, heard or read about the law online and 29% said their information came from a school coach or official.

The Office for Civil Rights is responsible for enforcing all aspects of Title IX. But its main enforcement mechanism relies on young athletes or their parents to know their rights, recognize violations and file a formal complaint with the federal agency.

About half of students and parents agreed that it was their responsibility to report a Title IX violation if they were aware of one, but many said they were unlikely to or uncertain about speaking up to the relevant officials.

Only a quarter of parents said they would consider submitting a complaint to the federal Department of Education, while 38% said they likely would not consider it and 34% said they didn’t know.

Parents were more likely to consider submitting a complaint to school personnel than to the federal government, but fewer than six in 10 parents said they would consider raising an issue with any kind of school official. A quarter of parents said they would not take any action if they witnessed a sports-related Title IX violation.

Parents who said they would be uncomfortable reporting a Title IX violation directly to their child’s school were largely concerned about negative repercussions for their child, the poll found. For students, too, fear of retaliation at school and negative reactions from peers were the biggest causes of reluctance.

The Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism collaborated on a four-month investigation into Title IX and high school sports. Support their work at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.

By Amanda Hernández and Emily Williams

Jack Mowatt, who spent decades umpiring softball in Prince George’s County, Maryland, knew the girls’ softball fields in the county were neglected — uneven, rutted, unsafe — while the boys’ baseball fields were well kept. When it rained, some softball fields did not drain. The fencing was jagged. Some benches were unusable and dangerous.

“Several years ago during a game, I thought: ‘These young women deserve more than this,’” Mowatt said when he testified in 2007 before a congressional committee.

Mowatt’s complaints 15 years ago led to a settlement under Title IX, the 1972 federal civil rights law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in public schools. Under that 2006 agreement, Prince George’s County Public Schools promised to adhere to Title IX requirements with a focus on boosting participation and improving conditions for high school girls softball programs as well as other sports countywide.

In the settlement agreed to by Prince George’s County and the National Women’s Law Center, the county promised to provide boys’ and girls’ teams with facilities such as locker rooms and practice and playing areas of equal quality and size.

“We’re going to be a prototype for other jurisdictions in the U.S. to meet Title IX compliance,” Beatrice P. Tignor, then chair of the school board, told The Washington Post in 2006.

The county made improvements. But 15 years later, problems remain.

At Parkdale High School in Riverdale, the softball team still doesn’t have a field at the school — though the county now provides transportation to a middle school nearby.

And at Bowie High School, while the baseball field is well tended, the dugouts at the softball field are collapsing, cordoned off with yellow caution tape.

“There’s still things in this county that could be done,” Mowatt said in a recent interview. “I worry about it.”

“The question is, really, are they continuing to pay attention to the girls’ fields as they do the boys’ fields?” asked Neena Chaudhry of the National Women’s Law Center, who was lead attorney in the 2006 settlement.

Even in a school system that promised to provide parity for girls’ and boys’ teams, attaining that goal remains a challenge.

A push for equal facilities

The Title IX challenge to Prince George’s County schools began with umpires comparing notes.

Mowatt, now retired, said that back in 2004, he and a fellow umpire, Chris Sole, talked about how the boys’ fields in the county were much better maintained than the ones the girls’ teams used.

A former softball coach at Parkdale, Gene Robinson, had also attempted to persuade the county to take action and address failing fields, Mowatt said.

He compiled a book including photos and brought it to the county athletics director. When the county athletics director didn’t respond, Mowatt tried to enlist coaches and school athletics directors. But they didn’t join him, Mowatt said, for fear of losing their jobs.

He went to the county board of education, to no avail.

“We kept pushing and kept pushing and kept pushing,” he said, but got no support.

Mowatt said he was on this campaign for parity but didn’t know that Title IX existed — more than 30 years after the law went into effect.

“Title IX was like something in the closet that nobody knew about,” Mowatt said. And high school girls turned to it far less than college students might, he said.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights typically accepts complaints related to Title IX. But Mowatt’s complaint took a different route. He consulted the National Women’s Law Center, which took the case, identifying it as a violation of the law.

Chaudhry recalled Mowatt arriving at the law center’s offices with binders of photos comparing the county’s baseball and softball fields.

“Jack brought us everything with the binders, I mean literally. It was so amazing,” Chaudhry said.

The law center staff traveled to the fields and identified more Title IX issues. This led to the 2006 agreement between the law center and Prince George’s County Public Schools.

Under the agreement, which included a three-year follow-up period, the school system promised to adhere to Title IX requirements and to fix specific problems — problems observed by both the law center and school officials.

