Friday, September 29, 2006

Should NCAA Eligibility Exclude Paternity Leave?

This decision from the federal district court in Kansas is over a month old now, but I just learned about it, so it's news to me.

Eric Butler put off his plans to play college football when his girlfriend became pregnant in 2001. He eventually ended up playing one season (fall 2003) at Avila University and another (fall 2005) at Kansas University. He would still be playing at Kansas in this, his senior year, but his NCAA eligibility (five years) expired in July 2006.

Butler unsuccessfully petitioned the NCAA for a waiver, and then filed suit under Title IX. He arged that under NCAA bylaws, an institution can grant a one-year extension of the five-year eligibility “for a female student-athlete for reasons of pregnancy.” If mothers are eligible for a waiver, so to should fathers, he reasoned. But the district court sided with the NCAA, which interpreted “for reasons of pregnancy,” as compensatory for the biological inconvenience of physical pregnancy rather than that of parenting. (The court cited Johnson v. University of Iowa, a 2005 decision from the 8th Circuit upholding the university's parental leave policy, which was more generous to female employees, as a nondiscriminatory accommodation of pregnancy.)

In my opinion, the NCAA should broaden its interpretation of the waiver criteria. The waiver only extends eligibility for one extra year, so its not as if guys are going to watch their kids grow up and then try to get back into college football. Also, the NCAA doesn't need to worry that guys will make false claims of fatherhood just to take advantage of the waiver --- paternity is pretty easy to prove these days. The only risk I can see is that actual biological fathers who aren't geuininely "parenting" might use his partner's pregnancy as a pretext for some other, nonsanctioned reason he might have to take a year off from his sport. But even if this were a real risk, it's better than the existing harm to guys like Butler who are trying to do the right thing by regarding parenting as an equal responsibility for men and women.

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