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Mary Jo Kane

Mary Jo Kane, director of the University's Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport

Title IX: Opening doors for female athletes

Landmark legislation has revolutionized women's sports

By Rick Moore

From M, spring 2005

On Sunday afternoon, February 8, 2004, the Gopher men's basketball team hosted Illinois, a team that went on to win the Big Ten regular season title. The game drew 13,404 fans.

That evening, the women's basketball team took to the Williams Arena floor against Penn State, another team that would go on to win the Big Ten title. This event drew 14,363 fans.

If you're looking for a red-letter day for women's athletics at the U and for the state of girls and women's sports in general (at least in Minnesota), this was it. All other variables aside, the women outdrawing the men at The Barn was an air-horn blast announcing that, 33 years after it entered into our vocabulary, Title IX has been a remarkable success.

In 1972, Title IX was introduced in some amendments to the 1964 federal Civil Rights Act. It says, in essence, that an institution receiving federal funding cannot discriminate on the basis of gender in providing any educational program or activity. Two years later, when it was determined that Title IX applied to intercollegiate athletics, the world of women's athletics began changing in drastic ways.

"[Title IX] fundamentally changed the landscape, because without it, we wouldn't be where we are," says Mary Jo Kane, director of the University's Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport and a leading expert on Title IX. "For the first time in history we have a critical mass of girls and women who play sports. You have young girls who grow up with a sense of entitlement towards sports.... It would never occur to them than an opportunity wouldn't be available to them."

For Kane, who grew up in the 1960s playing football, basketball, and baseball with her friends in central Illinois, there was no such sense of entitlement. Since there were no girls sports teams at her small Catholic school, she became a cheerleader for two years. While she doesn't recall feeling that things were unfair or outrageous, she did feel a sense of sadness.

The situation was the same across the country. While there were great female athletes before Title IX--Althea Gibson, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Martina Navratilova, and local golfer Patty Berg, to name a few--they didn't have access to the same institutionalized opportunities as today's women athletes. They did it on their own, for the most part, without the stepping stones of organized youth teams or scholarships. And they rarely did it in front of 14,000 fans or on TV.

From Norris to the Aquatic Center

Perhaps no one has more institutional perspective on Title IX at the U than Jean Freeman, who until last spring was the head coach of the Gopher women's swimming and diving team. She arrived at the University of Minnesota as an undergraduate in 1968, took up swimming again on the women's club team (she had swum competitively from the ages of 8 to 16), then, after Title IX, became the first-ever coach of the women's intercollegiate team in 1973.

Figuratively speaking, compared to the men's teams, Freeman's early teams at the U swam in frigid water and against a stiff current in both directions. While the men swam in relatively modern Cooke Hall, the women were stuck in Norris Hall in a pool without lane guides, starting blocks, or a timing system. It would take a couple of years before the women were able to use Cooke Hall one evening a week, and another couple of years before they had all their practices and meets there. And scholarships weren't available until later in the '70s.

Freeman says that the state-of-the-art Aquatic Center, home of the men's and women's teams since 1990, was really the first manifestation at the U of an athletic facility built with gender equity in mind.

"That still boggles my mind--that it took till 1990," Freeman says. "That's why we needed, and still need, a federal law to help us along. Because we still don't make change very readily."

Minnesota, hats off to thee

Over the past couple of decades, it's hard to question the University's commitment to female athletes and the success that has bred. Minnesota maintained separate women's and men's athletic departments until finances forced the two to merge in 2002. Before the merger, the women had a strong and vocal leader in Chris Voelz, the women's athletic director who is credited with getting new women's sports facilities built, creating a large scholarship endowment, and being a tireless supporter of women athletes.

Three women's sports--soccer, hockey, and rowing--have been added in the last decade, and in 2003-04, 47 percent of the U's 866 athletes were women, according to senior associate athletic director Regina Sullivan. That ratio is above the national average of 42 percent and the Division I average of 44 percent.

Kane calls the University "light years ahead" in terms of equality for women athletes. "A lot of credit needs to go to Chris Voelz, who was a pioneer both here and nationally," Kane says. "She put her entire career on the line to ensure that young women had the same opportunities as men."

When Voelz left and Joel Maturi became the new overall AD, there was tremendous hope "that the new athletic director would be as equally committed to women's sports," says Kane, who chaired the search committee that chose Maturi. "And Joel Maturi has more than fit the bill."