As a part of the agreement’s three-year evaluation period, the school system filed annual reports to the law center, detailing its progress toward completing Title IX goals. These reports, however, were conducted by the school system itself. No independent entity assessed the county’s efforts.

The focus of the agreement was the softball programs. The softball teams had less equipment than the baseball teams, and the equipment they did have was old and worn.

Boys baseball had scoreboards, storage sheds, bleachers, pitchers’ warm-up areas and batting cages –– things most of the softball fields in the county lacked, according to the law center.

At Potomac High, in Oxon Hill, the softball field was so dangerous that the team played at a local recreation center instead, the law center said in its letter to Prince George’s County schools demanding change.

But the issues went beyond softball. Girls’ teams generally received inferior treatment when it came to equipment, uniforms and scheduling, the law center said in its demand letter. At many schools in the county, girls’ fields are used for multiple purposes, such as football practice, which means an increased rate of wear.

At Forestville High, which has since closed, the girls’ locker room was in such poor shape that girls changed in a classroom or the bathroom instead, the demand letter read. The softball field also flooded so badly, the letter added, that the team had to practice on the school’s parking lot. The baseball team practiced on its own field.

Girls made up roughly 50% of the Prince George’s County student population, yet their participation rates in athletics were as low as 35%, the law center found in 2004. On its face, that fails the proportionality test of Title IX, which requires the percentage of girls playing sports to be roughly equal to the percentage of female student enrollment.

Over the evaluation period, female participation in sports increased less than 1%, according to a Howard Center of Investigative Journalism analysis of county participation data. The analysis shows the participation data remained relatively stagnant throughout the three-year evaluation period, the 2006-2009 school years.

According to the 2009-2010 county progress report, the participation rates during the evaluation period were similar to regional and national participation numbers.

Despite repeated requests for data over four months, Prince George’s County school officials did not provide numbers on what percentage of girls have been participating in athletics in recent years.

The biggest thing they were hoping was that the three of us would go away.

Chaudhry said she was happy with the 2006 agreement and felt a personal connection because she grew up in Prince George’s County.

“We did a press conference with [the then superintendent] and we were trying to really show what can happen if a school says, ‘OK, we’re going to fix it. We’re going to step up and do the right thing,’” Chaudhry said.

But today, Mowatt said he was unaware of any enforcement during that three-year period.

“Like anything else: Nobody pushes it, it just goes away,” Mowatt said. “The biggest thing they were hoping was that the three of us would go away.”

While the county agreed to the terms outlined in the agreement and covered by the law, Mowatt said, the problems with some of the softball fields countywide haven’t changed. The language detailing three years of enforcement “fell on deaf ears,” he said.

Collapsing dugouts at Bowie

Today, Bowie softball players say they can see the inequities on their fields.

Katelyn McDermott, the varsity softball captain at Bowie High, said the softball bleachers are splintered and the dugouts are collapsing into a sinkhole.

Cassidy Francis, McDermott’s co-captain, said the players set up buckets for the opposing team to sit on because the dugout is too dangerous to be used.

“When I walk by the boys’ field, they have concrete dugouts and nice bleachers,” McDermott said. “It doesn’t really feel even in that sense.”

Bright yellow caution tape surrounds a hole where the softball dugouts at Bowie High School are falling inward.

The law center’s original demand letter, which described safety issues found at softball fields countywide, also noted a drainage issue at Bowie. It’s not clear if the problems of 2006 are related to the water damage today.

Bowie High officials have not responded to questions about the Bowie softball field’s condition, despite phone calls, emails and a letter.

Despite the problem with the dugouts, Luanne Smith, Bowie’s softball coach, said she feels the girls’ softball and boys’ baseball fields at the school are mostly equal — though she acknowledged that the baseball dugouts are nicer than the softball dugouts.

“I know that our athletic director is going to put just as much time and effort into the girls’ softball field as into the boys’ baseball field,” she said. “That’s the hope. That’s the goal.”

Gabriela Popol, a Bowie graduate who played softball, recalled having to leave class early to check on the softball field and ensure it was in shape for a game. When it wasn’t, she and other players would rake the field, she said, adding that Smith would often use a tractor for proper field preparation and maintenance.

“It was difficult because we would always have to take the time out of our practice or before our game to warm up … to do all of this stuff,” Popol said. “Whereas [the baseball team] wouldn’t really have to do anything.”

As a sophomore, Popol noticed a small hole in the dugout area. As the seasons passed, the hole only got bigger, sinking inward.

“Luanne would constantly ask … ‘Can we get this fixed?’ and she’d be on the phone about it, complaining about it,” Popol recalled. “I don’t think anything was ever done.”

