It’s a gray, windy day as play starts on the Cimarron-Memorial High School football field. But the chill doesn’t slow the Spartans who, with a few quick plays, score on their opening drive against Mojave High School.
“Did you see that?” a student on the sidelines asks his buddies. “That was a 20-yard pass!”
Indeed, senior quarterback Brandi Gutierrez has quite an arm. Some might say, “Not bad for a girl.” But if you hear the cluster of players from the Spartan boys’ football team brag, it’s clear that the girls’ flag football team has some true fans.
And those boys aren’t the only fans of the burgeoning girls’ team. While 3:30 p.m. game times are tough for many parents to make, those who can make it are hardcore in their enthusiasm. It’s hard to miss Lidia Escobar, who is holding her toddler on the sidelines, while watching her daughter Ashley Escobar on the field. It’s the first time her husband couldn’t get off work to watch a game.
“She’s here doing something she loves and I couldn’t be happier,” Escobar says. “She tried boxing and some other sports, but nothing stuck.”
Now in its inaugural season, girls’ flag football is the newest sport sanctioned by the Clark County School District. But its addition came from an unusual source. It is the first new sport added in response to a Title IX complaint filed by the National Women’s Law Center in 2010. The 41 year-old Title IX is a landmark federal law that requires schools to offer equal opportunities for girls and boys in athletics and academics, as well as address issues related to discrimination.
“There are many, many districts, unfortunately, across the country that are not complying with Title IX,” says Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel for the Law Center and director of equal opportunity and athletics.
In November 2010, the center filed complaints regarding 12 school districts, including ours, in a campaign aimed at highlighting the disparity in opportunities for girls. While half of all high school students in America are girls, only 41 percent of high school athletics provide options for girls, according to the center. That adds up to 1.3 million girls nationwide who don’t have a sports option for extracurricular activities — which can in turn curb college scholarship opportunities.
Like the other schools, the Clark County School District was called out for a gap between athletic opportunities for girls and boys. Under the law, there can’t be a difference greater than five percent between athletic opportunities offered for boys and for girls. In 2010, the district’s gap was more than 10 percent, or roughly 4,000 girls in the district who had no opportunity to play sports at their schools.
“There was quite a bit of difference between the (opportunities for) girls and boys,” says Ray Mathis, executive director of student activities for the school district. “We have been proactive in addressing those concerns.”
And compliance is no laughing matter. Failing to comply with Title IX can result in a loss of federal funding for school districts, from buses to lunch programs, says Mathis, who adds that the school district doesn’t use federal funds for athletics. And school districts can’t get waivers or opt out because of a lack of funds or budget cuts.
“Cost can’t be a factor,” Mathis says. “We don’t really have a choice.”
Three cheers for flag football
Since 2010, the district has looked at ways to increase opportunities for girls to participate in sports, including adding freshman girls’ soccer to the already existing JV and varsity offerings. This added about 450 girls, but that’s still a far cry from the goal.
So, last year, the district put out a student interest survey to get a read on what girls wanted to do. Overwhelmingly, girls voted to add ... competitive cheerleading? Yes. But since that activity is not sanctioned under the terms of Title IX, the district couldn’t justify new costs that wouldn’t get them any closer to compliance. So the district went with the students’ second choice, flag football, which beat out other contenders, including lacrosse, field hockey, gymnastics and badminton.
[HEAR MORE: Hear a discussion of girls’ high school sports on “KNPR’s State of Nevada.”]
In its first season, flag football has rolled out in 35 schools with approximately 15 girls (or more) on each team at a cost of about $225,000 to the district. The district is still tabulating participation numbers for the season. Mathis says next year there are plans to add a junior varsity level.
Judging from the enthusiasm from players and their parents, flag football is a success.
Chauncy Garbutt, who coaches the girls’ team for Cimarron-Memorial as well as serving as an assistant coach for the boys’ football team, says he’s been enjoying working with the girls.
“The girls are really, really coachable,” Garbutt says. “They picked it up really fast. I taught them the same way I teach boys.”
The future of flag
There are a few differences with flag football compared to standard boys’ football, including a seven-player lineup and no special teams. Also, everyone is an eligible receiver.
Many of the girls who tried out have no experience playing football, but have tried other sports. Tiffany Hargrove, a senior wide receiver, played tennis before trying football.
“I would have done this the whole time (if it had been offered),” Hargrove says. “I think this is the best sport I’ve ever done in all of high school. I can see how the boys feel (about football). This is part of my life. I’m a girls’ football player!”
But there is one problem with flag football, which students and parents are quick to point out. There are no NCAA scholarships or a future at the collegiate level. This point isn’t lost on the National Women’s Law Center, which encourages school districts to look not just at interest, but at future opportunities when adding girls’ sports.
“Interest is a factor,” Chaudhry says. “But if one sport offers more of a future, why not choose that one? That’s been one of our concerns with flag football.” She adds: “We want to make sure that schools are adding things not just because they are easy or cheap, but because there is a future.”
Flag football is a relative newcomer to the school athletics scene. Florida and Alaska were the first to adopt it, with Nevada and some districts in New York following close behind. In addition, the sport has gained a cult following through coed community programs, with teams for children as well as adults. And as concern over concussions in boys’ sports continues to be a factor, there may be more opportunities and more money for flag football programs for girls and boys in the future.
But these bigger issues are hardly on the minds of the players on the field this season. With a glint in his eye, Michael Robertson watches his daughter Brandi Barnson play as his wife and sons, one of whom plays for Cimarron-Memorial’s boys’ football team, cheer in the stands.
“It’s developed her into a more confident person,” he says. “We have more to talk about, more in common. This year, for the first time, she sat down and watched the NFL games with me. It’s all in the family now.”