What began as one girl's desire to play football at Elgin High School some 11 years ago ultimately changed Elgin Area School District U-46 as well as the Upstate Eight Conference.
At least five years prior to Adrianna Delhotal being denied an opportunity to play football for her school, Elgin attorney Robert W. Smith had a daughter playing basketball at Elgin High. He and some other parents, as well as the girls basketball coach, spoke with each other about inequities they were seeing. A small group of those parents wrote a letter to the U-46 administration, a letter that went without response.
Then in the fall of 2000 when Delhotal was denied an opportunity to play football, her mother, Brenda, contacted Smith. Delhotal was eventually allowed to play, but what was set in motion was a federal lawsuit filed by Smith on behalf of Delhotal and four other student-athletes -- Katie Grens, Amanda Schacht, Allison Schacht and Kelly Sikora -- and their parents.
The controversy brought media attention to the district from all directions and it culminated with the district having to shell out nearly a half-million dollars, not including legal fees, to become compliant with Title IX, the 1972 law that says no person shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.
The disparities the suit claimed, and which were proven to be true, were wide-ranging. Filed in April 2001, the suit was settled seven months later, with the district finally, and steadily, becoming completely compliant some four years later.
The suit, which at the time was the first of its type in the country, was amended to name all U-46 high schools that were not in compliance, a legal move that was successful because Elgin High student-athletes competed at those schools.
As a result of the suit, all U-46 high schools were fitted with separate girls locker rooms. The suit had pointed out that girls basketball players at Elgin High were changing in the industrial arts classroom, their only other option being public washrooms, because the boys teams were using all the locker room space. Separate locker rooms for female athletes didn't exist at Elgin, Larkin or Streamwood high schools at the time, nor at Memorial Field.
Girl's softball facilities were without dugouts at Elgin and Streamwood. The dugouts you see at those fields today are a result of the suit.
So, too, is equitable scheduling throughout not only U-46 but the Upstate Eight. Prior to the suit, girls basketball was played on Tuesday and Thursday nights and the boys had Friday and Saturday. The suit argued successfully that girls were at risk of suffering academically by always having to play their games on weeknights.
"They were disadvantaging the student in the student-athlete," Smith said.
Coaching levels changed. Before the suit, boys teams had more coaches than girls teams. They now have the same number.
In soccer, Memorial Field was "reserved" for boys games only, while girls games were held at city parks void of any "home field" ambience or amenities. Now, Elgin and Larkin's girls soccer teams play, like the boys, at Memorial.
Smith said when he started looking into the disparities in the girls and boys programs, he didn't do so intending to file a lawsuit. He worked pro bono for nearly a year on the case.
"It seemed so common sense," Smith said on the 40th anniversary of Title IX becoming law. "Title IX should be superfluous and not need lawyers. This didn't have to be litigated. But there was a 'good old boys network' in the athletic field at that time, and even after the suit was settled there was a reluctance to embrace it by some."
That reluctance was evident when the first use of the new girls locker room at Elgin High went to a boys team for a weeknight game. Katie Grens, practicing for the state's 3-point contest, was initially denied access to the locker room she and the other plaintiffs fought so hard to get.
Lee Turek, who coached girls basketball at Elgin High for more than 20 years and guided the Maroons to second place in the Class AA state tournament of 1996, saw the inequities as both a coach and a father. His daughters, Karisa and Jenna, each played softball and basketball at Elgin. On many game days, Turek could be seen dragging benches from Memorial Field to the softball field so the teams would have something to sit on.
"Everything was so inadequate. You always felt like you were fighting a battle and you didn't want to fight a battle, you just wanted fairness," said the now retired Turek, whose mother, Maxine, was the longtime girls sports matriarch at Elgin High.
"The intention was never to take anything away from the boys. The intention was for girls to be treated equally. Some people took it personally and they shouldn't have. You had to have a daughter playing sports to know what it felt like to have your daughter be treated like a second-class citizen."
Amanda Schacht, now a seventh-grade teacher in Crystal Lake, said it just came to a point where enough was enough.
"After a while it became frustrating to be changing in the hallways and closets in order to play," she said. "We wanted to see future generations become more comfortable. There was a privacy factor and that was really big to us. We wanted to bring it to the forefront and make people realize it couldn't be put on the back burner anymore."
One girl wanted to play football. Reluctance to follow the law became so much bigger than just that one girl. Other districts followed U-46 and upgraded facilities and went to equitable scheduling before more lawsuits were filed.
"Certainly the outcome was very positive," former U-46 area superintendent Lalo Ponce told the Daily Herald in 2002. "We were able to provide improved facilities for our female athletes. The end result was very positive."
Yes it was. But had the U-46 administration realized that as far back as the mid-1990s, a lawsuit never would have been necessary.