For 28 years, girls in New York City have had to wait until spring to take out their soccer cleats. They stood on the sidelines as their male counterparts used the fall season to show off for college recruiters. Now, facing charges of discrimination and the threat of a lawsuit, the Department of Education has agreed to move the girls’ soccer season to the fall.
For many of the nearly 1,800 female players in the Public Schools Athletic League, soccer in the spring has become a logistical tour de force. Many also belong to club teams not affiliated with their schools but that also have spring seasons, leaving the girls with little time for homework and rest as they juggle back-to-back practices.
After three players complained to the New York Civil Liberties Union, the group threatened last month to sue the Department of Education, claiming the current schedule discriminated against women athletes and violated Title IX, the law covering equity in education.
The department said it believed the girls had been treated equally, but agreed this week to move the season, starting next school year, to avoid litigation. Having girls play soccer in the spring made it easier to reserve fields for other fall sports, the department said.
“We’ll work hard to give the girls’ teams, and all of our fall athletes, the best possible schedules and playing conditions,” Eric Goldstein, chief executive for school support services, said in a statement.
On Saturday, the first day of spring practice for members of the Manhattan Soccer Club, the girls worked out on an icy field at Riverside Park.
Hannah S. Anousheh, a 15-year-old sophomore who plays on the club team as well as on the varsity team at Bronx High School of Science, said she now practices about four hours each day, leaving her exhausted by the time she gets home around 10 p.m. She said the spring regimen increased her chances of getting injured and interfered with her schoolwork.
“Boys don’t have to worry because they only have to play on one team per season,” said Hannah, who was one of the players who contacted the New York Civil Liberties Union. “I think it is really unfair.”
Christina Angione, 16, a soccer player at Beacon School on the West Side, had also spoken with the civil liberties union. She said she was forced to choose between playing on her high school soccer team and an elite soccer club because of the scheduling demands.
“It shouldn’t be any different because of our gender or who we are,” she said. “Maybe people think we don’t take soccer as seriously because we are girls. I take this seriously.”
Both Christina and Hannah said they felt their chances of getting college soccer scholarships were hurt because they could not use the fall season to stay in shape for showcases in front of recruiters.
At a news conference at Riverside Park on Saturday, Betsy Gotbaum, the city’s public advocate, said the decision to move the season to the fall “ends a clear practice of discrimination against our young, talented female athletes.”
“It’s very important boys and girls have the same opportunities,” said Ms. Gotbaum, who played soccer in high school.
In 2006, a report by Ms. Gotbaum found that at some schools, boys’ participation in athletic programs well outpaced participation by girls. She also found that several other sports, including fencing, golf and swimming, were scheduled in different seasons for boys and girls, causing girls’ teams to miss some tournaments because their schedules did not align with the rest of the state.
In New York, girls make up about 44 percent of the more than 30,000 athletes in the public schools league, according to Department of Education data. During the past six years, participation in girls’ soccer has increased by 51 percent, to 1,756 athletes, and overall participation by girls in competitive sports has risen by 24 percent.