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Tom loves youth sports, and he’s mad at the Arizona Interscholastic Association for sports inequity

There's a mean joke about a guy who has one good hand, but his other hand has been badly mangled in an accident. He goes into a church and prays, "Please God, make my hand like the other one." He hears a thunderclap, then looks down to see that he now has two mangled hands. More on that later.

A few years ago, Dr. Harold Slemmer, the head of the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA), held a meeting to introduce and try to defend—most unsuccessfully—his plan to remake the AIA according to his own narrow vision. The meeting couldn't have gone any worse had Slemmer disrobed and become flatulent halfway through. The state's small, rural schools, already an afterthought when it came to the AIA, were about to be decimated as Class 1A was eliminated and the small schools that had successfully competed therein were thrown in the new Division IV where they would have to play schools anywhere from four to 10 times their size.

Despite the AIA's protestations to the contrary, the reorganization has proven to be a disaster for small schools, where participation is dwindling and the number of blowout losses in football, basketball, and other sports has skyrocketed. (It's not hard to see the link between the two phenomena.) And the drop in participation has a rippling effect throughout entire communities.

On one point, Slemmer was stunningly blunt. He said that he believed that too many Arizona kids were experiencing success in the form of advancing to the state tournaments in various sports and that he was going to slash the number of participants, in some cases by as much as 90 percent.

For decades, Arizona's high schools were divided into five classes, based almost entirely on school enrollment. Rapid population growth prompted an expansion from five classes to seven. Slemmer unilaterally decided that four was better. (Neighboring states, including several with populations half the size of Arizona's or smaller, all have between five and seven divisions.) All of the "major" sports (loosely defined as those for which people will pay to attend games and matches) would have four divisions, while others would have only one or two. Only King Football was spared the axe, dropping from seven divisions to six.

Then Slemmer said that, out of fear of being slapped with a Title IX lawsuit for discriminatory practices (one they would almost certainly lose), the AIA would break volleyball into five divisions. However, in a giveth-and-taketh-away move, the AIA set the number of teams that reach the volleyball state tournament at 80, rather than the 96 teams that advance in every other major sport. (Sixteen teams currently advance to State in each of the six football divisions, while 24 go in each of the four divisions in boys' basketball, softball, girls' basketball, and baseball.)

This discrepancy becomes even more glaring when combined with the fact that more kids play girls' volleyball than any other sport in Arizona, even more so than football. This indefensible situation has persisted for six years and may have left the AIA more open to a Title IX lawsuit than if they had gone with four divisions for volleyball.

Chuck Schmidt is the associate executive director of (and lightning rod for all of the criticism directed at) the AIA, a state bureaucracy that answers to no one and has no official oversight. Schmidt says that his organization is in compliance with Title IX because, according to the AIA, the 8-Man football played by tiny rural schools is not actually football. "We consider it a separate sport altogether," Schmidt explains. "So we have five divisions for football and five for volleyball. And one for 8-Man football."

Even if one accepts the argument that 8-Man football isn't actually football, there was still the matter of unequal representation in the state tournaments. While doing research for an article I'm writing for a national publication on high-school gender inequality that persists 40 years after the introduction of Title IX, I attempted to contact every high school volleyball coach in Arizona and asked whether they felt that the same number of teams should go to State in girls' volleyball as in every other major sport.

Of the 173 coaches who responded, across all five divisions, 170 believe that at least as many teams should go in volleyball as in the other sports. Meanwhile, three coaches (all from big schools in Phoenix) felt things are fine as they are. One coach went so far as to say that the state participation numbers in the other sports should be cut down to match volleyball.

The AIA, acting out the aforementioned joke, recently addressed the inequality of state tournament berths, albeit in a roundabout way. Instead of taking the simple step of just adding 16 teams (out of a pool of nearly 270) to the volleyball state tournaments, the AIA cut all of the other sports (except football) down to match the volleyball numbers. The cuts will mean that Arizona will send a smaller percentage of teams to its state tournaments than any other state in the country and will cement Slemmer's legacy of being the least-kid-friendly director in the 100-year history of the AIA.

Schmidt sees it differently. "People have been asking for more equal (participation percentages). Well, that's what we're going to give them."

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