Finally Making the Boys Play Fair

Twenty-five years after the passage of Title IX, a Supreme Court decision may have finally convinced the University of Minnesota to beef up its women's athletic program.

Like many women who grew up in Minnesota, hockey was an integral part of Julie Otto's youth. She watched her brother play while she was still faltering on figure skates. But then, "my parents figured out I wasn't graceful," and supported her interest in hockey.

At first she played with the guys and, she remembers, early on in the season they hated her for being on the team. But they came around after a couple of weeks. She turned out to be the highest scorer on the team that first year. At 7, she played with the Buffalo Mites, then the Squirts, then her parents started driving her to the Twin Cities every week so she could play with a girls club team, the Thoroughbreds.

When she started college, the only schools offering women's hockey on a varsity level were in the East, so she spent a few years at Northeastern University. But this year, Julie Otto will be captain of the University of Minnesota's first varsity women's hockey team, which will take to the ice this fall. The team will play its first game November 2 against Augsburg, which, in 1995, became the first college in the state to add women's ice hockey. St. Cloud State is putting together a varsity team to play starting early in the next decade.

While school administrators would have the sportsgoing public believe that the new hockey programs are the result of a groundswell of feminine interest in the sport, the truth is that recent court decisions are forcing universities around the country to comply with a 25-year-old federal law that, until now, the majority of colleges and universities have consistently violated.

Until recently, administrators at colleges throughout the country have gotten away with parrotting common misconceptions about women's athletics: There aren't enough women aren't interested in playing varsity sports to field whole teams; that women's teams can survive only by bleeding money from profitable men's programs (an argument recently resuscitated by Star Tribune columnist Sid Hartman and other local sports-talk personalities); or that no will attend women's sports events.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Title IX, which was passed as part of Congress' Education Amendments of 1972. Also known as the gender-equity rule, the law dictates that schools receiving any federal funding must provide equal opportunities for both genders to participate in school activities, including sports. However, the measure was never taken very seriously and women's sports languished. In 1994, Congress passed the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act (EADA), requiring schools to open their files on male and female rates of participation in athletic programs, coaching salaries, and expenses, as well as student aid and operating expenses. Once the files were made public, it opened the door to lawsuits from college women who were finally able to confirm their suspicions that their schools were violating Title IX.

Still, in 1995, according to a "gender-equity report card" from the Women's Sports Foundation, women comprised 53 percent of all undergraduates, yet only some 37 percent of all NCAA athletes. And those campuses that fielded enough teams for all the women who wanted to play tended to allocate far fewer resources. Women's teams received only about $16 million of the total $61 million schools spent on NCAA recruitment, or roughly 26 percent of all recruitment dollars. Plus, women athletes also received some $142 million less in scholarship money than their male counterparts.

And then in April of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Cohen vs. Brown, a Court of Appeals decision barring Brown University from demoting its women's gymnastics and volleyball teams from varsity--which enjoy university-sponsored status--to club teams, which are privately sponsored. If the teams became clubs, the court found, Brown would be in violation of its Title IX responsibilities. Fearing similar lawsuits, universities scrambled to beef up women's athletic offerings.

In fact, some institutions may be under federal pressure to comply with Title IX. In June, President Bill Clinton gave a speech in which he underlined the importance of gender equity. "Every school and every educational program that receives federal assistance in the entire country must understand that complying with Title IX is not optional," he said. "It is the law and must be enforced."

Adding women's ice hockey to the UM's lineup has everything to do with Title IX, says Mary Jo Kane, a UM sport sociologist and director of the Tucker Center for Research on Women in Sport. "Title IX has created a culture where it is considered appropriate for girls, appropriate for women to be athletes, and not a contradiction in terms," she notes. Until recently, the university was in a good position to be sued under Title IX. For example, in 1991, UM counted 152 women as varsity athletes and 348 men. Adding a varsity women's soccer team and the hockey team has helped the school's position.

But it might not be safe to say the institution is out of the woods as far as gender-equity suits are concerned. Under the direction of Chris Voelz, who took over as Women's Athletic director in 1988, the U is doing better than many other institutions at providing an opportunity for women in sports. It scored a "B" on the Women's Sports Foundation's report card, and in Division I sports was surpassed only by the military academies, Texas A&M, and the Georgia Institute of Technology. This year, the number of women playing varsity sports at the U will barely top 250, compared with the men's total of 367--still a 41 percent-59 percent split.

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