The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld a District Court ruling, which found that the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment with its scheduling of girls’ sports seasons.
The plaintiffs — parents, high school athletes, and advocates on behalf of Title IX compliance — argued that the MHSAA discriminated against female athletes by only scheduling the female athletic seasons and tournaments in nontraditional and non-advantageous seasons, while the boys’ sport’s teams met in the traditional seasons.
The Court found that MHSAA’s main argument, “that the scheduling system maximizes opportunities for participation,” does not justify having the girls’ teams alone bear the burden of playing in the off season in order to maximize participation. The court found that girls faced numerous disadvantages as a result of being scheduled in the nontraditional season, such as not being able to compete in national competitions; not being on equal footing with the rest of the country with respect to college recruiting; and “receiving the psychological message that [girls] are second-class citizens or that their athletic role is of less value than that of boys.”
At the time of its 1924 inception, MHSSA was given the authority to create and supervise interscholastic athletic programs throughout the state of Michigan. Its authority extended to determining the high school athletic seasons. In 1990, MHSSA’s executive director, John Roberts, explained that “boys’ sports were in MHSAA schools first and girls’ sports, which came later, were fitted around the pre-existing boys program.”
All six of the girl’s athletic seasons and tournaments for basketball, volleyball, soccer, Lower Peninsula golf, Lower Peninsula swimming and diving, and tennis were scheduled during a nontraditional or non-advantageous season. MHSSA responded to the plaintiffs’ complaint by arguing that the schedule did not harm, but maximized the opportunity for the girls’ and boys’ athletic teams by “creating optimal use of existing facilities, officials and coaches, thereby permitting more teams in a sport or more spots on a team.”
The legal standard for parties wishing to defend a gender-based government action must show that it “serves important government objectives and that this scheduling is substantially related to the achievement of those objectives.” In this case, the district court noted that MHSAA failed to demonstrate that the discriminatory scheduling was “substantially related” to its objectives. Furthermore, the court noted that even if MHSAA had sufficiently proven that there was more opportunity, such opportunity “would not justify forcing the girls to bear all of the disadvantageous playing seasons alone to solve the logistical problems.”
MHSAA also defends its scheduling position from an Equal Protection claim by arguing that there was no discriminatory intent present. The appellate court noted that for an Equal Protection claim, discriminatory intent does not need to be present, only a general intent to treat two groups differently. Thus, the court found that there was a general intent and that was sufficient enough for a claim to be considered.
The district court ordered the MHSAA to bring its scheduling of the seasons into compliance with the law by the 2003-2004 school year, and MHSAA’s compliance plan was filed with the court soon after. The Department of Justice objected to the initial compliance plan offered by MHSAA stating that the plan failed to correct the inequities in the scheduling. The district court rejected MHSAA’s plan and offered three alternatives to MHSAA. In October of 2002 MHSAA selected an option that reversed some of the boys’ and girls’ seasons to make the scheduling equally advantageous.
Although the MHSAA asked the appellate court to review the district court’s rejection of the first compliance plan, the court refused to do so stating that it did not have jurisdiction over issues that were subject to post-judgment motions.
With the appellate court’s ruling upholding the district court, the second compliance plan is in effect and will control over the 2003-2004 athletic seasons. Communities for Equity et al. v. Michigan High School Athletic Association; 6th Cir.; No. 02-1127; 7/27/04
Attorneys of Record (for appellant) Edmund J. Sikorski, Jr., Ann Arbor, Michigan. (for appellee)
Kristen Galles of Equity Legal, Alexandria, Virginia; H. Rhett Pinsky of Pinsky, Smith, Fayette & Hulswitt, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Neena K. Chaudhry, Marcia D. Greenberger, National Women’s Law Center, Washington, D.C. (Amicus Curiae) Teresa Kwong, Dennis J. Dimsey, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.