Dropping the Ball on Female Athletes DCPS may have America's only woman football coach, but its record on girls' sports is dreadful

Title Nein: Many D.C. high schools have no girls soccer teams.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery

Natalie Randolph will make her debut with the Coolidge Colts on Friday. She’s brought a lot of attention to the D.C. Public Schools since being hired a few months ago as perhaps the only female high school head football coach in the country. Randolph was on the cover of Parade magazine this week, and Coolidge’s game with Archbishop Carroll High School will be broadcast nationally on ESPN. The sports network has been given reality-show-like access to the new coach and her team since the hiring, which was overseen by Friends of Bedford, a New York-based education group that effectively runs the Takoma school.

Some folks might think that giving a woman a job that had historically gone to men means gender equity is the name of the game in DCPS athletics.

Keenan Keller knows the opposite is true. He believes the more important news about Coolidge Senior High School is it’s a place where girls are only found on the sidelines.

“Celebrating a woman football coach when you have a situation that is so unfair to girl athletes doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” a father of two girls who attend city schools and love playing sports.

Keller has nothing against Randolph or Coolidge. That’s just the place getting all the attention for its athletics as the school year kicks off this week. And, Randolph or no, he knows Coolidge fares horribly when comparing its overall sports offerings with those at private schools in the city or public schools in neighboring jurisdictions.

Take, for example, Randolph’s alma mater: Sidwell Friends, a private school in Upper Northwest, offers nine athletic teams for girls this fall alone. That’s about the same number offered by a typical public school in the suburbs: Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, located a little north of the D.C. border in Montgomery County, also has nine girls teams; my own Falls Church High School will field seven girls teams, because varsity and junior varsity soccer squads, which play in the fall in D.C. and Maryland, play in the spring in Fairfax County.

Yet last fall, Coolidge fielded just one girls team: volleyball.

In other words, Afghan girls in Taliban-controlled areas have only slightly fewer athletic opportunities as those stuck in some portions of Michelle Rhee’s fiefdom.

Keller, whose day job is the U.S. House Judiciary Committee’s majority counsel, is out to get the girls here a level playing field. He’s pushing for an independent investigation of the sports offerings within DCPS to determine whether the agency is in compliance with Title IX. That’s the federal regulation, put in place in 1972 that reads simply: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participating in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

In theory, Title IX guarantees gender equality in such things as extracurricular activities offered in public school systems.

In practice, alas, nothing’s guaranteed. Even without an official investigation, Keller has looked around enough to feel comfortable surmising that the city is “wildly out of compliance” with the federal code.

Keller admits selfishness is the prime motivator for taking action to correct the situation: His two girls, though not yet in high school, are serious soccer players with local youth clubs. He wants them to have athletic options as plentiful as those available to boys in DCPS and girls at private and suburban schools.

“We’re [launching the Title IX investigation] so we can start taking some official steps, engaging people within the administration, so they understand that this has to change,” he says. “Girl athletes in D.C. need people to step up and defend their interests. I say that as a father of two girl athletes in the D.C. schools.”

Currently, girls soccer is in tatters in the city’s public high schools. Malaika Nicholas, a recent graduate of Banneker and by acclaim the school’s best soccer player in recent years, can tell you the horror stories.

Only four DCPS schools—Wilson, School Without Walls, Bell and Banneker­—even fielded girls soccer teams last year, her senior season. (Wilson, therefore, was the only traditional public high school in the city to have a team.) And Banneker, Nicholas says, didn’t really field a squad.

“We never had enough players. Never,” she says. “We would have 7 or 8 players, tops, show up for our games, meaning we would literally have to negotiate with the other team every game and ask them if they would play 7-on-7 or 8-on-8, just so we wouldn’t have to forfeit. It was really frustrating and embarrassing.”

She says she asked the Banneker administration for help in getting bodies for the girls soccer team for her last two years. It never came.

“I was told by [an administrator] last year that I’m the team leader, so recruiting players is my job,” she says, with an embarrassed cackle. “I’m a student! So I’m walking around the hallways, putting up fliers and yelling ‘Who wants to play soccer?’ and trying to get kids to sign up.”

The greatest symptom of the disconnect between the Banneker administration and students: Nicholas says the coach during her senior year was such a non-presence that she honestly can’t remember the coach’s full name. “I think it was Britney Something,” she says. Nicholas recalls regularly running practices herself.

Nicholas is now enrolled at Emory University in Atlanta, and says her days as a soccer recruiter for Banneker and any other DCPS program are over. In fact, she’s going to advise her 12-year-old sister to not play ball for a public school.

“I wouldn’t want my sister to go through what I went through,” she says. “Competitively speaking, playing soccer in DCPS isn’t worth it. It didn’t help my game at all.”

