Benson Girls Soccer, Title IX cross paths

If you could put a figure on the value of a high school varsity letter, what would that figure be?




When a coach presents a player their letter at the end of a season, and that player and even parents get to thinking what the value of that letter is, could you actually put a dollar amount on that event? Especially, if it were for a student who only played one sport and only got that letter as a senior, having played his/her way up to the varsity team through previous seasons.

You could look back at the cost of all the seasons of youth sports, all the camps, all the gear, travel expenses, maybe even travel expenses for parents and family and calculate a figure.

For most people this is topic for a summer party that might include some head shaking - and back slapping for what that student accomplished - as a student/athlete. They tell tales of the season that was, wins and losses - the playoff run, or the plays made, road trips and coaches ... stories that will last for the rest of their lives.

The stories teams develop, that players and coaches and families develop through a team are what makes athletics a great part of every community. And, that’s at every level from youth through high school, college, professional teams to recreational teams and events.

That varsity letter, though, that’s kind of a specific accomplishment, something that has a time limit on it - the four years of high school.
What if you didn’t have the chance to earn that letter, though? Your school didn’t offer a varsity letter in the sport you played, even though you played for the school for several years. This is basically the case that I’m working on as a parent at Benson High School, which has chosen not to field a varsity team in girls soccer next school year even though my daughter will be playing in her third season within the program.

It’s a unique and very frustrating situation that has me as a parent looking at the value of the Title IX legislation from 1972 and what it might be able to do to motivate the school district to reassess a decision it made to not offer varsity girls soccer at Benson in 2019. It plans to offer varsity girls soccer in 2020, but not 2019 because, well, the girls won’t be good enough for varsity athletics in 2019. But, they will be in 2020.

This story isn’t just about what the value of a varsity letter is, but also how you determine who a varsity athlete.

Benson’s girls soccer team dropped from varsity play in 2014 after several very unsuccessful seasons. It gathered enough players for just one team when my daughter joined in 2017 as a sophomore. With several other sophomores joining, a goal became to play to the varsity level in three seasons - at the recreational level of Junior Varsity II as sophomores, Junior Varsity as juniors, and then Varsity as seniors. It seemed pretty simple and just required the girls to practice and play regularly, find enough players for two teams their junior season, and get the school to make the proper adjustments. Every other sport at Benson offers a varsity team regardless of its results, so girls soccer seemed some energetic players away from moving back to the varsity level.

The progran had enough players for two teams this past fall and the school principal, Curtis Wilson, and athletic director, Scott Archer, lobbied for the move to varsity play earlier this year. Again, it seemed simple enough - three-year plan accomplished ... regardless of the on-field results. Who knows how many, or even if, the team would win a game this fall, but, they’d be doing it at the varsity level, which involves earning a varsity letter. And, that letter, reaching the varsity team, is a key element to getting students to put effort into improving enough to rate better than other students at their school. It’s motivation.

This is where the story takes it’s frustrating turn toward Title IX - the appeal to move to the varsity level got denied by district athletic director Marshall Haskins, who looked at the fall schedule from 2018 saw a majority of games played against JVII teams and said it wasn’t strong enough so the girls wouldn’t be prepared for varsity play in 2019. He convinced Wilson to create a two-year plan so that the team would be ready for varsity play in 2020. The girls just needed to play a stronger schedule in 2019, and they’d be ready. The strength of the schedule was the key to the plan.

So, the Benson girls soccer team wouldn’t be good enough for varsity play this fall, but it would be next fall. Plan created. Decision made. Case closed. The girls, including the handful of juniors who would be seniors and working to earn that varsity letter, got the news of the two-year plan and that was that.

When I got the news, though, I asked my daughter if that varsity letter was something she valued, and she said yes. Contact with the school, district athletic department, even school board and district administration have gotten positive reponses such as deputy superintendant Yvonne Curtis responding this situation should be corected. But without any bargaining strength, nothing happens.

And, that’s where this issue stands. At a standstill. As summer approaches and the window for creating a varsity schedule closes, the district has made a plan of non-action. Without any action, this issue will eventually go away.

Title IX was pretty much created as a bargaining tool for situations like this. Lake Oswego’s softball team sued its school district in 2014 to get better facilities, using the baseball team’s access to better facilities as its core argument. It got better faclities.

In this case, Benson has a varsity boys soccer team, but not one for girls. The boys team ranked 50th out of 51 Class 6A teams in fall, winning just one game and losing eight of its 13 games by five or more goals. Benson’s football team ranked last in the state.

And, the initial decision for the two-year plan was made by men, apparently not considering in the slightest that they should offer girls in the program the same opportunity as the boys.

A lawsuit seeking damages after a season plays out would be pretty unique, but the active bargaining power would be the depositions that would be needed from Haskins, Wilson, Archer, Curtis, chief academic officer Luis Valentino, probably even district superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero.

The lawsuit would be for damages caused by the school not offering equal opportunity to varsity athletics, and involve coming up with a monetary figure for what a varsity letter is actually worth. Maybe other incoming seniors would become inolved in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit that would probabaly start with the key question of can someone actually sue a district for something they didn’t have the opportunity to get?

And, it would involve the key part of the two-year plan - the schedule. Is a varsity team determined by the level of its expected results against other teams, or is it determined by the skill level of athletes showcased against other athletes at their school and then promoted as the best team at that school? Those players change every year.

The best evidence in this case, ironically, is the schedule the girls played in fall. Because it was produced at the last minute, the two teams had to share one schedule, which was mostly JVII teams. The girls did get to play three games against JV teams, which was the three-year plan, and that’s supported on the OSAA website, so the program wouldn’t actually be moving from JVII to varsity in one year.

This lawsuit would be quite a trainwreck for Portland Public Schools.

Or, the district could simply create a varsity schedule for the Benson girls for 2019 and tell them, “we believe in you just like we believe in the boys at the school. Now go show the state what you got.” In 2019, not 2020 as is the current two-year plan.

I’ve spent four months working to change the initial decision and have used the threat of protests, of media awareness, and now a lawsuit to get the district to adhere to the school’s original request for a varsity team. If you’re reading this, you’ll know the district is simply going to support Haskins and his belief that a varsity team is based on its projected results months ahead of a season, rather than a school’s compilation of its best athletes against other athletes.

So, what’s the value of a varsity letter? In my house, it’s quite a lot, and not just in terms of money.