Instead, Popol said, Smith tried fixing the dugout herself. McDermott also said Smith tries to pack dirt into the dugout so it doesn’t fall into the ditch.

It would have never happened to the boys.

Today, former coach Sarah Bible believes that the drainage issues identified in 2004 were never fully resolved, contributing to the problems with the dugout.

“We had to pretty much till the field every time we had to play a game if we had rain,” Bible said. “And we would go through so many bags of quick dry, or so many bags of what they call Turface, even just to get a game in.”

The disparities between how boys’ and girls’ teams were treated went beyond the condition of the playing fields.

Bible remembers how panicked she was on the day of their state championship final in 2003, when no bus arrived to take Bowie High’s softball team to their game.

“It would have never happened to the boys,” Bible said.

The bus had been sent on its regular after-school run before it was supposed to pick up the team. Finally, the players piled into cars and drove themselves to the field. They arrived late, almost missing a chance to warm up.

Bowie High lost to Glen Burnie’s North County High.

Today, McDermott said, the collapsing dugout is an issue that she believes would have been resolved quicker if it had happened to the boys’ baseball field.

The baseball players “don’t have any ditches to worry about right now,” McDermott said.
The Bowie Bulldogs have made the state quarterfinals every year for the past four years, except for the 2020 pandemic year.

“We’ve shown that we have the right to be playing here and we have a right to a good field,” McDermott said.

Progress and the future of Title IX education

In its 2006 agreement with the National Women’s Law Center, Prince George’s County Public Schools agreed to provide “an athletics program that would treat all PGCPS students fairly.”

While that statement remains subjective, the county made progress at several schools. The school system back then did not even have a Title IX coordinator, though that was required by federal law. Now, the district has designated Title IX responsibilities to the Equity Assurance Office.

It’s unclear, however, whether all stated improvements have held up countywide.

At Parkdale High School in Riverdale, the girls still do not have a field. Brian Moore, the athletics director there, said no space was allotted for a softball field when the school was built in 1968, before Title IX.

Instead, girls have traveled to Charles Carroll Middle School,a six-minute drive, to play on a field that Moore said is well maintained.

“[Parkdale] does not provide transportation to or from the field; rather, the girls must find their own way there and back,” the 2004 demand letter read. “It is our understanding that this is not an isolated situation — girls on several other softball teams must travel to their ‘home’ fields, while their male counterparts on the baseball team do not.”

Today, Moore said, the athletes have transportation.

The boys’ baseball field is on campus and carefully fenced off, along with other fields, to protect them. Groups that want to use them need a permit.

One school that made immense progress since the agreement was Central High School in Capitol Heights, said Luanne Smith, who previously coached softball at Central. As a result of the agreement, the school received a new field that addressed safety concerns.

The old Central field was located next to a gravel road “that used to be about a foot from first base in foul territory,” Smith said.

“The field ended up being … one of the nicest fields in the county rather than one where you go ‘Yeah, coach isn’t going to play there because it’s not safe,’” Smith said.

Still not well known

Despite the progress at Central and other schools in the area, Title IX is a broadly applied law that most student athletes do not know much about, advocates say.

“I’ve never actually had anyone explain to me what Title IX is,” said McDermott, the Bowie softball co-captain.

Her co-captain, Francis, agreed, adding that no one had ever mentioned Title IX to her before. She knew that Title IX discussed gender equity in sports, but her knowledge of the federal law didn’t go beyond that.

The county’s athletics handbook for students and parents includes no mention of Title IX. The handbook is only available online, Shirley Diggs, the coordinating supervisor of the school system’s Office of Interscholastic Athletics, said in a statement sent by a school system lawyer.

The lawyer, Lori Branch Cooper, is the equal opportunity employment administrator for the school system. When asked how parents and students learn about Title IX in sports, Cooper said in an email that Diggs “is currently in the process of updating the handbook to include information on Title IX.”

The emailed statement from Diggs’s office said she was new to the position and “continues to familiarize herself with past and current practices, and is therefore unable to provide a response to the remaining questions at this time.”

The original complaint letter from the law center noted “insufficient” Title IX training provided to teachers and administrators.

In the emailed statement, Diggs said only athletics directors in the county “take the Title IX video and assessment for safe schools in our county.” Coaches are not required to, Diggs said in the email from Branch Cooper.

“We make sure there is equity within our athletic program with the number of boys/girls sports, equipment, and uniform distribution, use of facilities, and funds evenly distributed into accounts per sport,” Diggs said in the statement.

We won the battle, but we’ve lost the war.

