The mediator of a landmark Montana sex-discrimination case thinks providing equal opportunities for boys and girls strengthens high school athletics.

"If high school athletics are worthwhile, then there is no getting around (the fact) that they are as important for girls as for boys," said Barry Gomberg, who was the mediator for Ridgeway vs. the Montana High School Association, which considerably changed Montana high school athletics.People usually justify high school athletics as a way to promote teamwork, discipline, good health and self-motivation. Those qualities are equally admirable for both sexes, Gomberg said.

Gomberg, director of affirmative action and equal opportunity at Weber State College, was called in to provide technical assistance after parties in the 1981 Montana lawsuit agreed to mediation.

Gomberg said he hasn't extensively studied Utah high school athletics, so he doesn't know the degree to which girls might be treated differently here. But from what he has seen of some individual sports, particularly soccer, there may be cause for concern.

Like Utah, Montana had successful programs for girls in basketball, volleyball, track and gymnastics, he said. But the total programs for boys and girls weren't comparable. And under Title 9, the issue of equality hinges on providing comparable programs that meet the interest and abilities of participants.

In other words, the same sports don't have to be offered for both boys and girls, but both sexes must be given comparable opportunities that meet their interests and abilities. Under the federal law, schools that don't comply endanger their federal funding.

Some sports may be designated "coed." In Utah, that is what has happened to soccer.

But, Gomberg said, a school district is not in compliance with the law if the opportunity for participation doesn't really exist in a "coed" sport. Girls, for example, may be allowed to try out with the boys for the soccer team but don't because they're intimidated.

"It may be necessary to have separate boys and girls teams to meet interests and abilities," he said.

In Montana, high school athletics were successfully challenged because girls saw fewer sports opportunities than boys, the attorney said. The Montana girls didn't have as many sanctioned sports and the treatment within the sports was second class.

Second class meant that the quality of the girls' coaching staffs wasn't as good, there wasn't equal access to facilities for practice and competition, and the transportation, equipment and team support were not comparable.