In the age of Juno and Jamie Lynn Spears, it is apparently quite shocking to some teen girls that getting knocked up in high school has negative consequences beyond stretching out their favorite knit blouse. Despite the sympathetic treatment most media outlets have been giving her, former high-school volleyball player-and expectant mother-Mackenzie McCollum represents an affront to all legitimate Title IX claimants.
Motivated by her lifelong battle against gender discrimination, Congresswoman Patsy T. Mink penned Title IX of the Education Amendments in 1972 to prevent women from being excluded, denied the benefits of, or otherwise “subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” An institution can demonstrate compliance by meeting any one of the following three criteria: providing opportunities for participation that are proportional to the composition of the student body, continually expanding athletic opportunities for members of an underrepresented sex, or fully accommodating the “interest and ability” of members of an underrepresented sex.
Although certain regulations concerning the condition of pregnancy are a convenient cipher for gender discrimination, this is not one of them. The school already satisfied the three-prong test by having a competitive girls volleyball team. It’s true that the goal of Title IX was to prevent schools from making assumptions about women’s “innate” aptitude for certain academic subjects or athletic activities, but barring pregnant people from playing a rough, physically demanding sport is not based on a patriarchal fantasy of keeping women barefoot by the hearth. It’s just common sense and a reasonable response to the realities of biology. Fortunately, the United States has progressed well past the era when pregnancy required a “state of confinement,” but that doesn’t mean its physiological implications should be entirely excluded from consideration of one’s fitness for intensive athletic involvement. There must be a middle ground that calls for some limited activity, and perhaps in volleyball, that means being cut from the team.
More practically, however, the combination of school sports and any kind of physical vulnerability is a recipe for litigation. If the school had permitted McCollum to remain on the team, and she had miscarried or sustained damage to the fetus, either from an injury or some unrelated idiopathic process, she would have sued the district. The volleyball coach was merely playing on the defensive and taking the same precaution that any reasonably prudent doctor would have prescribed had he actually seen McCollum in action, diving uterus-first onto the gymnasium floor and having hard leather balls continually hurled at her abdomen.
For now, it looks like the school district has wilted under the media spotlight and allowed McCollum back on the team. While some have hailed this as a victory for feminism and civil rights, it is certainly a defeat for teenage girls, who should learn that high-risk behavior and stupid decisions have consequences that you can’t always self-righteously sue your way out of.