Most of my readership is in Vermont (at least according to Google Analytics) but even those of you outside Vermont, even outside of the U.S. may have heard about the most recent news coming from our little corner of the world. No I’m not talking about Bernie Sanders or Howard Dean, but rather the Burlington High School Girls Soccer Team, the Seahorses.  On Friday the 18th of October, the Seahorses were “yellow carded” after midfielder Helen Worden (my neighbor by the way) scored a goal in the last regular season game.  Four of the team members then took off their jerseys to reveal #EqualPay t-shirts, developed in coordination with Change the Story Vermont a local advocacy group focused in part on eliminating the gap in pay between men and women. (Disclosure, I am involved with the Change the Story, subcommittee “Champs for Change” in my capacity as a Commissioner on the Vermont Commission on Women).  The Seahorses’ story has been told over and over again first on Good Morning America, and later catching fire and featured on /in the local Vermont news including VPR, VTDigger, The Burlington Free Press, and Seven Days.  Regional media such as NECN and the New York Daily News.  National media including NPR, People Magazine, NBC, CNN, CBS, The Hill, USA Today, The Today Show and even Fox News. International coverage at The Daily Mail; a Twitter Campaign by Secret Deodorant; Luna Bar; and shout-outs from Billie Jean King and U.S. Women’s Player Brandi Chastain. I’m not going to attempt to rehash the story that so many other sources have done so well.  But I did want to take a moment to look at things from a legal perspective.

Many non-lawyers may not know this, but there is a whole field of “school law” out there.  In Vermont there are only a handful of law firms that practice this type of law regularly on behalf of the school districts.  I used to work for one of them. Now I typically represent parents and students in matters involving school districts in respect to the Federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA); the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA); the Vermont Public Records Act; and disciplinary matters pursuant to Vermont statutes and regulations.  What I’ve yet to handle is a matter pursuant to School Sports Law (which must be a sub-speciality for someone in a larger state).

The Vermont Principals’ Association (VPA) is the regulatory body charged with the oversight of school sports in Vermont.  The VPA has adopted the 2019 Girls and Boys Soccer Guide (Soccer Guide).  The Soccer Guide is only four pages, but Section II(A) states “the current issue of the National Federation Soccer Rules shall be the official playing rules for the interscholastic soccer among member schools in the State of Vermont, except as varied by the Vermont Soccer Guide.”

Curious, I of course went looking for the National Federation [of State High School Association] Soccer Rules (NFHS Rule Book) only to find that they cost $6.95 (plus tax), which is kind of disappointing because you would think that rules governing public schools would be, well, public, but I guess everyone needs to make a buck.  So I purchased the NFHS Rule Book here.  The NFHS Rules are a bit longer then the VPA Soccer Guide and clock in at 320 pages. Yes 320. And here’s what I found out.  Rule 4.1.2h of the NFHS Soccer Rules Book, states “only those names, patches, emblems, logos or insignias referencing the school are permitted on the team jersey and/or shorts, as well as visible undergarments and goalkeeper pants, except as in 4.1.1e. The player’s name may also appear on the team uniform.” Rule 4.1.1e provides that “One manufacturer’s logo/trademark or reference is permitted on the outside of each item which may not exceed 2 1/4 square inches and may not exceed 21/4 square inches and may not exceed 2 1/4 inches in any dimension. (Subject to the provisions in 4.1.1d).” Rule 4.1.1d provides “if visible apparel is worn under the jersey and/or shorts, it shall be of a similar length for an individual and a solid-like color for the team.” To recap, international branding is allowed, local messaging, no matter how worthy the cause is not. Likely because then a school district would need to be the final arbiter of what constitutes a “worthy cause” and that’s likely an area that schools would prefer not to wade into.

The reports indicate that the Seahorses were yellow carded based on excessive celebration.  Rule 12.8.1(c) Situation B states that “[d]uring the match, [a player] after scoring a goal, [the player] celebrates excessively.  RULING: “caution [player] for unsporting conduct.”  Rule 18, Article 1(c) states that a cautioned player is “[a] player notified by an official that his/her activities are not in the best interests of the contest. Such player must be shown a yellow card and shall leave the field and may be replaced.”  (Emphasis added). In the ensuing confusion, the four players were evidently all removed from the field and the other team scored. Here’s where the over legalization of things like high school sports gets complicated. One could easily argue that based on the message, the intent of the players, and the referee’s later actions (set forth below), the players’ actions WERE in the best interests of the contest and the referee’s decision should be overturned (I haven’t looked into appeals of decisions yet, but suspect that they are decided by the VPA). I haven’t seen that argument made as of yet.  But then of course, it would have been unlikely that any of this would have made the national and international news.

The Seahorses engaged in an act of civil disobedience, which was recently described by Deputy Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad … “John Rawls will tell us that civil disobedience is really only possible in a near-just state, and it has to be done in a place where there is actually enough justice to have a situation that can be corrected by that act of civil disobedience….” In this instance, justice prevailed. The referee that carded the Seahorses, according to reports, congratulated them and even said he was going to buy a shirt (which you too can purchase right here for the low, low price of $25-$35).

Hopefully we will achieve equal pay here in Vermont and the U.S., sooner rather then later. Hopefully Martin Luther King was correct when he postulated that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Hopefully justice will be achieved soon.

And those seahorses, the ones that you know, live in the actual sea?  What about them? Well they are one of the few species where the male “births” and cares for the young, thereby sharing in the responsibilities with the female seahorse.  And isn’t that the perfect metaphor for equal pay and equality in general?