In terms of on-court and on-ice performance, the program molded by Voelz and nurtured by Maturi is an unparalleled success. In just the past 12 months, the women's hockey team has won a national championship, and the basketball and volleyball teams each made it to the Final Four, with the volleyball team finishing second in the nation. The basketball team, in particular, caught the fancy of Gopher fans near and far as well as the local media, which covered every injury update and nuance of Whalen, McCarville, and Co. like they were, well, male athletes.

An undercurrent of discontent

While Title IX has been hailed for swinging the door wide open for female athletes, not everyone sings its praises. If Title IX has a bad rap, it's among some coaches, athletes, and supporters of men's nonrevenue sports (those that don't make a profit) such as wrestling, baseball, golf, and swimming. And the reason has to do with what's called the "proportionality" clause of Title IX.

To be in compliance with Title IX, institutions must show that they're satisfying any of three criteria known as "The Three-Part Test" for gender equity: 1) that opportunities for female and male athletes are available in numbers "substantially proportionate" to their respective enrollments; 2) that the school can show "a history and continuing practice" of making opportunities equal; or 3) that it can demonstrate that the interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex are presently being accommodated.

While many schools are in compliance through one of the last two criteria, they view the so-called proportionality clause as being the most straightforward and measurable. And at some universities, the chosen path to achieve proportionality has been to eliminate men's nonrevenue sports, thus lowering the number of male athletes in proportion to women.

Gopher coach J Robinson has built a dynasty of his own in men's wrestling. His teams won national titles in 2002 and 2003 and also set an NCAA attendance record for a "border brawl" match with archrival Iowa. While wrestling is still alive at the U, it has been cut at hundreds of other colleges, and Robinson has gone to the mat for his fellow coaches in support of wrestling and other men's nonrevenue sports. In 1999, he formed Simply Common Sense, an organization that is not against Title IX per se, but espouses "to challenge and rectify the injustice and cease the negative consequences of proportionality"--something it calls a gender quota system.

Robinson and his fellow supporters assert that if their sports are eliminated, male athletes are, essentially, being discriminated against based on their gender. He thinks that relative interest in sports among students should be the basis for participation opportunities, and is against adding new women's sports just for the sake of achieving proportionality. "Are we going to artificially create numbers to create equality?" asks Robinson. "It's not about helping the girls. It's about numbers."

Proponents of Title IX say that it's up to schools to decide how they comply with the legislation, either by expanding opportunities for women or realigning and/or cutting back opportunities for men.

Kane points out the difficulty colleges face in making those decisions, and the assumptions people make after they're made. She illustrates it with a hypothetical situation facing an athletic director or administration. If you choose to approach proportionality by adding a women's sport, you might need $500,000 in recurring funds to start a new team for "a sport that will never break even, let alone make a profit," says Kane. Or, you could drop a men's nonrevenue sport, save that same $500,000, "and say Title IX made me do it."

According to Kane, Freeman, and others, an unspoken culprit is football. Widely believed to be cash cows, many football programs are actually 800-pound gorillas that lose money, and their 85 scholarships and 100-plus-man rosters (for Division I) don't help much with Title IX requirements, either. Disarming them to some extent (Kane talks about reducing rosters, scholarships, and other expenses by a third) would free up numbers and resources for men's nonrevenue sports.

"Football is both the problem and the solution to Title IX problems," Kane says. She also notes that it would be unfair to ask one institution, like the U, to lead the way and cut its football expenses, putting itself at a competitive disadvantage with its peers, and that it's up to the NCAA to make universal changes.

Looking ahead

Where the state of gender equity will be in 10, 20, or 33 years is anyone's guess, but it's fair to suggest that the string of lawsuits in recent years seeking to soften Title IX's requirements will continue well into the future.

And there are the numbers themselves, which suggest the difficulty in achieving full equality. According to figures from the latest NCAA Gender-Equity Report and the Women's Sports Foundation, still only 42 percent of all high school and 42 percent of college athletes are females, compared to 49 and 56 percent of the overall student populations, respectively. And college women still receive $137 million less per year in athletic scholarships.

Still, at the University and elsewhere, progress in gender equity is tangible and, at times, truly remarkable. It can be witnessed at The Barn, and it's increasingly evident on the sports pages of the local Star Tribune and Pioneer Press. You'll also find it at the schools and playgrounds now teaming with young girls in uniform--girls who don't even know what Title IX means, only that they're part of the game.

As Kane is fond of saying, "In one generation, we have gone from young girls hoping that there is a team, to young girls hoping that they'll make the team."