NYC high school soccer caught in controversy over which season to schedule girls
In the New York City public schools, the boys’ soccer season is in the fall, and the girls play in the spring. It’s been that way for 28 years. There’s not enough fields, not enough coaches, not enough referees, not enough time to have them both in the same season. Or at least that’s what a lot of people think.
Three female soccer players think otherwise, and with the help of the New York Civil Liberties Union, they threatened to sue the NYC Department of Education, using Title IX and charging that they were being discriminated against. The female student athletes allege that by having to play in the spring, their competition was limited to their own league (because the rest of the state played in the fall). Their spring club soccer commitments interfered with the high school season, and college recruiters were getting a better look at the teams playing in the fall–all issues the boys (and indeed most girls throughout the state) did not have to deal with during their fall season. All of this was noted previously in several sports, in 2006, in a report by the city’s elected public advocate comparing boys and girls sports in the city’s PSAL leagues.
To avoid being sued, the DOE agreed this week to move the girls’ soccer season to the fall beginning in August and through at least 2011. End of story? Not for everyone…
If you read this news story from the New York Times about the agreement, you’d think the occasion was a rosy one for all involved.
Unfortunately, It reads a lot like the one-sided account that the NYCLU gave in their appropriately self-promoting press release. “The change,” the group argues, “gives girls’ soccer players opportunities for athletic development and college recruitment already provided to boys, who play soccer in the fall along with the city’s private schools and the public schools in all of the state’s other counties.”
As part of the agreement, the DOE has to provide “substantially equal” opportunities for boys’ and girls’ soccer and “make reasonable efforts to maintain the same number of games girls’ teams play following the switch.” It all seems pretty straightforward before you consider what those requirements (beyond the vague language) entail, and that’s where if and when the Daily Show picks up on the story, it will be called ‘ClusterF*@k to the Soccer Field.’
There were, after all, a few uniquely New York reasons why the soccer seasons were laid out as they were for 28 years. Those were reported as far back as April of this year when the issue was gaining momentum. These new (and really age-old) problems are laid out in a petition that is making the rounds among parents and coaches. It sums up the so far largely unreported issues (unless last April counts-but in the last week there’s barely been a mention), outlining the ramifications that would ensue if the girls’ spring season was added to the fall program…
- Both the girls’ and the boys’ soccer season will have to be cut from approximately 16 games down to a possible 8 games.
- There will be a need for an additional 32 coaches to replace the 32 cross-over coaches as these people coach both a boys’ and a girls’ team.
- There will also be limited field space to accommodate this new schedule. Since the scheduling is currently extremely overloaded this new structure will produce a severe lack of playing fields.
- Presently, there is a serious referee shortage and this new arrangement will produce not a shortage but a referee placement crisis.
- Cancellations of entire team programs are a very real possibility due to the fact that there will be a shortage of coaches as stated above.
- Many [multi-sport] athletes will have to make a choice as to which fall sport they would like to participate in. Therefore, it leaves many teams below the mandatory participation requirement.
Girls’ soccer in NYC includes 80 high-school teams with 1,756 players; the boys, 107 teams with 2,417 players. The 28-year agreement’s biggest solve was that it allowed for athletic fields to be available for the various fall and spring sports–football, baseball, softball, track and field, field hockey, boys and girls soccer–in a city starved of athletic field space and overflowing with student athletes. Changing the girls to the fall, along with football and boys soccer would add 600 more games to an already packed schedule. Three young ladies will no longer be forced with difficult decisions, the opposition states. But in saving them, the sport at the high school level, and many of the plaintiffs’ teammates, now have new and difficult decisions added to their plates. Ones that could destroy the hard work spent building the girls’ game to where it is today.
Many of girls’ high school coaches do not want to move the schedule to the fall–saying just like the NYCLU that they want the best for the girls. Some are trying to organize. Forest Hills High School Boy’s and Girl’s Soccer Coach Bob Sprance has been one of the louder voices and is looking for a way to halt the agreement until it can be properly litigated, properly determined if indeed Title IX is being broken. He is not so sure. And due to the recent agreement, that won’t happen unless someone makes it happen Over the phone Sprance emotionally rattled off the reasons why this agreement in his mind, is “a disgrace.”
