Decades after Title IX, girls face tough battles on and off the sports field

Editor's Note: This story was produced in partnership with "Unlevel Playing Fields," a project of the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland's Merrill College of Journalism.

It’s been nearly 50 years since the passage of Title IX, the landmark civil rights law prohibiting sex-based discrimination at federally funded schools, including in athletic programs. But violations still exist, with schools often providing better opportunities and benefits for boys sports. Amna Nawaz takes a look at one San Diego-area high school team that fought to settle the score.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's been nearly 50 years since the passage of Title IX, a landmark civil rights law prohibiting sex-based discrimination at federally funded schools, including in athletic programs.

    But violations still exist. Schools often provide better opportunities and benefits for boys sports.

    Amna Nawaz takes a look at one San Diego area high school team that fought to settle the score.

    This story is a partnership with the Shirley Povich Center for Sports and the Howard Center For Investigative Journalism, both at the University of Maryland's Merrill College of Journalism.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Outside San Diego, at Rancho Buena Vista High School, it is almost game time. Fresh chalk lines the infield. Team gear hangs in the dugout. And fans await the action in shaded bleachers.

    The varsity softball Longhorns are looking sharp. But this facility, with its scoreboard and fencing and manicured outfield, is a world away from the team's old field, an off-campus city park with patchy grass, a partial fence, and no locker rooms.

    Former players Dani Ellis and Sydney Prenatt remember it well.

  • Danielle Ellis, Former Rancho Buena Vista High School Softball Player:

    We'd have to carry our equipment to all of our classes that day. And both of us, we were catchers, so the bags are huge. They probably weigh like 30 pounds.

  • Sydney Prenatt, Former Rancho Buena Vista High School Softball Player:

    Changing in the parking lot sometimes and the bathrooms, it definitely wasn't convenient.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Not every team had to use it. The boys baseball team had their own field just steps from the school.

    What are you thinking when you're seeing everything the baseball team has right there and the way they're able to practice and play and everything you have to go through every day just to get to practice?

  • Danielle Ellis:

    We had never seen an example where girls were kind of treated more equitably, I guess you could say. It just kind of seemed like that was just the way things are, and, as girls, we just had to kind of tough it out.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Fed up, in 2017, Ellis and Prenatt, then high school seniors, decided to level the playing field. The players realized their high school was violating federal civil rights law Title IX, providing a girls softball field in worse condition with fewer facilities and farther away than the boys field.

  • Sydney Prenatt:

    We knew that we had a really blatant case of Title IX obstruction. And so we were very confident. And we kind of knew that we're going to make some people mad. But this is what we deserve, and we don't expect anything less.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    On June 23, 1972, President Richard Nixon signed Title IX into law. It required gender equity in education, including in athletics. That year, only 7 percent of high school varsity athletes in the U.S. were women.

    The law is meant to guarantee all institutions receiving federal funding provide equal opportunities, supplies and facilities to students, regardless of their gender. It was in this classroom, led by social studies teacher Tim Leary, that Ellis and Prenatt learned about the law.

  • Tim Leary, Teacher:

    I remember actually them looking at each other, the looks on their faces, and they made eye contact with, like, something's up.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In April 2018, backed by their entire softball team, Ellis and Prenatt took their fight straight to the school board.

  • Sydney Prenatt:

    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. They grow up believing that equality is expected.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The team made their case, thanked the board, and walked out.

    A few weeks later, Ellis and Prenatt received a letter from their school district. They learned the school board had approved the new softball field.

  • Student:



  • Student:

    So, a brand-new field.


  • Amna Nawaz:

    And shared the news with their whole team.

  • Danielle Ellis:

    They're calling it the best softball field in North County. Sydney and I never could have dreamed up anything like that. It's absolutely unbelievable.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Since Title IX passed 50 years ago, girls' participation in sports has skyrocketed, millions now playing in high school programs across the country. But experts say, to this day, boys programs still get better uniforms, better facilities, and more support, all potential Title IX violations.

    Those kinds of examples are not hard to find. In Ewa Beach, Hawaii, girls on the water polo team could not get funding for a pool and had to practice on dry land or in the open ocean. In Union City, New Jersey, the boys football team played in a multimillion-dollar rooftop stadium for 10 years before the girls teams were even allowed to use it.

    And in Stillwater, Oklahoma, softball team parents had to sue the school district, to get their daughters equal training, equipment and facilities to the boys.

  • Nancy Hogshead-Makar, Champion Women:

    Title IX is not hard. This is not rocket science.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Nancy Hogshead-Makar is an Olympic gold medalist swimmer and civil rights attorney.

    Her organization, Champion Women advocates for gender equality in sports for women and girls, including her own daughters.

  • Nancy Hogshead-Makar:

    They came up to me and they said: "Hey, mom, how come the boys have a scoreboard and we don't have a scoreboard?"

    At their third practice, they already knew that they were not getting treated the same way. That's a terrible lesson.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    She says one of the biggest barriers is that most high school students and their parents either don't know that Title IX exists or don't understand what it protects.

  • Nancy Hogshead-Makar:

    They sort of understand, yes, I'm entitled to equality. But they don't really know what that means. And I have never talked to a female athlete that was not acutely aware of how they were getting second-class treatment, as compared to some of the other male athletes.

    But they think that, like, there must be a reason. There's no defense to giving men more.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Reporting Title IX violations often means filing a lawsuit or federal complaint with the Department of Education that can sometimes take years to resolve. It can also mean standing up to school officials.

    Coach Theresa Murillo has led Rancho Buena Vista'S softball program for 17 years, most of them on that old field.

  • Theresa Murillo, Softball Coach:

    We had a lot of issues. We had some injuries, ankles being broken.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But Murillo worried about speaking out.

  • Theresa Murillo:

    I heard horror stories about other people trying to push for it, and they were let go as coaches. I really like my job. I really like doing what I'm doing right now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But you thought, if you advocated for the girls, that would be held against you?

  • Theresa Murillo:

    I was worried about that, yes, because I heard it from other coaches.

    Catherine Lahamon, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Department of Education: Fifty years on, we live the same challenge that we've always lived, right, that we have a promise that we have to struggle to achieve.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Catherine Lhamon is assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education. She says parents and students shouldn't have to be the first ones flagging Title IX violations.

    In instances when the responsibility does lie with the students or the parents themselves, what would you say to that? Is that fair?

  • Catherine Lahamon:

    I regret that this country puts people in that position, because I believe that all of us should be able to, in advance, have our rights respected and not have to keep pushing for more and more.

    But that is the story of this country. So, we really try to use our voice to share information about what the law is. And we are not shy ever about saying, if the laws have been violated, we will be there to vindicate them for students.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The new field at Rancho Buena Vista opened last February, after Prenatt and Ellis graduated. But they say the fight for the field was about the generation of players coming after them.

  • Danielle Ellis:

    This project is not about us. We knew the entire way through like, we're never going to get to play on this field or anything like that.

    So, what we hope of what comes from this is that people everywhere, younger generations, that they know, like, it is possible. And, like, we're a testament to that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For young women across the United States, Title IX violations still run rampant, and a chance at a fair ball often means going up against power.

    But, for now, this team has a game to win.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz in San Diego.

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