As reported in the Bleacher Report, a high school cheerleading squad in Michigan was retroactively disqualified from a competition for violating a league rule banning male athletes from female teams. The article goes on to criticize the Michigan High School Athletic Association, which governs competitive cheer and other sports in the state of Michigan, for employing a double standard, because girls are allowed to try out for boys teams at schools that do not offer a girls team in a particular sport.
As the article points out, MHSAA defends its rule by arguing that it’s necessary to preserve athletic opportunities for those whose opportunities have historically been limited. Clearly MHSAA is invoking the Title IX regulations here, which provide that when a school “sponsors a team in a particular sport for members of one sex but operates or sponsors no such team for members of the other sex, and athletic opportunities for members of that sex have previously been limited, members of the excluded sex must be allowed to try-out for the team offered unless the sport involved is a contact sport.” In other words, to have the right to try out for a cross-sex team, you have to be a member of sex whose athletic opportunities have previously been limited, and the sport in question is not a contact sport. There’s no question that cheer is not a contact sport, but the other limitation to the cross-over exception clearly applies — girls in Michigan have previously, and continue, to be underrepresented in athletics.
MHSAA’s policy is not only legal under Title IX, it also does not qualify as a double standard, as the article claims. A double standard is when you extend different privileges to similarly-situated groups. When groups are not similarly situated, different treatment may be warranted. According to last year’s participation report by the National Federation of High School Associations, there were 133,000 opportunities for Michigan high school girls compared to 181,000 opportunities for Michigan high school boys. With girls receiving only 42% of high school athletic opportunities in Michigan, it’s not a double standard to say that girls, but not boys, can try out for cross-sex teams.
But even though MHSAA’s policy is legal under Title IX, and deflects the charge of “double standard,” I still would prefer participation rules that promote, rather than limit, cross-sex participation in sports. I think that girls and boys playing more often together, rather than apart, can ultimately contribute to breaking down gender stereotypes that are perpetuated when segregation is maintained. Schools need to address the gender disparity in opportunities, that is true. But rather than doing so by excluding boys from “girls” teams, the better approach is to commit to adding as many opportunities as it takes to match girls’ interest in athletics, whether that be more freshman and JV teams in sports that girls already play, adding new girls’ teams in sports that girls don’t yet but could be interested in playing, and being more inclusive of girls on boys teams in sports where it is not feasible to add a girls’ team.