“The first girl didn’t want spring high school soccer to conflict with Olympic soccer,” Sprance said. “Um, you go try out, and if you make it, you go to the Olympics. I didn’t know PSAL girls soccer in the spring is more important than Olympic soccer. Now maybe I am wrong. The second issue is college scholarships, that the girls are discriminated against because of the lack of exposure in the spring. I would like anyone to come up with the names of the girls who lost scholarships because the season is in the spring. Any girl. If recruiters are interested they know about the players before their senior season and most likely through club soccer not high school soccer. I’ve already had one local college coach tell me the change will negatively impact is his ability to recruit girls. And then the last girl complained about playing club ball and girls PSAL soccer. That it was too much. Well, that is the total issue. The girls’ coach at Beacon High School, Kevin Jacobs, whose name you will not see in the press or the action but who is behind this whole thing, does not want to compete against club soccer. He wants to win the PSAL season with his team. That and the wishes a few girls is what we are talking about here. There is no mandate for change from girls and their families. This is not about Title IX; this is about winning.”
Sprance and indeed many of girls’ PSAL soccer coaches, whether they support the agreement or not, now fear the sport will tailspin into complete disarray. On each issue the NYCLU brings, Sprance and his side have a reason why the change would in fact be harmful to the great majority of female soccer players. Only a few girls get scholarships, he said, and many more girls play a fall sport and would be forced to choose than there are girls playing club soccer. And then there’s the coaching issue.
“Seventy teams are being moved into the fall with this agreement,” Sprance said. “And here’s the result: you will lose 8 programs. I guarantee it. And the reason why: 39 cross-over coaches. We need 39 new coaches by the fall. Coaches often coach both girls and boys soccer and some others coach volleyball in the fall. 39 of us will have to give up our teams. So you need 39 new coaches. If you don’t get them what happens?
“And what if there are girls who have religious beliefs on weekends,” Sprance continued. “Next fall games will have to be played on weekends to accommodate the additional 600 games needed to be squeezed onto already limited field space. What if girls have to work on weekends? And what about the girls that now have to choose between soccer, volleyball, and track in the fall? And I would say 33 percent of girls’ soccer players are on track teams in the fall and/or volleyball. So now do we have a reverse TItle IX on them because they are forced to do that?”
An average NYC high school soccer league game for the best boys team, fall 2005. Grass in the foreground.
“The fact is,” Sprance said, finally taking a breath. “Programs will be dissolved. Nobody lost any scholarships. Fields are overloaded. Referees have already come out and called it unsafe because we’ll only have one ref per game if we can find a ref at all. And now instead of three girls having to choose we have hundreds having to choose. It’s a big lie. How did three girls get the Department of Education to totally bend over and give everything they want without any type of fight? Thousands of kids between all the affected sports are being negatively impacted because of three girls from Manhattan. This is about the rich and powerful using their connections to get what they want in spite of everything and everyone else. You can quote me on that.”
Corporations settle problems with individuals all the time to avoid costly litigation and public scrutiny, and not always because they did something wrong. Is that what’s happening here? Is corporate council bending to the will of a few disgruntled players? Is it a few rich kids winning over hundreds of poor kids, the old two-tier system in which rich kids and private schools reign? Or is this truly a case of inequality in which the opposition simply does not want to deal with the logistical headaches equality forces upon them?
The NYCLU spoke to many coaches before moving forward with their cause and heard plenty of sentiments similar to those of Coach Spruce. But ultimately the group decided that the reasons given to maintain the status quo are simply crutches that must be dealt with in order to guarantee equality. Go find coaches and referees and field space, the NYCLU essentially says. While some girls might have to choose between sports in the fall, others who might have wanted to play another sport in the spring now can.
And yet all of that is besides the point, according to the NYCLU’s lead council Galen Sherwin. “Our nation is built on the notion that people have to be treated equally, so ultimately fairness is the most important value.” As for all the collateral issues? “It’s not gonna happen,” Sherwin says. “That all of these horrible things will come to pass. This is New York City. They will be able to find enough referees and coaches. It’s not like this is a particularly tough job market now. They will be able to find people. There may be a transition period, there may be some growing pains, but ultimately, we’re confident programs won’t suffer. And that was one of our first priorities.”
And for the girl who was playing a fall sport, say volleyball or field hockey, which has its own scholarship possibilities yet less club opportunities? “Maybe she can play Lacrosse now,” Sherwin says. “There are going to be a couple of girls who are not going to be able to play their first-choice sports in the switch. There will be an adjustment.”
