Decades of discrimination against girl athletes in Michigan high schools came to an end Monday when the U.S. Supreme Court closed the final door on a state association that had fought to maintain the status quo.
A pair of Grand Rapids moms, Diane Madsen and Jay Roberts-Eveland, who began questioning a decade ago why their daughters were treated differently from boy athletes, wound up changing the face of Michigan high school sports forever.
Beginning in September, seasons will switch for nearly 56,000 girls and 16,000 boys -- along with thousands of officials and coaches and hundreds of school districts.
"I feel as though the weight of the world has been lifted off my shoulders," Madsen said of the ruling. "This shows me that there are people of goodwill out there, who recognize discrimination when they see it, and want to change it.
"(The suit) really was about far more than just playing seasons. It was about basic fairness and equity and giving girls the same opportunities that boys have always had in this state."
The seasons that will be affected include girls basketball and volleyball, and boys and girls tennis and golf.
"The new beginning starts," Roberts-Eveland said, speaking by cell phone from the rim of the Grand Canyon. "It's a great step forward. Now, let's go. Let's do it."
John "Jack" Roberts, executive director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association, said the decision presents a "new challenge of leadership" to school districts to facilitate the court-ordered changes.
Thousands of athletes who played more than one sport will find their combination no longer available, Roberts said, adding, "For them, I feel the worst."
His only reason for mounting this expensive, decade-long battle was to support schools in their efforts to maximize opportunities for all athletes, and especially girls, Roberts said -- and their efforts had been successful.
Michigan is eighth in the nation in the number of female high school athletes, Roberts said, but ranks third in volleyball and tennis participants, and fourth in girls participation overall.
And this, as Roberts put it, "in a nearly bankrupt state, with nearly bankrupt school districts."
Civil rights activists on the national stage hailed the decision.
The association's position was the "stubbornness of dinosaurs," said Donna LoPiano, president of the Women's Sports Foundation, who testified for the plaintiffs in the original trial.
"They were the last holdouts," she said. "It was incredible that they have kept fighting this standard, when every other state had changed their rules."
Kristen Galles, a Virginia civil rights lawyer who has worked for the mothers and their small organization, Communities for Equity, for more than a decade without compensation along with Grand Rapids attorney H. Rhett Pinsky, said the suit benefited Michigan girls even as it was being fought.
"Lacrosse and bowling added as girls sports? That never would have happened without this suit," she said.
"The refurbishing of Bailey Park (the Battle Creek facility where the girls state softball championship tournament is held)? That never would have happened without this suit.
"People forget all the different ways" girls were discriminated against in Michigan high school athletics, she said.
Roberts and the association argued, ever since the lawsuit was filed in 1998, that the state's seasons for girls -- some played at different times of year from other high schools and colleges across the country -- actually benefit girls by allowing them more chances to participate, and greater access to coaches, officials, facilities and college recruiters.
That position was slam-dunked in December 2001, when the federal suit ended in the courtroom of U. S. District Judge Richard Alan Enslen. The judge ruled the sports seasons discriminated against girls in violation of Title IX, the federal law against gender discrimination in athletics; the 14th Amendment equal-protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, and Michigan's Constitution and civil rights law.
It took Enslen more than 30 pages to enumerate all the ways the setup discriminated against girl athletes in Michigan. One of the most important was that girls basketball, soccer and golf seasons were two to three weeks shorter than those of girls everywhere else in the country who played their sports at traditional times of year.
An expert in learning motor skills testified the loss of skill development in such foreshortened seasons is "astronomical."
In one of two losing appeals before the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, the association's position that switching seasons would place an impossible burden on facilities and personnel was sharply refuted.
If that's so, the appeals court said, just switch the boys teams to the disadvantageous seasons, instead of always the girls.
Backed by a plump bank account and two insurance policies, Roberts and the association launched a series of appeals and other delaying tactics that put off implementation of Enslen's order by three school years.
On Monday, the Supreme Court released a list of cases it had conferred on last Friday, and in which it had refused to grant certiorari -- in effect, rejecting the appeals. The case of Communities for Equity vs. Michigan High School Athletic Association was among them, meaning the court found no issues worth exploring -- in effect validating Judge Enslen's 2001 decision, and bringing the legal road to its end.
Roberts said the association has exhausted about $1.4 million of its $2 million in legal insurance. Federal law says the MHSAA must pay the other side's legal expenses as well, which could reach or surpass $2 million. If that happens, Roberts said, no member schools will be asked to contribute, and no current programs will be affected.
"This nine-year delay of justice has already disadvantaged a generation of girls," said Galles' colleague, Neena Chaudhry of the National Women's Law Center, another lead attorney in the case.
"Unfortunately, the existing damage cannot be undone. But we can look forward. Future generations of Michigan high school girls who want to participate in athletics will get the equal opportunities for which they have long waited."