April 14, 2024


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Trio played legal hardball when going to bat for Nebraska high school softball | NE Prep Zone

The 1992 incident that turned Naomi Fritson into a Title IX warrior seemed innocuous to most others around Minden, Nebraska.

On a wintry day when a junior varsity boys basketball game needed to be rescheduled, the school moved the girls’ varsity game from the school’s main gym to the “old gym” to make way. In all things sports, boys always came first.

It helped open Fritson’s eyes to how her daughter’s school — and most others across Nebraska — treated girls’ athletes unfairly.

How the boys’ locker room was right by the main gym, while the girls had to change in a building across the street. How the boys’ teams played most of their games on weekends while the girls usually played on school nights, when they also had to squeeze in homework.

And when Fritson later asked the school board to make her daughter’s club softball team a varsity sport, it refused, despite an imbalance between sports offerings for boys and girls.

“Whether outright or subconsciously, these girls are going through the Minden school system feeling, and treated, like second-class citizens,” Fritson wrote to the school in 1992.

The issues Fritson raised kicked off a firestorm of controversy in the central Nebraska town of 2,800. Fritson and her daughter faced ostracism on the downtown streets and within the school halls.

But they never backed down. In 1995, her family filed one of the nation’s first lawsuits charging a high school with violating Title IX, the 1972 federal law barring gender discrimination in education.

The legal settlement of the Minden dispute and several companion cases ultimately had far-reaching consequences across Nebraska and beyond. They helped usher in girls’ softball as a sanctioned high school sport and served as a wakeup call for schools to overhaul facilities, scheduling and treatment of girls’ sports.

While Title IX was passed 50 years ago this year, the equity and fairness promised by the law did not automatically fall into place. Often, it took someone to boldly stand up to fight for change.

Title IX at 50

“All these girls today playing sports in Nebraska, they don’t realize they have those opportunities, and are being treated so well, because of people like Naomi Fritson,” said Kristen Galles, a Virginia-based attorney who filed the 1995 Minden litigation.

Today, girls’ softball is an accepted — and popular — part of the state’s high school sports landscape. In fact, more girls now play high school softball in Nebraska than boys play baseball.

But the largely untold inside story of how girls came to play softball is a fascinating tale, one featuring a tenacious trio of advocates who united behind the cause. They included:

A fiercely competitive former assistant softball coach at Creighton University who decided to play some legal hardball with the state’s high school activities association.

A former Creighton softball student manager fresh out of law school who happily took up the fight, going on to become one of the nation’s foremost litigators on Title IX and athletics.

And a rural school bus driver and mom who was willing to sue her own employer to stand up for girls and their place on the field.

Ron Osborn still remembers the reactions the first time he got before a meeting of the Omaha-area high school athletic directors to make a pitch for offering girls’ high school softball.

Girls aren’t interested in playing softball.

If we start a team, they’ll have no one to play.

We don’t have the money.

To Osborn, none of those arguments made sense.

If you’ve never given them the chance, or even asked, how do you know they’re not interested?

If all you guys in this room start teams, of course you will have someone to play.

And how is it you have the money for boys’ baseball but not girls’ softball?

“It was a good old boys’ system,” Osborn recently recalled.

Even today, there are few bigger proponents of the sport of softball in Nebraska than Ron Osborn.

Ron Osborn

Ron Osborn

The Holdrege, Nebraska native was an accomplished fast-pitch softball pitcher in his younger days, hurling for teams that competed for national amateur titles. Later, after moving to Omaha for pharmacy school, he served during the 1980s as the pitching coach for Creighton’s women’s team.

At the time, Creighton was a power in softball, several times qualifying for the women’s College World Series. But the team also drew nearly all its players from Iowa and California. While those states had sanctioned girls softball for decades — in Iowa, since 1957 — Nebraska high schools still did not offer the sport.

The state’s college softball coaches had long known their teams were held back by the lack of high school play in Nebraska. That was why Osborn found himself before that meeting of Omaha athletic directors in 1991.

Osborn completely struck out with the group that day. He also didn’t get anywhere with the Nebraska School Activities Association, the body which sanctioned high school sports in the state. Osborn came to see the nearly all-male school administrators and staffers who ran high school sports in Nebraska as hidebound relics.

“From my perspective, the schools are offering everything in which they really have a sufficient interest to justify a team, and everybody who wants to be involved in athletics is involved,” the NSAA executive director was quoted when asked about softball.