As stated in the agreement, that adjustment requires “reasonable efforts” to be made in protecting the scheduling of games and potentially the cutting of programs. This protection is the top priority to which Sherwin speaks, and she promises the NYCLU will be watching. And that is where come August this could get dicey without a lot of hard work from multiple city parks departments, schools, and organizations that aren’t exactly known for quick change. A lot needs to happen before the fall.
There is national precedence for a season switch like this. Neighboring states Connecticut and New Jersey, along with a few other states, have enacted rules that stipulate that you cannot schedule both school and club programs for the same sport in the same season. And nearly identical situations arose in Westchester County and Mamaroneck, New York, as well as in Michigan. Both went through litigation and both athletic associations lost and were forced to move girls into the fall season. Rip Fisher, president of Westchester Youth Soccer League, went through nearly the exact same circumstances as those happening in NYC, as a club soccer coach and parent of a female soccer player. High School girls’ programs in their county were playing in the spring–dating back not coincidentally to the time Title IX was enacted and girls sports exploded. There was not enough field space for booming girls soccer in the 1970’s, so the girls’ soccer season was moved to the spring. Then about 5 years ago, a few girls filed suit against their school districts, alleging that they were being discriminated against for nearly the exact same reasons as the girls in NYC. The only real difference was that their issue with missing fall went beyond games with teams from outside their own league. The New York State soccer tournament, which was and still is held in the fall for high school boys and girls, was not open to them. (This technicality doesn’t effect the NYC issue because neither the boys or girls compete in the state tournament for issues relating among other things to travel and money. ((some want that changed too))).
In Westchester’s case, one of the three girls suing their respective school boards dropped the lawsuit due to pressure from peers and teammates who opposed it. But the others went through with it and won. “It affected a lot of kids who were caught in the transition,” Fisher says, “including my youngest daughter, who was a 12th grader on the varsity soccer team and field hockey team. They put those two sports in the same season. So she had to drop a sport. There were a few kids like that in every town. She could now play a spring sport, but its pretty hard when you’ve been playing field hockey for six years to just go show up and become a lacrosse star. If you were caught in the transition, you were a casualty.”
But on the other side you had tears as well. “There was a young lady on one of the soccer teams I coached,” Fisher says. “Who was the captain of the Scarsdale high school varsity team and her club team. It so happened in one Saturday she had a high sectional championship game and her club team had a state cup semi-final, 200 miles apart. The girl was being put in an impossible situation where she was going to leave high and dry 18 teammates and her coach. And the boys were never put in that position. There weren’t that many situations like that and you know what there aren’t many murders, but it doesn’t mean one murder is right. Even my daughter, who was a casualty of the transition understood.”
Five years now past, it’s business as usual in Westchester. Girls coming up now know which sports they can do in each season. They know how to plan their lives because the dust is settled. “It’s a non-issue now, and female student athletes get to compete in all the state’s tournaments.” Fisher said. “But in New York, what with the most expensive real estate in the country, there’s not a lot of open space. In Westchester, in suburban communities, you have fewer soccer players and more open space. We were able to accommodate it much more easily and quickly. You have a logistical problem in New York. And if have to cut programs on the boys or girls side to accommodate [the switch], I don’t think that is helping kids. It would be a shame. It may be making it fair, but it’s hurting a lot of kids as well as helping them.”
Chances are, there will be a lot more girls in New York like Fisher’s daughter, forced to choose between sports, and according to Will Cushing, the soccer coach at Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy in the north Bronx, much fewer in the two-team captain’s predicament. “It’s this Title IX issue that I think is so fascinating about this,” Cushing says. “It’s completely girls sports and girls opportunities that would be hindered by this switch and not helped. That’s why this whole thing is blowing my mind. The bottom line is the NYCLU obviously has no idea about soccer in New York City. For the great majority of teams and coaches who do not have their own fields you are dependent on the parks department and permits and it becomes a whole process to actually secure field space, let alone goals. You can only imagine how bad it is with school budgets. Actually, physically getting goals together at various parks department fields is not easy. Two seasons in the fall is completely unmanageable–almost impossible–and we’re going to find that out this fall if this all actually happens.”
With all due respect to Michigan and Westchester, for many in the New York soccer community, it’s quite simply a case of, well, that isn’t New York. What’s fair in Michigan, the idea goes, isn’t necessarily fair here. Also not New York: big time soccer. Though it may be a surprise and the city does produce some great teams and great players, New York City is not a hotbed of soccer where every kid is playing for a club. “This is not a big issue,” Cushing says. “This is a few girls and what is an inconvenient spring season or them. If you know the reality of NYC soccer, it’s only a tiny fraction of girls who are playing elite club soccer and an even smaller fraction of girls being recruited.
