Finally Making the Boys Play Fair

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.

The corresponding disparity in the number of scholarships awarded to women and men has also persisted; this year 143 women will attend UM on a sports scholarship, compared to 263 men. Some of the women on the hockey team will have to wait to receive a scholarship, according to Laura Hallordson, coach of the new team. Scholarships will be phased in during the next four years, eventually leading to 18 women's hockey scholarships.

"There's this Minnesota ethic that says if this is unfair, I want to find out what I can do to make it better," Kane says, which has made the university a pioneer in women's equity in sports. "It's still not equal, but it's far better than most places around the country."

Pundits' fears that sacrosanct men's teams would subsidize the new programs have proven completely wrong. The university's Title IX spending, including $330,000 of the ice hockey budget for this year, has come from its central pool. In addition, the U has tapped its private-sector partners. Voelz says that Coca-Cola pitched in $1.1 million last year, and that Reliastar, Nike, and Louisville have also made contributions. Proceeds from women's hockey ticket sales will also defray some costs, says Mary Amundson of the office of the Vice President for Student Development and Athletics.

The state has anted up, too. Last year, the Legislature gave the U $7 million, plus $3 million this year to build a smaller, more intimate arena for the women's hockey team. Until it gets built--and it's still in the planning stages--the women will share ice time in Mariucci Arena with the men's team. And even if state and private assistance dries up, UM officials say the women's hockey team most likely will never receive a dime from the men's teams. Amundson says that profits on the gate receipts from men's sports, such as from this year's successful basketball season, are first reinvested back into the same men's program. Any further surplus goes to help pay off the university's financing on Williams and Mariucci arenas, built for the use of the men's teams.

Which is why Hallordson is so interested in getting a new arena for the women's team. "We want a home of our own," she says. "If you go into Mariucci Arena and look around at the pictures on the wall you're surrounded by a rich, 75-year tradition of men's hockey. A new arena would allow the women's team to build the same kind of tradition. Should the university choose to build the arena it will be the first arena in the nation dedicated to women's ice hockey."

But not the last. The 1998 Olympics are slated to include women's ice hockey, and the number of young women graduating from high schools who want to play hockey at the collegiate level is increasing, with some high school teams already identified as "feeder teams."

The argument that no one will come see women play hockey is perhaps best disproved by these feeder teams. In three years, the number of registered women's hockey teams at the high school level has jumped from 24 to 82. This year, the Women's Hockey State Tournament drew an estimated 28,000 spectators to the State Fair Coliseum.

"What we've found is that when you build women a ballfield or an ice hockey arena they have come, and come in unprecedented numbers," says Kane. "Women really just want a chance to play." And for Otto and other members of the new university team, a chance is what it's all about.

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