June 26, 2006 – Womenâ€™s sports activists say schools across the nation may be in violation of a federal law when they accept donations from corporations in the form of boys' sports apparel, while girls have to pay for their own equipment.
Adopted in 1972, a law known as Title IX bans gender discrimination in school athletics, as well as academic activities.
Joe Kelly, president of Dads and Daughters, a national advocacy group working to change cultural messages that devalue girls and women, said, "Thereâ€™s a good case to be made that if youâ€™re going to accept donations for a boysâ€™ team, you should ask for a similar donation for the girlsâ€™ team. That would certainly be in the spirit of Title IX."
There are currently no publicly available statistics on how many high school sports teams are sponsored by private companies. Repeated calls to the shoe companies Nike, Adidas and Reebok were not returned.
Emily Salisbury played basketball at South Medford High School in Medford Oregon, where star basketball forward Kyle Singler has attracted sponsorship from the Nike corporation. The boysâ€™ basketball team receives free shoes and apparel from the Oregon-based company. In a one-woman campaign that began late last year, Salisburyâ€™s mother, Mary, has been urging school officials to offer similar perks to the girlsâ€™ team.
"The shoe companies have every right to operate on a purely business level, but public schools arenâ€™t in that same business," Mary Salisbury said. "When they receive donations of any kind, it is up to the school officials to make sure that everything is somewhat equitable."
"Essentially, itâ€™s a way to promote brand loyalty."
Mary Salisbury, who grew up playing basketball in Flint, Michigan, shared her concerns with South Medford Principal Kevin Campbell and athletic director Dennis Murphy in a hand-delivered letter. She says both administrators met her with polite but firm opposition. Calls by The New Standard to the school were not returned by press time.
When she began educating herself about the issue of corporate sponsorship in high schools, Salisbury learned this was not a new trend. According to Sole Influence, a book written by sports journalists Dan Wetzel and Don Yaeger, companies like Nike, Adidas and Reebok began looking for outstanding players to sponsor at the high school level in the mid-1990s. Wetzel and Yaeger say the corporate competition for younger athletes was spurred on by Adidas recruiter Sonny Vaccaro, who brokered a deal between Adidas and basketball celebrity Kobe Bryant, upon Bryantâ€™s graduation from high school in 1996.
"Essentially, itâ€™s a way to promote brand loyalty," said Susan Linn, co-founder of Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood. "It makes the corporations look as though theyâ€™re doing a positive thing. It looks like corporate social responsibility, but in reality, its marketing."
So far, Salisbury says she has received little more than form letters from the companies in response to her queries.
While equitable donations from corporate sponsors might solve the funding disparity between the sexes, Donna Lopiano, CEO of the Womenâ€™s Sports Foundation, says the responsibility for fairness lies with the schools themselves.
"The institution must comply with federal law," Lopiano said. "Title IX doesnâ€™t say you have to spend the same amount of money on girls and boys. Different sports cost different things. But it does deal with benefits, like shoes and equipment. If you provide those benefits for boys, you need to provide them for girls."
Lopiano said concerned parents have adequate grounds to take legal action when schools fail to comply with the federal statute. Since Salisbury has indicated definitively that she does not intend to sue, Lopiano said another option would be to file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education.
Emily Salisbury says she is proud of her momâ€™s campaign. "Our boys teams do deserve [sponsorship]," she said, "but they should think about how that makes the girls feel when they donâ€™t really get anything, like we arenâ€™t as good as the boys are."
According to Linn and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, donations of athletic apparel is just one of the many ways corporations use to access teenagers. The practice falls in line with the distribution of branded teaching materials, contests such as the Pizza Hut Book-It program, vending machines on campus and ads on school buses.
"If a school is dependent on a company for money or for things that it needs, theyâ€™re certainly less likely to [examine] labor practices or environmental violations or any kind of corporate practices," Linn said. "Thatâ€™s terribly concerning."