“I’m reading this as an insider, someone who actually knows about NYC soccer, and my eyes are falling out of my head. The public reading this thinks, ‘oh all these girls have to deal with this terrible decision.’ The reality is NYC is not a powerhouse area for girls soccer or boys soccer–we don’t even compete at the state level, for girls or boys. It’s a false premise to suggest that a lot of girls are being hindered here. For the majority of PSAL soccer girls this isn’t an issue at all, but it will now when all of these logistical nightmares make it harder for them to enjoy the game and develop their skills. The fact that this got framed to the NYCLU as a Title IX issue, I think, is very sad. Because I don’t think at the heart of this, that is what this is all about.”
At the heart of this matter is Lucia Stern, the mother of one of the would-be plaintiffs, and the person who first took the grievance to the NYCLU. The public relations and advertising professional, educational activist (with a few other successes under her belt), and longtime soccer mom realized years ago through her daughter’s club team, which included girls from private and public schools around the area, that everybody was playing high school soccer in the fall besides New York City. Spending upwards of 200 hours researching the situation–how other cities and counties dealt with the matter; how the parks department gives out field space, the public advocacy report, the office of civil rights–it became clear to her and her daughter that this was about much more than their hectic spring schedule.
Stern’s daughter was distraught over the past weekend due to the dissenting voices she heard from within her own team since the announcement of the agreement. Those girls were by and large not competitive soccer players and girls who now had new fall conflicts to decide between. The family was prepared for some negative reaction and even realized it would likely mean the loss of their own beloved coach, Alex Marr (who coaches a boys team as well), but they believe their cause is still bigger than that and challenge anyone to find alterior motives in their campaign.
“I actually do think many of the coaches who are objecting have the same kind of conflicts [as Marr],” she says. “They love both their teams. I don’t think it’s just the money or anything like that. I think we may have presented it too much that way. It will be a short term adjustment that will make a lot of people uncomfortable.”
But the uporoar, she says, speaks to a different point. The hurdles to change need not be so high. Like the NYCLU, she questions the sky-is-falling argument over logistics, but instead of appearing to brush it off as the NYCLU has, she traces the coaches’ otherwise fair concerns to the doorstep of the PSAL and the city. “An argument against this change,” she says, “is an argument against any change at all… It is possible to manage change, and I think that the PSAL lacks leadership. There is no leadership at all that is interested in managing change. I think they hope it will be such a failure that in three years they can take it back, or even before then. The elephant in the room that no one wants to acknowledge is that the city is giving private schools priority over the use of field space. These are not the norms of use in public space in big cities. It’s not transparent how the field permits are giving out and who gets them. I filed a formal request more than a year ago to find out about that, and you know what they sent me? They sent me the record for Staten Island, where there is not a single school that doesn’t have a field. They are building new field space on Randall’s Island, and even that was initially attempted through a partnership with private schools.”
No city is free from the squeeky wheels of beuracracy, so what if the worst case scenario comes to pass? What if coaches are proven right that programs and seasons will be cut? “That could be the substance of an OCR (Office of Civil Rights) lawsuit. They are not supposed to [cut programs or games]. The PSAL could have prepared for this instead of fighting it. They could have begun trying to manage the change, and that is what I mean about the leadership. They want this to fail. They want their to be an outcry. And they want to be able to say there’s nothing we can do.”
If finding field space is hard, making everyone happier is beyond impossible. One alternative suggested would have the boys and girls switch seasons, either every year, every five years, or every decade. Another option, this one championed by Coach Sprance, is to offer an elite 10-team fall season for the girls, which would afford for those girls looking to play in the fall that opportunity while also allowing other girls to continue play in the spring (think of this new spring season as a recreational league) and some semblance of normality to field and coaching schedules. Neither of these options have reached beyond passing conversation.
He said, she said, impending disarray, no judge to rule. What will come this fall? The only thing everyone can agree on is the need for more fields in New York City. And maybe the same week the nation turns a corner to right the wrongs of the past, with the hope to once and for all set the fairest course toward justice with new leadership, maybe this city can begin to do the same on the soccer fields. it wouldn’t be the first time soccer created real change.