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A Different Type of Basketball Fever

Jessie Rossman,
ACLU of Michigan
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March 21, 2011

In the midst of March Madness, even the most casual sports fans may notice that basketball referees are often amongst the least popular individuals on the court. At any given time, at least one team (and if you are really good, perhaps both) most likely believes that referees missed a good call or made a bad one.

In Melvindale, Michigan, however, a group of girls were ecstatic to see an additional referee on their court when they played the final game of their season last month. This third referee represented equal treatment, equal value and the ability of one person to make a difference when she speaks up.

The reason why this third referee meant so much was that midway through the high school basketball season, the Downriver Athletic League (DAL) athletic directors adopted a policy to treat girls’ high school basketball programs less favorably than boys’ basketball programs. Specifically, DAL elected to assign three referees to officiate all boys’ league games, but only two for all girls’ league games.

This policy plainly violated the Title IX mandate that schools must provide “equal athletic opportunity for members of both sexes.” It also placed the girls’ teams at a significant disadvantage — when there are three referees assigned to a game, they are able to better position themselves to see angles that they simply cannot see if there are only two referees. Finally, it sent a strong message to the female athletes that they were second-class citizens, and that the quality of officiating was less important in their games than in the boys’ game.

As a former student athlete myself, I was not surprised to hear that the girls noticed this difference right away. “Why do we only have two referees?” the girls at Melvindale High School asked their coach, Katie McFadden. Because she did not have a satisfactory answer, McFadden decided to ask her own tough questions. When the athletic directors did not change the policy in response to her efforts, she came to us. Together, the ACLU of Michigan and McFadden wrote a letter to the DAL asking them to repeal their illegal policy and immediately begin assigning three referees to all girls’ basketball games.

When the girls stepped onto the court for their championship game, they were greeted by three individuals in the striped referee uniform. “Coach, coach, we have three referees!” they exclaimed excitedly. In response to our letter, the DAL had amended its policy, effective immediately, and promised to ensure that an equal number of referees would be utilized in future seasons as well. Melvindale High School ended up winning that game (which, according to McFadden, was officiated quite well). As important, however, these students learned through the example of their coach about the power of the individual to enact positive change. And that is a victory we can all get behind.

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