Experts split on what survey responses mean in Title IX case attempting to bring girls' football to Utah

FILE - In this April 25, 2019, file photo, female football player Sam Gordon walks the NFL draft red carpet in Nashville, Tenn. Opening arguments in a lawsuit brought by Gordon pushing to compel the state to create all-girls football teams at high schools were heard in federal court Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020. Gordon became an online star when a video of the then 9-year-old girl's dominant football skills against boys gained widespread attention online in 2012. She, her father and other girls who wanted to play football filed a lawsuit against the three districts and the Utah High School Activities Association five years later. (AP Photo/Doug Benc, File)

The information that can be gleaned from a survey to measure what sports girls would be interested in participating in has been a key portion of the bench trial that will decide whether two Utah school districts and the Utah High School Activities Association are in violation of Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause by not providing football for girls.

The survey was conducted in September of last year and overseen by the Jordan District, one of the defendants in the lawsuit. Granite District is another defendant. Canyons District was a defendant until earlier this year, when plaintiffs who went to schools there graduated.

Joseph Quin Monson, an associate professor of political science at BYU who also studies survey research methods, testified Monday that he created the survey — a two-page document consisting of seven questions aimed to ascertain “student athletic interest.”

The survey was administered to boys and girls in grades nine through 11 at schools in the Jordan, Granite and Canyons — when it was a defendant in the case — school districts. It asked questions surrounding their prior participation in school-sponsored competitive sports, reasons for not participating in those sports, and which sports not currently offered at their respective school they would be interested in playing.

The survey also asked respondents to rank from highest to lowest the sports in which they were interested that weren’t currently offered, and asked them to do so in writing.

Experts on both sides gave their interpretations of the survey’s results, which have been frequently discussed since the start of the trial. Donna Lopiano, a professional expert witness who frequently testifies for the plaintiffs in Title IX cases, said that when the possibility of a school adding a sport arises, “the expression of interest is the deciding factor.”

Monson’s survey measured both interest and enthusiasm. He said Tuesday that he measured enthusiasm by how many respondents ranked a certain sport first among those they’d be interested in playing at their school.

Across all three districts, girls' tackle football ranked 15th among 35 specific sports from which girls could choose in their version of the survey (they could also write in other answers). Sports that girls ranked higher than girls' tackle football were archery, competitive cheerleading and bowling — all of which aren’t currently sanctioned by the UHSAA.

The enthusiasm data ranked girls' tackle football as 12th among sports girls said they’d be most interested in playing. Only 3% of girls who responded to the survey ranked girls' tackle football as No. 1. That data is also across all three districts.

Of the sports not currently offered by the UHSAA, archery consistently ranked in the top three across all districts. Monson said that could be because archery is listed first on the alphabetically list of sports, but that effect is likely small.

Proponents of the survey say that because the percentage of girls who expressed interest in girls' tackle football is higher than those interested in girls' wrestling or lacrosse — both were sanctioned by the USHAA in recent years — that is evidence the school districts and the association aren’t taking girls' interests into consideration, thus violating a provision of Title IX.

At issue is what that expression of interest actually means. Lopiano said high school interest surveys are “the gold standard” when evaluating Title IX compliance at K-12 schools. She mentioned, however, that she would have preferred Monson’s survey to be more like a census, which normally has a 80-90% response rate, to better ascertain predictable behavior.

“The whole point is trying to predict how many kids are interested and will come out for a team,” Lopiano said.

Still, when Lopiano analyzed the survey results — which polled about 28% of the state’s student population — extrapolated so they’d represent a larger sample, she felt each school would be able to successfully field a girls' tackle football team based on the projected data.

Lopiano submitted a report recommending girls' tackle football be added as a sport. Other sports she’d recommend adding are archery, bowling and sand volleyball, she said.

Lopiano said that when she oversees surveys in her work as a consultant in Title IX compliance, her queries look at the top four sports for which an athlete would try out and she does not ask them to rank the sports. In her experience, that method is telling about the relationship between interest and participation.

“We found that the top four is predictive,” Lopiano said.

But Monson refuted that idea. He said gleaning possible participation from someone merely expressing interest is “notoriously difficult” because the nature of the survey calls for respondents to self-report. He also said his survey wasn’t designed to predict future participation in any sport — just interest.

Furthermore, Monson said that while he understands the data showing the percentage of girls ranking girls' tackle football as No. 1 on their surveys, that does not represent a 1:1 ratio in regards to future participation.

“I think we have no idea whether it would be accurate or not,” Monson said. “It’s very difficult to know for a lot of reasons.”

Three girls who have testified in the trial — all of them said they currently play or previously played in the Utah Girls' Tackle Football League — said they ranked girls' tackle football as No. 1 when they completed the survey.

Comments:  (0)