The feel good story of Brianna Amat is an example of the progress that has been made in the area of gender equity in this country since the passage of Title IX.
The one-sentence law passed in 1972 was intended to give women an equal opportunity to compete with men in the field of education, particularly in math and the sciences. The statute doesn’t use the word sports nor was sports mentioned at any point during the congressional debate that preceded the law’s passage. But the courts did the right thing when they interpreted Title IX to mean that women should have the opportunity to compete on the athletic field as well as in the classroom.
Unfortunately, it was years after the passage of Title IX before women began receiving the athletic opportunities they were entitled to, a result of ignorance, obfuscation and malfeasance on the part of coaches, athletic directors and administrators at many colleges and high schools. The Office of Civil Rights, the federal agency charged with enforcement of Title IX, bears some of the responsibility for failing to properly investigate and timely prosecute violations of the statute.
But despite those challenges, the Brianna Amats of the world have persevered. Brianna is a member of her high school football team in Pinckney, Michigan and earlier this fall she kicked a winning field goal and was named homecoming queen on the same day. It’s not the first time the dual feat has been accomplished, but that doesn’t make Brianna’s achievement any less significant.
Brianna also carries a 4.0 grade point average and is a member of her school’s soccer team, whose coach recommended her to the football coach. Brianna has her own locker room, which makes it difficult to celebrate with her teammates, but according to her, that’s the only drawback to being a girl on an all boys team.
Unlike Brianna, Michele Ruth has encountered the pain, heartbreak, humiliation and downright meanness that Title IX was intended to eliminate. Ruth, the girls’ lacrosse coach at Jensen Beach (FL) High School, was allegedly fired for failing to “wear closed-toed shoes while working in her capacity as lacrosse coach.” Her athletic director, R. J. Costello, suggested that going barefoot was a safety issue due to “glass and nails and snakes.”
Of course, if “glass and nails and snakes” presented a safety hazard to Ruth, the same would be true for the lacrosse players, whether they wore closed-toed shoes or not. You would think a competent athletic director would have done his job by cleaning up the glass and nails and bringing in an exterminator for the snakes, instead of firing the coach.
But the alleged safety concerns were a smoke screen for the real reason Ruth was fired. Costello only raised the shoe issue AFTER Ruth asked if her girls could use the football stadium for their lacrosse games during the spring when the stadium sat idle. When the AD told her “no,” Ruth suggested to Costello that he might be acting unfairly and violating Title IX in the process. Apparently, those were fighting words to the AD, who immediately terminated Ruth.
Ruth refused to be intimidated and hired counsel to assist her in getting her job back. The school, realizing they had no defense to a law suit should Ruth choose to bring one, asked her to sign a “Last Chance Agreement” which stated that she was fired for failing to wear “closed-toed shoes” and acknowledging that she would do so in the future. Ruth refused.
Eventually, the Martin County School Board backed down, wisely deciding to reinstate Ruth rather than risk a monetary judgment against them in court. Fortunately for the School Board, Ruth, who was never looking for money, was satisfied with her reinstatement, payment of her legal fees, and more importantly, a commitment that her team would be able to use the football stadium in the future.
Coming up on 40 years since the passage of Title IX, there are still far too many Michele Ruth’s out there who suffer in silence. And even though the case of Brianna Amat is an example of how far we as a nation have come in the area of gender equity, the case of Michele Ruth is a reminder of how far we have yet to go.
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