The Michigan boys’ high school golf season has been underway now officially since March 11, but on this April afternoon, Mother Nature remains insistent on once again getting in the way. In a Tri-Valley Conference match between Saginaw Valley Lutheran High School and Ithaca High School, two school located in the central part of the state’s lower peninsula, the temperature at the start of play was a brisk 38 degrees, with gusty winds making it feel colder. Still, the teams pressed on for at least an hour or so. That’s is until a snow squall forced players to take shelter in a small stand of trees before they eventually called it a day.
It’s a scene that has repeated itself throughout the state as a rough winter plowed into spring, wrecking havoc for hundreds of programs and golfers. Even when there was no snow to contend with, temperatures hovered in the 40s, making practice outside, let alone playing a tournament, a luxury. One estimate had more than 60 percent of scheduled matches affected by bad weather in April.
The state championship tournaments aren’t until early June, but getting in the minimum number of competitions for postseason eligibility has become an issue for some schools. For just the second time in history, the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) has lowered the minimum number of required matches (four), and is allowing matches to be conducted after the regional tournaments and up until the final round of the state championships.
Certainly, the winter of 2018 lingered longer than in year’s past. Yet this exception has proved to highlight an unfortunate rule: In a state with ample golf courses, the dicey spring weather in Michigan makes holding the boys’ season an annual challenge.
The frustration can be heard by many, not just for the short-term annoyance of a disjointed season, but the long-term consequences of attracting boys to the sport.
“We’re asking these kids to fall in love with a game that requires them to practice in hallways and classrooms, and then head outdoors for real competition while wrapped in five layers of jackets, coats, parkas, ski hats and gloves,” says Bill Hobson, an assistant coach at Sagniaw Valley Lutheran as well as a host of a popular golf travel series on local television. “Anyone who cares about the future of the game in this state needs to be very concerned.”
Surprisingly, perhaps, the issue is a new one for the state. Before 2008, boys’ high school golf in Michigan was played in the fall rather than the spring. While the season technically ran the same three months in length that it does now, the typically better fall weather meant the boys could use all 12 weeks they were afforded.
So why then are the boys slogging it through the spring? The answer is complex and involves Title IX, girls’ high school volleyball and a federal court judge.
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Intended to create equal opportunities for students regardless of gender, the enactment of Title IX in 1974 has undoubtedly had a profound impact on the creation of sports programs for women at the college and high-school level. In Michigan, this was acutely seen in the proliferation of girls’ volleyball programs, coinciding with the sport’s rise in college.
As more high schools offered the sport, an unintended consequence surfaced. Schools began to see a strain on facilities and coaches, as the same gyms being used for volleyball were already occupied by boys’ and girls’ basketball teams.
To handle the scheduling issue, the MHSAA decided to play girls’ basketball in the fall and girls’ volleyball in the winter. This did not align with when college teams held these two sports, but seemingly addressed the facilities strain.
So what does all of this have to do with boys’ golf? We’re getting there.
In 1998, two families took exception to the scheduling of girls’ volleyball in the winter and filed a suit in the Western Federal District Court in Grand Rapids, citing Title IX discrimination. They claimed the MHSAA was scheduling numerous girls’ sports in non-traditional seasons and placing girls at a disadvantage.
In December 2001, after hearing arguments from both the parents and the MHSAA, Richard Enslen, nearing retirement after 30 years as a federal court judge, ruled in favor of the families who brought the suit and ordered that girls’ volleyball and girls’ basketball swap seasons.
In his ruling, though, Enslen, who died in 2015, also ordered the MHSAA to re-examine all high-school sports scheduling to make sure it complied with Title IX requirements by the beginning of the 2003-’04 school year. Additional appeals (the final one went to the U.S. Supreme Court before being turned away) and compliance planning pushed the actual enactment of the ruling to the 2007-’08 school year.
As a consequence of Enslen’s ruling, girls’ tennis also was required to move from fall to spring, while boys’ tennis became a fall sport. Similarly, boys’ golf was moved from the fall to the spring while girls’ golf went from the spring to the fall, to balance sports being in the “advantageous” season (aligning with when the college equivalent played its championship) and the “disadvantageous” season. In the end, the athletic seasons for 55,000 girls and 15,000 boys were altered.
John Johnson, communications director for the MHSAA, says that while the association tried to push back against parts of Enslen’s ruling (in the process accumulating more than $6 million legal fees), its hands are tied regarding what season certain sports can be contested. All Johnson can do is empathize with golfers and their parents frustrated by the changes.
Jack Foster has been the boys’ golf coach at Cadillac High School for more than 20 years. Having directly seen the impact of the switch in the schedule, Foster believes the ones who are now unfairly harmed are the boys who shoehorn their golf season essentially into a month-and-a-half window.
“With the first six weeks of the golf season snowed out, my team is now forced to miss two days of classes per week over the next four weeks to at least get a minimum number of matches played to prepare for the state tournament,” Foster said.
Hobson argues that the quality of the competition has suffered since moving to the spring and participation has declined. Johnson at the MHSAA confirmed that the number of boys’ playing high school golf has dropped roughly 20 percent since the original court ruling in 2001, exceeding the overall decline in high school students in Michigan in that same period. This has resulted in a change in the postseason structure, cutting back an early round of elimination events.
Says Hobson: “This sport is going to die a slow death at the high-school level if the obvious solution isn’t implemented.”
The obvious solution? Hobson argues its to allow the boys to join the girls and compete again in the fall rather than the spring.
Johnson says he’d love if that was a real option, but the only way he sees this potentially happening is through additional legal action, something the MHSAA isn’t in a position to take on.
Potentially, though, there is room to maneuver legally. Johnson notes that the current ruling was made in the Western Michigan Federal District Court. “A new suit could be filed with the Eastern Michigan Federal District Court, if the courts agreed an argument existed,” Johnson said. “However, the legal process would be long and arduous, plus there would be no guarantees the original ruling could be overturned.”
In the meantime, the boys’ teams trudge along. Their saving grace? The calendar has just turned from April to May, and with it the promise of better weather arrives.
Not a moment too soon.