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With sights on Title IX compliance, Manatee County begins first flag football season

It’s still winter at Bayshore High School and on the practice field, in the shadow of Balvanz Stadium, there are footballs fluttering through the air.

This is the scene at least four days a week through the first few weeks of March. David Stubbs, a former assistant football coach at Bayshore and a staple on the powderpuff sidelines during his 14 years at the school, is at the center, passing on wisdom to a new crop of players on campus.

Each year, Stubbs has a few weeks to coach some of the girls on campus for the Bruins’ annual powderpuff game. There had always been a surprisingly high level of interest in powderpuff at Bayshore and, with the first season of flag football in Manatee County looming, the Bruins have a surprisingly large turnout.

Practice time hits. It’s 5 p.m. — later than most varsity teams practice because of how many of his athletes also spend their springs running track or playing softball — and Bayshore huddles up. Moments later, the Bruins are off, running laps around the practice field.

“This isn’t powderpuff intense,” said Aleesha Jackson, one of the Bayshore girls who frequented powderpuff games and now will play for the Bruins this spring. “Powderpuff we’re out there and we just go and get the flag, go get the touchdown, but here we actually learn a lot.”

Flag football has been a varsity sport for girls in Florida since 2003, although there has been something of an explosion in recent years. Last spring was the first played with multiple classifications. This season, more than 200 schools sponsor flag football as a varsity sport, including, for the first time, all six Manatee County public schools.

Bayshore, Braden River, Lakewood Ranch, Manatee, Palmetto and Southeast will compete as independent teams this season as district-wide athletic director Jason Montgomery and the Manatee County School District try to gauge interest in their latest venture to meet Title IX compliance before committing to the sport as a long-term staple in the county.

“We want to see where we’re at. We had some interest expressed in it in the past and we made the decision to do it county-wide this year,” Montgomery said. “Financially, for the district, that’s minimal impact to our schools (which) was part of the thought process there, so we can see what our participation numbers look like and where we’re at, and then we’re going to reevaluate as we get toward the end of this season whether we want to petition to the FHSAA to join a district or what at the end of this year.”

The school district has struggled to meet Title IX compliance for years because of the area’s large turnout numbers for football, and a court case — last appealed in 2016 — that ruled competitive cheerleading doesn’t count as a varsity sport for compliance purposes.

In the past, the district turned its efforts toward boosting turnout for existing sports, not wanting to add another girls sport without a boys equivalent. Most colleges around Florida, for example, have women’s lacrosse, but not men’s lacrosse. Montgomery didn’t want to be in that position.

“When you field a full varsity, JV and freshman at some football programs, it makes it tough for that piece of Title IX,” Montgomery said.

Reaching Title IX compliance is difficult across the country, at both the high school and college levels, because of how large football rosters are in comparison to all other varsity sports. The number of male and female participants must be equal in proportion with the school’s population breakdown.

There are two solutions. One became common and controversial at the Division I ranks during the early part of the decade: cutting men’s sports. Delaware demoted its men’s track and field and cross country teams to club status in 2011. That same year, Maryland announced it would cut five men’s teams — and three women’s teams — partially because of budget constraints, but also to meet Title IX compliance.

The other, and often more difficult, solution is to find sports for women and girls to add. In Florida, girls sports without a boys’ equivalent are almost nonexistent — the FHSAA doesn’t sanction field hockey or gymnastics. Flag football, which could loosely be considered an equivalent to football, was the county’s only FHSAA-sanctioned option to fill Montgomery’s criteria.

“The thing that’s best for our kids in the district is for us to offer an additional female sport,” Montgomery said.

The sport, particularly in this first season, will be cost-efficient for the county. Schools are implementing teams with less than a full year’s notice — Stubbs said he was first informed in November. Teams will only play other county opponents, and district policy has held that schools don’t use buses to travel within the county for sports other than football. If or when the county’s schools join an FHSAA district, they’re likely to be paired with teams from Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, both of which have already adopted the sport, as well.

Otherwise, the sport in general is low cost. The only equipment needed are jerseys, footballs, flags and cones, and the only other cost is paying officials. Montgomery hopes ticket prices will cover those costs.

“It’s a math thing,” Montgomery said. “Then we have that coupled with the fact that our surrounding counties like Hillsborough and Pinellas and those guys have been going full-bore with it for a while, so that’s teams that are already district teams for us in other sports. It just made sense for us to bring it on.”

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