Marcus Ellis, who is now beginning his second year as athletic director for DCPS, admits that he hasn’t been able to solve many of the most serious problems that ailed scholastic sports here before he got the job, including the lack of girls sports in the city schools.

But Ellis insists he’s trying.

“A lot of what I’m doing is preaching to the coaches and athletic directors at the schools to try new things, to offer more clinics, to do outreach,” he says. “You have to get people in the building to show interest in introducing girls to new sports. It’s hard to do that from a central location. We need to start as low as elementary school. We want to have high school seniors go talk to middle school girls, and the middle school girls talk to the fourth grade girls [about participating in sports].”

Ellis confesses that no amount of clinics or student mentoring programs can cure the girls sports drought overnight.

And Keller’s not predicting he’ll feel like celebrating the new Coolidge football coach anytime soon.

“There is no quick fix here,” Keller says. “You can go out and grab a quick headline, like getting a woman to coach football. But that has nothing to do with sports equity for girls. At the end of the day, I want people to go back and look at opportunities for girl athletes at that school. If they don’t have the same level of opportunity that the boys have, than isn’t having her coaching just hollow rhetoric? I mean, it’s good for her, but that’s as far as it goes.”

Our Readers Say

The main reason why sports for girls is in a dismal state in the DC Public School System (DCPS) is that the DCPS has no feeder programs from which they can draw talented girl athletes. The local youth football, baseball and basketball programs feed their athletes into the local public high school programs, although quite a few (athletes) choose to go the private school route. Additionally, DCPS has had no (real) physical education component to speak of over the last 20 years. As a result, girls have no desire or motivation to engage in, or more importantly, are not introduced to recreational or competitive sports at an early age. Because of the lack of sports opportunities, girls growing up in the District suffer the effects of childhood obesity and are susceptible to the physical and social ills that only serve to hinder or cripple their overall development. The DCPS is well behind the curve in addressing this problem and to some extent blind to its existence.
This has been a problem for some 40 years. When will the Women's Sports Foundation, Mia Hamm, Congress, or the Obama kids get involved here?
WCP: Please FOIA and publish the payroll and salaries of all DCPS coaches and athletic personnel, as well as the team-by-team budgeting for each athletic program. Would be very interesting to see the amount of money spent boys vs. girls, as well as football/basketball vs. all other sports, as well as the per athlete breakdown. Yes, football equipment and insurance costs more than a pair of track spikes and runners' insurance, but is this being handled reasonably and in compliance with Title IX? A couple friends of mine coach DCPS and often complained that their stipends were often months late and did not even cover their costs.

They said a major part of the problem, as Rob notes, is that elementary and middle school programs are such a mess that the kids are not being athletically prepared to compete at the high school level. Token "after school" programs relating to athletics abound, but what kind of quality instruction and role models do we expect when these programs only hire part-time coaches, pay a fraction of what Headfirst or other private clubs pay coaches, and schedule all of their programming during the traditional business hours, thereby cutting out well-qualified volunteers?

Would also be of value to know what the average sport-by-sport salary of a coach is at DCPS vs. that of private schools and suburban public schools.
Great piece. But, McKenna's been writing such on various topics for years.

We can wonder whether the state of athletics opps for women is as dismal in other "urban" school systems. Civil rights violation, anyone?"

"Oh, please, can't be. We're 'urban," exempt from such questions.
Some schools have the most valuble females.... I have seen it where the lone female is the captain of girls; track, volleyball, softball, homecoming queen, cheerleader captain, scholar athlete...but not voted most popular nor athletic by her peers.

Talking about female athletes being dropped as a ball by DCPS... I think they have done a disservice to the female sports being coached by males. You can't tell me that during the past 30 years or so...that our female baskteball team champions have only been coached by males. Yet, it is almost status quo as I have seen more male coaches at the helm of the cheerleaders...so go figure.
Hopefully this inequity will now change:

November 26, 2012
Re: OCR Complaint 11-12-1457

This is to notify you that the U.S. Department of Education (Department), Office for Civil Rights (OCR), has carefully evaluated the above-referenced complaint filed with OCR on May 9, 2012, against the District of Columbia Public Schools (District) alleging discrimination on the basis of sex. We conducted the evaluation in accordance with OCR's Case Processing Manual to determine whether to open the complaint for investigation. We have determined that we have the authority to investigate this complaint.

Specifically, the complaint and supporting documentation allege that the District subjects high school girls to discrimination on the basis of sex because the selection of interscholastic
sports at-the District's high schools-does not effectively accommodate the interests and-abilities of members of both sexes to the extent necessary to provide equal athletic opportunity.

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