WIAA moves too fast in extending girls cross country races

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John Barry
Sunday, May 25, 2014

Why the rush?

That's the lingering question Wisconsin high school cross country coaches want answered.

The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association recently approved increasing the distance of girls cross country races in the tournament series to 5,000 meters. The series includes sectional and state competition.

A letter from the Office of Civil Rights provided the impetus to lengthen the distance in the tournament series races. The letter acknowledged a complaint of gender discrimination.

Boys currently run 5,000-meter races. Girls have raced over 4,000 meters since 1994. The WIAA board approved the change beginning this fall after hearing presentations by representatives both supporting and opposing the recommendation.

Or did they?

Jessica Lawton, the co-head coach for the Janesville Craig boys and girls cross country teams, said state coaches had no say in the matter. The only notification they received was the letter the WIAA sent out outlining the complaint.

“We had no forum on the matter or any other type of input,” Lawton said. “Basically, we were told this is how it's going to be, and you've got a few months to get ready for it.”

Lawton said the Wisconsin Cross Country Coaches Association debated the topic for the last 10 years.

In 2010, the WCCCA voted in favor of a longer race.

In 2013, coaches rejected the measure by two votes. Both times, the association decided against taking its rule change request to the WIAA.

Many coaches, especially those at smaller schools, believe the added distance will keep girls from participating.

In a sport where numbers are already dwindling, that's the last thing the WIAA wants.

Lawton doesn't think the added distance will hurt overall numbers. Injuries concern her more.

“Girls are more fragile at that age. I don't think there's any question about that,” Lawton said. “That's why waiting a year to put this plan in place would've made a lot more sense.

“We would've had a lot more time to get girls used to the added distance and how to recover from the added four to 10 minutes that you're now going to have each race.”

Lawton knows what it's like to make the jump.

As a junior at Janesville Craig in 1993, Lawton ran at state when the distance was 3,200 meters. She qualified for state her senior year and finished seventh at 4,000 meters.

Lawton understands the need for change. Wisconsin is one of the few states not running both boys and girls races at 5,000 meters.

Showcasing athletes is easier on a level playing field, and that's good for recruiting.

Scheduling is another hurdle that must be cleared. Craig's cross country schedule is set for the next three years. With the added distance for all girls races, coaches now have to change starting times, reconstruct courses and alter training.

Boys and girls wouldn't necessarily run on the same courses. Adding 1,000 meters for the girls means nearly every venue in the state has to find a way to add the distance, which takes time, planning and, in some cases, money.

Lawton likes the move. She just doesn't like it being shoved down her throat.

The WIAA won't admit it, but a long, drawn-out lawsuit on a civil rights matter was the last thing it wanted.

A 2015 start date would have been a better option for coaches and, more important, athletes. After all, they are the ones going the extra mile—or kilometer.

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