But Osborn didn’t give up.

Up to that time, litigation over Title IX’s application to high school sports had been rare nationally. But colleges and women’s sports advocates had spent the previous decade battling in court over the law’s meaning.

One of the tenets of the law as interpreted by federal regulators was that schools legally needed to meet girls’ “interests and abilities” in deciding which sports to offer. So Osborn set out to prove girls in Nebraska were indeed interested in playing softball.

He teamed up with Sherman Poska, an Omaha child psychologist who was also a softball and bowling enthusiast. Poska ran a nonprofit sports foundation that funded high school club bowling teams in the Omaha area.

Poska and Osborn decided to similarly start club softball teams around the state.  

Poska’s foundation agreed to spend thousands of dollars to buy uniforms and equipment for any schools that formed teams. For his unsung role, Osborn today considers Poska the true father of girls’ high school softball in Nebraska.

Osborn then made the rounds at high schools seeking to recruit players.

On the last day of school in 1991, Osborn held one such meeting in a classroom at Omaha’s Central High — a school whose athletic director had been one of those who previously told Osborn that girls at his school weren’t interested in softball.

Even to Osborn’s surprise, 104 girls packed the room that day. Central didn’t just form a varsity club team, but also three JV teams.

That fall when the first season of Nebraska high school club softball launched, more than 20 schools took the field, most of them from Omaha and Lincoln. Everyone, even the NSAA, had to acknowledge it was a success.

With interest in softball having been proven, the NSAA governing board in spring 1992 agreed to sponsor the sport, but with a catch. At least 32 schools had to be willing to sponsor softball.

Many schools in the Omaha area and Lincoln quickly got on board, most simply elevating their club teams to varsity status. But that still only provided just over half the schools necessary to meet the 32-team requirement. Most of the state’s more rural districts refused to budge on their opposition to softball.

Soon after, Osborn was at a Creighton softball tournament when he sought out Kristen Galles.

A native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Galles was a former Creighton softball student manager who had recently graduated from law school. She had come back to Omaha to help Creighton coaches run the tournament.

“Counselor,” Osborn told Galles, “it’s time to sue somebody.”

Galles agreed to take on the case, with the help of the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C. The young lawyer would prove a bulldog for the cause.

Kristen Galles

Kristen Galles speaks at a recent event celebrating her work for Title IX.

To start the ball rolling, Poska’s foundation in February 1993 filed Title IX complaints with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights against the North Platte, Lexington, West Holt and Springfield Platteview school districts.

Those particular districts were targeted for a reason, Osborn now admits. They were homes to school administrators who had been the NSAA’s most outspoken opponents of softball.

The superintendent from West Holt had actually authored the NSAA’s 32-team requirement. Osborn, the softball pitcher, was now buzzing that administrator with a fastball right under the chin.

The complaints also ultimately went beyond just softball. They often cited a litany of other Title IX violations by the schools, most often for not meeting regulations mandating adequate coaches, equipment and facilities as well as equity in scheduling and publicity.

“Once Kristen got ahold of them, it wasn’t just about softball anymore,” Osborn said. “It was full-on Title IX.”

Such disparities across the state were often egregious, Galles said. It was common for schools to build brand new locker rooms and sports facilities and reserve them for the boys, she said, while assigning “the crappy old ones” to the girls. If a school only had one gym, often the boys practiced right after school, while the girls had to practice later or early in the morning.

“Everything was geared around the boys,” Galles said.

It was the same kind of injustice that Minden’s Naomi Fritson had found. In fact, coincidentally, around that same time she filed her own complaint with the federal civil rights office alleging unequal treatment of girls’ athletes in Minden.

Fritson, who drove a school bus for the district and farmed with her husband, had grown up in a conservative household. Even her own father opposed her Title IX challenge. And many were surprised she was willing to stick her neck out in that way.

But she saw the boys-first mentality that permeated high school athletics as clearly wrong. She felt she and her husband were standing up not just for their own 16-year-old daughter, Sarah Casper, but for all of Minden’s daughters.

Fritson’s federal complaint was supposed to be confidential, but someone within the civil rights office inadvertently confirmed to Minden school officials that she had filed it.

Once the family’s name was out, the issue became a huge deal in a small town.

There were crank phone calls and boys shouting obscenities across the schoolyard. Rumors circulated that the effort would lead to cuts in football. The family was shunned both around town and in school.

“I thought I had all these friends,” Sarah said, “and all the sudden they wouldn’t look at me.”

