Lenexa girls volleyball coach says pandemic has led to more gender inequities in Kansas high school sports

Nancy Dorsey has been girls volleyball coach at St. James Academy in Lenexa for 15 years, winning 9 state championships. In this picture, she hugs a player during a pre-COVID season. Picture courtesy Nancy Dorsey.

The coronavirus pandemic forced Kansas officials to make adjustments in its postseason schedules for sports this fall, and one prominent high school volleyball coach in Johnson County says the changes that were made underscore long-standing inequities between girls and boys sports in the state.

Now, she’s using that to call for broader changes that, she hopes, last long after the pandemic has ended.

Nancy Dorsey is the girls volleyball coach at St. James Academy, a private Catholic high school in Lenexa. She says she’s used to her sport — which she has played and coached for decades — being treated differently from sports, like football, that are played by boys. The pandemic didn’t change that.

“I’ve been in sports for a long time, and I believe there has always been an institutional inequality in sports,” she told the Post recently.

Unfair playoff formats

Dorsey is one of the most successful scholastic volleyball coaches in the Kansas City area.

She played college volleyball at the University of Kansas before entering the high school coaching ranks almost 20 years ago. She’s been at St. James since the school’s founding 15 years ago and has led her teams to nine Kansas state championships in that time. In 2015, she was named the American Volleyball Coaches Association’s high school Coach of the Year.

Dorsey (back, far left) poses with the St. James squad that won the 2018 Kansas state championship. Photo courtesy Nancy Dorsey.

Despite that long-term success, Dorsey wasn’t happy with how this season played out.

High school sports faced restrictions because of the pandemic, which Dorsey acknowledges needed to be in place in order to keep players, coaches and fans safe. And the Kansas High School Activities Association, or KSHSAA, adjusted sports’ schedules statewide , shortening seasons at all levels and decreasing the number of competitions.

“They (KSHSAA) got us a season and we got to play. We’re grateful for that,” said Dorsey.

She took issue with how KSHSAA adjusted sports’ playoff formats. She says the changes favored boys sports — particularly football. For girls sports, like volleyball, the number of teams advancing to postseason tournaments were reduced and teams were regrouped based on geography, penalizing teams in Johnson County, where there are several powerhouse programs.

But for football, KSHSAA allowed the same number of teams into the postseason bracket as would be allowed in a typical season. That prompted her to write a lengthy online petition calling for broader structural changes at KSHSAA. So far, more than 5,500 people have signed it.

“It’s clear. It’s undeniable,” Dorsey wrote. “Golf. Tennis. Volleyball. All sports played by girls. All saw significant changes to their post-season. I do not think that is a coincidence.”

Dorsey says more than 300 girl volleyball players across the state were potentially left out of postseason competition that they could have played in otherwise. Of the mostly male KSHSAA board that made the decisions to change the postseason format, Dorsey wrote this:

“They aren’t bad people. They just did what society has been doing the entire time I’ve been alive, they minimized girls athletics.”

A dialogue has started

Dorsey says she’s been encouraged in the weeks since first posting her petition that KSHSAA officials have seemed open to talking about the issues she raised and they’ve had dialogue in recent weeks.

“I told Nancy that any recommendation in sports that comes to the activities association comes through the Kansas Coaches Association (KCA),” said Cheryl Gleason, the assistant executive director of KSHSAA.

The talks also come at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is on the rise in Johnson County and across Kansas, threatening winter sports yet to be played this year. Local schools are weighing whether to hold winter sports competitions, like basketball and wrestling. The Johnson County Department of Health and Environment recommends against those activities because of the potential danger of transmitting infections while playing in close contact and breathing heavily.

For her part, Dorsey is glad her team got through the fall with no major outbreaks. Now, she’s seeking long-term change.

Among other reforms, Dorsey’s petition seeks for there to be an advisory body made up of coaches in each sport — boys and girls — that KSHSAA would consult before making big decisions like the ones made this year to adjust to the pandemic. She also says there needs to be more gender balance on KSHSAA’s executive board, which is currently comprised of eight men and one woman.

In her petition, Dorsey points out that girls volleyball in Kansas is highly competitive, with schools like St. James regularly fielding some of the best prep teams in the nation and producing players that go on to play at elite college programs.

“The truth of the matter is, if this were a boys sport we’d be promoting it much differently and we wouldn’t stand by while changes happen,” Dorsey wrote.

Though she wasn’t happy about KSHSAA’s decisions this fall, she said she’s moving on and working for change in the future.

“It’s done, so dwelling on that is counterproductive. We need to look at: how can we make it better moving forward?” she said.

Not just in the upcoming months because of the pandemic but over the long haul.