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With stigmas, stereotypes and urinals in girls locker room, Title IX remains work in progress

Jenni Thunberg is endlessly running her girls to basketball, volleyball, softball, dance, cheer, track – and anything else that strikes their fancy.

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Her 8- and 10-year-old daughters may not know what Title IX is, but they honor it every day with their activity.

“One is leaning toward ball sports and one is leaning toward dance and cheer – and there’s nothing wrong with either choice,” Thunberg said. “My job is to show them the opportunities, and they will find their interests.

“To me, Title IX is all about opportunity. The women who paved the way have opened all these doors for girls. It’s on us to get our daughters involved today.”

Count the Bay City Central athletic director among the women of today who are forever grateful for that game-changing day 50 years ago – June 23, 1972 – when the equity in education bill known as Title IX was signed into law.

More than 3.4 million girls across the nation are participating in high school athletics, with more than 120,000 competing in Michigan, according to the Michigan High School Athletic Association, which sponsors championships in 15 girls sports.

The Education Amendments of 1972 granted females “equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society based on their individual talents and capacities.” It provided an instant boon to high school girls sports, one that continued to grow as school districts adapted to the idea and practice of equity.

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Unionville-Sebewaing’s Lauren Green (2) jumps in celebration during the Division 4 softball state championship against Ottawa Lake Whiteford on Saturday, June 18, 2022 at Michigan State University. Kaytie Boomer | MLive.com

But 50 years later, there remains room for improvement. While most agree that boys and girls sports are somewhat equitable in funding, uniforms, equipment, coaching salaries and facilities – by law – there remains a divide in priorities and perception. So the fight continues.

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Pontiac Notre Dame athletic director Betty Wroubel, the newly inducted National High School Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Famer, said there are discrepancies such as weight room facilities, training room availability and lockerroom displacement that still linger.

“Are any of those things important in and of themselves? No,” she said. “But it’s the message it sends to the gals of being a second-class citizen. That’s what makes it wrong.”

Wroubel said that schools are doing a good job of keeping things equal when constructing new facilities – “anything built in the last 10-15 years is identical to the inch,” she said – but schools with older facilities continue to have issues.

Bay City Central, for instance, has nine lockerrooms but only two were built with girls in mind when they were constructed prior to 1972.

“The girls walk into their lockerroom and there are urinals in it,” said Thunberg. “That’s clearly not a girls lockerroom, it’s a boys lockerroom that the girls use.”

When school districts aren’t compliant with Title IX, they must answer to the U.S. Department of Education and the Office of Civil Rights. Jim Whittaker, the Title IX coordinator for the Michigan Department of Education, said his office receives calls and emails daily with a wide range of compliant issues.

People are encouraged to address concerns with local school districts, but the Office of Civil Rights does investigate issues and cites schools as needed. But the nature of the grievances are changing, as most schools understand they must operate with equity in mind, Whittaker said.

“For the most part, 90-plus percent of the districts have comparable facilities for males and females now,” he said. “The days of having a nice, shining ballfield for one and a rundown one for the other are over.

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“Districts know they are looked at, so they are pro-active, which they should be.”

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Royal Oak Shrine’s Ava Gappy, Bridgette Drouillard and Norah Tisko celebrate a 1-0 win over Kalamazoo Christian in the Division 4 girls soccer state finals on Friday, June 17 at the DeMartin Soccer Complex in East Lansing.Patrick Nothaft | MLive.com

Meg Seng, the longtime coach and now athletic director at Ann Arbor Greenhills, is a major proponent of girls athletics in Michigan. She said she’s disheartened when administrators don’t see the value of equality in sports, and runs into it more often than she’d like.

“I’ve gone to presentations on Title IX and most of the discussion is how not to get cited, how not to get caught,” she said. “They’re focusing on how to get away with it instead of focusing on why it should be equitable.

“You should be thinking about why equity is the right thing to do, not worried about the (Office of Civil Rights) coming in and writing you up.”

The other ongoing battle for female athletes involves stigmas and stereotypes. Prior to the passage of Title IX, girls activities were often limited to light exercise. Basketball was sometimes played as a halfcourt game, volleyball had nine on a side and very little overhand hitting.

The notion that girls wouldn’t be very ladylike if they worked up a sweat was prevalent.

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The state champion Bronson volleyball team of 2015 posed with their trophies during a formal dance that school year. (Provided by Jean LaClair)

“The world is coming around,” said Jean LaClair, the state champion volleyball coach and athletic director at Bronson.

“At our formal dances, the girls would be dressed in formal dresses and they’d get the trophy out and take a picture. It just shows they can be girls and dress up, and do their hair and look pretty, and they can still be great athletes.”

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Title IX got the ball rolling for females who wanted to be athletic and competitive, no different than their male counterparts. But perceptions have been slow to change in many regards, and that could be the final hurdle for the next generation of girls to clear.

“There was a (Proctor & Gamble) commercial a few years ago that hit home with me,” said Thunberg, the Bay City Central AD with two young girls. “The whole premise was ‘What does it mean to throw or run like a girl?’ There are stereotypes when you say those things, and when they asked people to demonstrate it, they would half-throw the ball or run goofy.

“Then they asked a 6-year-old what it means, and she threw as hard as she could and ran as fast as she could – because she was a girl and that’s how she ran.”

“That was very telling. The older you get, the more biases come back in. When you’re a kid, you don’t think about those things. You just do what you do.”

Title IX gave girls the opportunity to do what they do 50 years ago. Now it’s up to today’s girls to take advantage of it.

“It’s so nice to look out the window and see a beautiful softball field or go in the gym and see banners for both boys and girls,” said Wroubel, the Notre Dame AD. “For those real pioneers, we have a great appreciation. No one would have dreamt it would get where we are today.”

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