Fritson said the district also tried to retaliate against her by seeking to remove her as a bus driver for school activities and to boot her from the school’s athletic booster club.

But Fritson, her husband and Sarah stood their ground.

“We have just as much right as they do to be treated fairly,” Sarah told a reporter — “we” being girls, and “they” being boys.

Fritson, Osborn and Galles soon teamed up, with Galles taking up Fritson’s legal claims.

Fritson also loved the idea of promoting girls’ softball, a sport Sarah had played during summer months. Sarah helped to recruit classmates to form a club team in Minden, and softball became part of the family’s Title IX push.

1994 Minden softball

Naomi Fritson, standing at left, with Minden’s club softball team in 1994. In the middle of the back row is Ron Osborn, an Omahan who organized such club teams to prove there was support for girls softball. Fritson’s daughter, Sarah, is standing third from left. 

Some NSAA representatives decried the hardball tactics of Osborn and his legal team. But the organization soon gave in.

The governing board voted in spring 1993 to drop the 32-team requirement to 24 — essentially the number of Omaha and Lincoln area schools that were by then on board with softball.

But Osborn and Galles didn’t stop. Most rural schools remained adamantly opposed to softball. And Osborn by then had recruited some two dozen families across the state ready to go to bat for their girls. He was committed to helping them create that opportunity.

In April 1995, Galles filed federal lawsuits against Minden, Fremont, Holdrege and North Platte charging Title IX violations in facilities and scheduling and seeking to get the school districts to fund softball teams.

Within a year, all four districts settled, accepting softball and agreeing to other changes.

In Minden, the district consented to working toward equitable transportation, use of facilities, and scheduling. Minden’s superintendent said the district had learned from the experience. And Minden certainly wasn’t the only one.

Galles and the National Women’s Law Center made it clear that all schools were now on notice. They must provide more equitable treatment for girls in sports offerings, facilities and scheduling.

Fritson and the others had helped many people across the state see the issues in an all-new light. Administrators were quoted at the time acknowledging schools’ longstanding shortcomings, potential legal peril and need for change.

In Minden, softball came too late for Sarah, who had graduated the previous spring. But Naomi Fritson in the fall of 1996 proudly attended Minden’s first game.

More than a quarter century later, Osborn feels vindicated, particularly with how softball ultimately flourished across the state.

Within just a few years, there were more girls playing high school softball in Nebraska than soccer, a sport the NSAA had sanctioned in 1988. And today, there are 113 high school softball teams in Nebraska compared to 69 baseball teams. So much for no girls being interested in softball.

But the 75-year-old Osborn also notes that inequity persists. The NSAA last spring split baseball from two classes into three. That’s the same number of classes girls have in softball, despite having almost twice as many teams. Boys, Osborn notes, will now have a much better opportunity to qualify for the state championships than girls.

“It’s like the Good Old Boyz have forgotten the lessons of Title IX,” he wrote this spring on Twitter. “Well, the time has come to teach again.”

Galles went on to become one of the nation’s leading Title IX plaintiff’s attorneys, frequently today cited as an expert on the law’s requirements.

During this 50th anniversary year of Title IX, she was recently honored with a career achievement award from Equal Rights Advocates, a national women’s rights organization.

“It woke up a lot of schools that weren’t paying attention,” she said recently of the Nebraska litigation. “Nebraska has come a long way.”

Today, Fritson says the 1990s controversy in Minden has receded with time, though she still gets emotional talking about the toll. With the anniversary of Title IX in the news, she and Sarah recently shed some tears together recalling those days.

“It was a life-changing event for both her and I,” Naomi said.

Naomi is particularly proud of her daughter’s perseverance. Despite the way she was villified, Sarah graduated from Minden with a 4.0 GPA and now works as a medical technician in her hometown.

Sarah also has two boys. In fact, Naomi now has eight grandchildren — ironically all boys. 

Naomi Fritson and family

Naomi Fritson today surrounded by her family, including daughter Sarah, second from right in the back row, and eight grandsons.

“Isn’t that a God thing?” Naomi said with a chuckle. “I’d have to be in it again.”

Indeed, to Naomi Fritson, the principle remains as clear and simple today as she saw it on that winter day three decades ago.

Title IX end

Title IX at 50: Throughout the summer, The World-Herald will have a multipart series on the 50th anniversary of Title IX, remembering the achievements of women in sports while examining the barriers that still remain to equality under the law