With barely 30 seconds remaining and just a two-point lead, Southridge High School guard McKelle Meek stepped up to the foul line.
Her team was trying to hold off a comeback by Portland’s Grant High School in a semifinal game at the 2017 Oregon state basketball tournament. Meek’s shot was off and Grant got the rebound but couldn’t sink the potentially tying shot.
It was the last real opening the Southridge Skyhawks would give any team in this year’s tournament, as they beat Grant and then Oregon City, en route to the 2017 state title for Oregon’s largest schools.
The deafening crowds at those games were yet another sign that women’s sports are about much more than pro teams like the Portland Thorns. But with the increasing notoriety come some nagging questions.
Similar questions are circling around whether schools provide equal athletic opportunities for girls and boys. Lake Oswego is dealing with allegations going back a year, and now parents in Beaverton — one of Oregon’s largest school districts — are raising alarms about how girls’ sports are run at Southridge and several of Beaverton’s other big high schools.
They see fewer teams for girls. Facilities don’t appear to be as nice for girls as they are for boys. And parents’ biggest questions are about what female athletes face in the off-season, long before the playoffs.
Camps and clinics for sports like basketball and soccer can cost families hundreds of dollars. Some Beaverton parents say attendance is often mandatory to get on a team. If true, that may violate state athletic association guidelines.
“It became pretty clear there’s a problem going on,” said Linda Nezbeda, the founder of Beaverton Community for Education, a nonprofit mainly focused on running after-school programs.
Nezbeda said the camps tend to charge girls more than they charge boys.
“For the girls, it could cost $200-$400 extra for, let’s say, two camps,” Nezbeda said. “While for respective boys, it’s free or like $20.”
Beaverton parents and students have been reluctant to speak at board meetings or to media outlets about the issues because they don’t want to rock the boat with coaches. But privately, they say off-season camps are often an audition for getting on a team.
That’s not supposed to be required, under the rules of the Oregon School Activities Association, which governs high school sports. OSAA also has tight conditions governing what coaches can and can’t do, even if camps are optional.
Fees are allowed – but if girls pay more than boys, then programs run up against another problem: the federal equity rule known as Title IX.
Nailing down who’s being charged what, and where the money is going has been difficult, according to parents who’ve been asking questions going back months. Beaverton parent Brian Tosky has been part of the push to get financial records.
“It seems like the more questions we ask, the less information, or the more confusing information, we received,” said Tosky, who’s also affiliated with Nezbeda’s Beaverton Community for Education.
Beaverton school officials investigated five complaints in February, but they weren’t focused on off-season activities.
Officials confirmed that in some cases girls have to leave campus for practice, while boys may not, explaining that it’s a workaround based on limited space. The district also confirmed there were fewer slots on teams for girls than boys. While officials said the differences were due to less demand among girls, they said they intended to work to boost interest among female athletes.
A month before those complaint responses came out, the school board was discussing plans to work with state officials on an audit of school sports for possible gender bias. They say it’ll start in May, and take up to eight months.
Gender bias is a problem school district leaders like Beaverton board chair Anne Bryan recognize have existed for years.
“We are really thrilled that we are moving forward with this important work,” Bryan said after the January briefing from district staff. “I’ve been thinking back to a work session, too long ago, probably two and a half years now, where we started just looking at facilities and we at that time understood it was much bigger.”
What has Bryan “thrilled” has parents frustrated.
Nezbeda withdrew a lawsuit she had filed last year, because her discussions with the district convinced her changes were coming quickly. But she now doesn’t believe the district is moving fast enough, and she doubts local officials will ultimately solve the problems.
Nezbeda is working with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in Seattle on a possible investigation of the Beaverton district.
“It’s just not going to work, going through the district,” Nezbeda said. “We just don’t have the power to do anything, so we need somebody who cares about equality and equity and has the ability to create change.”
The conflict has taken some odd turns. A school board member from neighboring Portland, Steve Buel, stepped in on behalf of Nezbeda. He called Beaverton superintendent Don Grotting about the alleged rule violations and asked him to make quick changes.
“Portland Public Schools plays Beaverton in athletics,” Buel said. “I don’t want them cheating out there. We have a tough enough time winning games.”
Beaverton school board chair Anne Bryan reacted with an email to Buel and the Portland school board, accusing the Portland board member of “bullying them with your perspective.”
There’s one other odd twist: Nezbeda revealed recently that she secretly recorded a meeting with district leaders. Because that’s possibly illegal, she turned herself in to law enforcement, though school officials said they don’t plan to press charges.
Editor’s Note: Audio from the state tournament game came from the National Federal of High Schools streaming service.