Chloe Feyes, a former Bowie softball player, said that many in society still believe it’s normal for boys in sports to receive better treatment than girls. But it’s time to change that, Feyes said.

Schools, she said, must take on the responsibility of improving the way Title IX is handled to ensure equity between boys and girls sports. If the boys’ team is getting something, she said, then it should be offered to girls’ teams too.

Mowatt still worries about the future of softball in the county, as 15 years later he continues to visit the fields, snapping pictures of conditions that he finds unsatisfactory.

The National Women’s Law Center “fought for us and went to war,” Mowatt said. “We won the battle, but we’ve lost the war.”

The Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism collaborated on a four-month investigation into Title IX and high school sports. Support their work at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.

By Jacob Richman and Alexandra Gopin

Title IX was designed in part to balance the scales for girls and boys in school-based athletics. Some day, maybe it will.

But nearly 50 years after Congress passed the sweeping law that guarantees equity in “any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance,” including high school athletics, girls are stuck in an imperfect system that continues to favor boys in many ways.

Girls’ participation in school sports has increased dramatically since 1972. But Title IX advocates say that boys still get better treatment. Often, they say, boys teams are provided nicer uniforms, play on better fields, are led by more experienced coaches, have their practices scheduled at more desirable times (relegating girls teams to early mornings and late nights), play with newer equipment and dress in better-equipped locker rooms. All are potential violations of Title IX.

“We still estimate that the majority of schools are likely out of compliance with the law,” said Sarah Axelson, vice president of advocacy at the Women’s Sports Foundation.

When girls see that they’re getting worse treatment, their options include challenging their coach or principal, filing a lawsuit and lodging a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education — all daunting for a teenager. When parents step forward to report these situations, they’re often at the center of disputes that can roil their child’s high school. Not surprisingly, only a small percentage of likely violations end up being reported.

A four-month investigation by The Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland raises serious questions about the effectiveness of Title IX in the 23,882 public high schools across the U.S. It raises concerns about how many of the 3.4 million girls playing high school sports have experienced violations of Title IX that went unaddressed.

Among the findings:

  • Title IX isn’t aggressively policed by state or federal government officials. It’s mostly up to teenagers and their parents to report violations.
  • Most parents and students aren’t well informed about the law. The federal government doesn’t require schools to offer education about Title IX and athletics.
  • Reporting Title IX violations often means standing up to school officials like coaches and principals. That’s a lot to ask of high school students and their parents.
  • Title IX enforcement protocols are cumbersome and slow-moving. A review of 39 complaints to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights by the Povich and Howard centers showed that the average time from filing to resolution was nearly two years. That means girls who suffered unequal treatment often graduated before they saw results.

Violations reach girls across the country:

  • In Union City, New Jersey, a highly publicized athletics field that sits on the roof of a $180 million high school building was mostly used by boys teams. For nearly 10 years, access for girls was limited.
  • In Ewa Beach, Hawaii, girls on the water polo team argued that they had to practice on dry land or in the open ocean before their season because they couldn’t get funding for a pool.
  • In Ventura, California, girls on the softball team suffered injuries on a field that was poorly maintained, while the boys baseball team had a field that was better tended at a higher quality stadium.

“Most of these athletes just presume that there must be a reason that they’re getting second-class treatment,” three-time Olympic gold medalist Nancy Hogshead-Makar said. “It’s everywhere they look. They see that men are getting more than women everywhere. In high school, in junior high school, in college, men are getting more.”

There’s no doubt that Title IX has had a positive impact on girls and opportunities for them to play sports. Consider Title IX’s impact on participation in high school sports. During the 1971-72 school year, girls made up about 7% of high school athletes in the country. For every girl playing on a high school team, there were more than 12 boys.

Most of these athletes just presume that there must be a reason that they’re getting second-class treatment. It’s everywhere they look.

Through the years, the participation gap steadily has narrowed. In a National Federation of State High School Associations survey of athletics participation in the 2018-19 school year, girls accounted for almost 43% of all high school players.

But the promise of Title IX has yet to be achieved.

Education is lacking

The greatest challenge may be education. Teenagers and their parents first have to understand the law before they challenge school authorities.

Interviews with dozens of parents and their children across the country by the Povich Center and Howard Center revealed a range of understanding of Title IX. Many high school athletes and their parents don’t know that the law exists. Others said they’d heard of the law but didn’t know that protections applied to them.

In the late 1970s, Ellen Zavian — the first female agent licensed by the National Football League Players Association and a Title IX advocate — wanted to play soccer in high school. But she was told she wouldn’t be able to because there was only a boys team.

