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Dodson v. Arkansas Activities Association (1979) was a federal court decision concerning the rules for girls’ junior high and high school basketball in Arkansas.
Diana Lee Dodson, then a fourteen-year-old student in the Arkadelphia (Clark County) public school system, filed a lawsuit against the Arkansas Activities Association (AAA), the governing body of public and private school athletic programs, asking that girls in Arkansas be permitted to play under the same full-court basketball rules as Arkansas boys played. Arkansas schools at that time required that basketball for girls be played under “half-court” rules. In this version of the game, which had been played in Arkansas and other states since at least the World War II era, girls’ teams had six players. Three players were forwards (the scorers for the team who stayed on one end) and three others were guards (defenders who stayed at the other end). No player could cross the center line of the court. Arkansas boys played the “full-court,” or “five-on-five” game, which is consistent with today’s standard game of basketball.
Prior to the litigation, the member schools of the AAA were almost evenly split on the desirability of changing the rules for the girls’ game to match those of women’s college teams in the United States and other states (except for Iowa, Oklahoma, and Tennessee). In 1977, the AAA voted to retain half-court basketball for Arkansas girls by a vote of 147 to 116.
The federal court lawsuit was filed soon thereafter. Dodson asserted that differences in girls’ and boys’ junior and senior high basketball rules mandated by the AAA deprived girls of equal protection of laws and violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
In what has been called “probably the most significant step for female athletes in the State of Arkansas,” Judge Richard S. Arnold ruled in favor of Dodson and declared that Arkansas’s half-court rules for girls violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Judge Arnold determined that tradition alone was not a sufficient reason to justify the fact that such rules placed girls in Arkansas at a substantial athletic disadvantage as compared to boys. All college women’s basketball teams played the full-court game, and recruiting for those teams centered upon athletes who had played full-court basketball and thus were prepared to play that game. Even the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County)—the state’s largest university—focused its primary recruitment efforts out of state. Arnold cited testimony from the hearing that the disadvantage to Arkansas girls schooled in the half-court game was “tremendous” for college scholarship competition. He wrote: “Simply doing things the way they’ve always been done is not an ‘important government objective,’ if indeed it is a legitimate objective at all. Change for its own sake is no doubt to be avoided, and tradition is a healthy thing. But tradition alone, without supporting gender-related substantive reasons, cannot justify placing girls at a disadvantage for no reason other than their being girls.”
The AAA decided not to appeal Arnold’s ruling. The AAA sent letters to each of its 500 schools, and of the 419 that responded, the great majority (303) did not want the ruling appealed.
The following season, all Arkansas schools complied with the ruling. Full-court basketball competition for junior and senior high school girls in Arkansas was played for the first time in the fall of 1979, leaving only three states—Iowa, Oklahoma and Tennessee—still playing the half-court girls’ game.
Ed McCorkle of Arkadelphia represented the AAA. Henry Morgan, also from Arkadelphia, was the attorney for Dodson. Morgan later said, “What I wanted to do was help Arkansas compete with other states. And although they never said so, I think the AAA leadership was for the same. Now they could tell the coaches they didn’t want the expense of appeal. And so that one judge changed Arkansas.”
Courts in other states had ruled differently. The Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, for instance, wrote: “[I]t must be apparent that its basis is the distinct differences in physical characteristics and capabilities between the sexes and that the differences are reflected in the sport of basketball by how the game itself is played....Since there are such differences in physical characteristics and capabilities, we see no reason why the rules governing play cannot be tailored to accommodate them without running afoul of the Equal Protection Clause.”
More than a dozen law journal articles mention Judge Arnold’s opinion in Dodson, including one that portrays Dodson as among the “revolutionary” decisions interpreting the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to mandate equal athletic opportunities for high school girls.
For additional information:Dodson v. Arkansas Activities Association, 468 F. Supp. 394 (E.D. Ark. 1979). http://www.leagle.com/decision/1979862468FSupp394_1806.xml/DODSON%20v.%20ARKANSAS%20ACTIVITIES%20ASS%27N (accessed May 20, 2014).
Fields, Sarah K. Female Gladiators: Gender, Law, and Contact Sport in America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.
Price, Polly J. “Lessons From Small Cases: Reflections on Dodson v. Arkansas Activities Association.” University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Review 27 (2005): 367–385.
Polly J. Price Emory University School of Law
Last Updated 8/1/2014
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