It has been more than 40 years since the landmark Title IX education amendment was passed in 1972, prohibiting financial discrimination of the basis of sex in all education programs or activities. But it took 30 years for softball players in Prince George’s County to realize that they were not playing on a level field.
During the spring of 2002, Jack Mowatt, the current local Amateur Softball Association commissioner and a former umpire, decided that after two decades of watching the conditions of the softball field decline that it was time to do something about it. Mowatt and another umpire began taking photographs of potential hazards at each school and collected them into two scrapbooks.
Initially, Mowatt went to county athletic directors — even at private schools, which are not subject Title IX laws — and eventually to the county’s Board of Education with his extensive photographs. Mowatt thought he had properly addressed the problem, but six months later, he realized little was being done. That’s when former longtime Parkdale High School softball coach Gene Robertson joined the fray and insisted the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C. get involved.
“We took pictures of fields where we thought there were safety issues,” Mowatt said. “Not for us, but for the girls. The softball fields were a mess and the boys’ baseball fields weren’t in much better shape. Some softball fields had pipes and tree stumps sticking out of the ground, no fences protecting girls in warm-up areas and some had no benches.’
Coincidentally, Robertson coached the Parkdale softball team that did not have a true home field at the time and still does not. Although the Panthers’ baseball team plays home games at the Riverdale school, the softball team still travels to Charles Carroll Middle School in New Carrollton for home games and practices. It is not provided bus transportation to and from the school for practices for the four-mile round trip.
When the county and the NWLC first reached an agreement, the softball fields at Largo and Central high schools soon became the beacons of the project. Largo not only received covered dugouts and a new backstop, the outfield fence was capped with a yellow, plastic protective tubing. Soon the other schools would see similar improvements, although two county high schools, Parkdale and Potomac, still do not have softball fields on school grounds.
In the 10 years since the Title IX issue, the county softball fields are mowed twice each spring by Tru-Green, a landscaping company. But during the winter, many of the dirt infields are overrun by weeds and high grass. At Bladensburg, the infield is not level and even routine grounders can take bizarre hops.
Longtime Central softball coach Luanne Smith was one of the beneficiaries of the upgraded conditions that eventually transpired. Central is also one of the few county schools were the outfield grass of the softball field is not used as a practice field for fall sports teams. With the exception of Bowie, which also uses the Belair Annex field for practice, most county schools simply use the baseball/softball outfields for practice as a necessity.
“As an athlete, I don’t know if Title IX really helped me because I went to private school,” said Smith, a 1986 Elizabeth Seton graduate. “But as a coach it certainly did. I would ... say my field at Central is one of the two or three best in the county. That wasn’t always the case. At least we always had a field on school property.”
Former Bowie High School softball standout Erin King remembers the disparity between the Bulldogs’ home field and several other fields in the county. King also spent an ample amount of time playing travel softball in her youth for the Severna Park Hornets where field conditions were not an issue.
“I don’t think I ever played on a field where I didn’t feel safe,” said King, who later played for Dickinson College and was selected to the Prince George’s Gazette’s All-Decade team for 2000-09. “You could tell that a lot of the fields were not kept up like the one at Bowie. A lot of them did not have covered dugouts and some had a lot of rocks in the infield. But you just focused on playing once the game started.”