So Zavian ran track, played volleyball and cheered.

“If I had known about Title IX, I definitely would have filed a suit against my school when I didn’t have the opportunity to play soccer,” Zavian said. “But, I didn’t know about it.”

That information gap still exists. Grace Saad, a former softball player at Buena High School in Ventura, California, didn’t realize she could do anything when her teammates threw around the term “Title IX” after noticing a clear disparity in how they were treated compared to their counterparts on the baseball team.

I knew that things weren’t equal, but I just thought that’s the way it was.

While the Buena High baseball team has a stadium, dugouts and a permanent outfield fence with a scoreboard, the softball team often didn’t have enough softballs to hold batting and fielding practice at the same time.

“I knew that things weren’t equal, but I just thought that’s the way it was,” said Saad, who graduated in 2020.

Courses and webinars in public schools could help inform students, coaches and administrators. But a federal education mandate like the one for parts of Title IX that refer to sexual assault doesn’t apply to sports.

Difficult choices for student, parents

At the beginning, someone notices a problem. It might fit into one of the two baskets of Title IX compliance — “participation” or “treatment and benefits.”

Participation applies to opportunities for girls to play sports as compared to the percentage of girls in a given high school, the proportionality test. If 60% of students in a high school are girls, approximately 60% of athletic opportunities should be for girls, according to Title IX.

Treatment and benefits refers to where girls play and what they play with, among other things. Title IX doesn’t mandate that boys and girls teams have exactly the same of everything. It does require that they receive equal treatment in locker rooms, practice and game venues, scheduling of games and practices, publicity and coaching experience.

At Pentucket Regional High School in West Newbury, Massachusetts, the issue was Twitter. When the school tweeted live updates from its athletics account, 60% focused on boys teams compared to only 32% for girls teams. The Office of Civil Rights determined that the school would be required to monitor publicity efforts to ensure that any inequalities are corrected.

A person with a concern about any of these issues can report them to their high school. A meeting with a principal or athletics director might quickly settle the issue.

When diplomacy fails, there are options in the courts and with the Office for Civil Rights.

Under Title IX, the the office investigates complaints about sexual violence, treatment of pregnant students and treatment of LGBTQ students, as well as school-based sex discrimination in sports. When a person files a complaint, investigators contact the school, check out allegations and decide if violations have occurred. If they have, the civil rights office issues a resolution letter with steps the school must take to come into compliance.

A Title IX lawsuit can be costly and time-consuming. Plaintiffs, even when they prevail, often emerge feeling bruised and exhausted.

In Stillwater, Oklahoma, a group of softball parents filed a Title IX lawsuit against the local school district in August 2020. Ten months later, the parties reached a settlement that addressed many of the parents’ concerns.

“It’s been quite an emotional toll. I think we’ve all lost sleep over it,” said Angela Morgan, a plaintiff in the case and president of the softball team booster club at Stillwater High School.

Eliminating sex discrimination

Title IX is rooted in the turbulent years of the 1950s and 1960s and the passions that fueled the civil rights movement. In those years, Congress debated laws designed to end racial discrimination in public accommodations, outlawing discrimination in hotels and at lunch counters. Later, its powers were expanded to end discrimination in hiring when companies received government contracts.

Title IX’s purpose was to eliminate sex discrimination in education. “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance,” Title IX states.

At the time, few lawmakers thought about the effect it might have on sports. The subject of sports came up only once during the Senate’s months-long debate of the legislation — and that was no more than a passing exchange. Sen. Birch Bayh, a Democrat from Indiana and the bill’s sponsor, told one of his Senate colleagues: “I do not read [Title IX] as requiring integration … of the football fields,” as recounted by author Welch Suggs in “A Place on the Team: The Triumph and Tragedy of Title IX.”

Despite the profound impact the statute has had on girls and women in sports, those original 37 words included no references to athletics.

Nearly 50 years later, Title IX and opportunity for girls in sports are nearly synonymous. The gains made by high school girls over the decades have been significant, but boys often still get better treatment.

When the state-of-the-art, rooftop athletics field was unveiled in 2009 in Union City, New Jersey, it quickly gained national attention for its innovative design. The boys football team played on it for nearly a decade; use by girls teams was restricted.

The National Women’s Law Center pointed out the problem to Union City High School, and the administration made changes.

Today, girls teams share the field with boys, using it extensively for their practices and games. In fact, Union City High School is in many ways a model for gender equity in sports.

It’s a reminder that Title IX can be monitored and aggressively enforced. But for 50 years it hasn’t been.

The Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism collaborated on a four-month investigation into Title IX and high school sports. Support their work at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.