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For Women Athletes, The Biggest Win

Women rowers/Bob Ellis photo
The River Hawks' varsity-eight crew team works out on the Merrimack River. UMass Lowell recently added women's rowing to give the school eight women's sports, part of ongoing efforts to provide equal opportunities for male and female athletes under Title IX, enacted 40 years ago.

Lowell Sun
By Matt Langone

LOWELL -- Forty years ago, Lowell State College had no field-hockey program. 

Or any legitimate women's athletic program, for that matter. 

Fifteen years ago, the school carried field hockey ... and team members practiced in the outfield of the softball field on the South Campus. 

Today, the school now known as UMass Lowell boasts a two-time national field-hockey champion (2005, 2010) and practices and plays on state-of-the-art, turf Lester H. Cushing Field, designed for field hockey and soccer. 

Progress like this is a product of the monumental and influential legislation that celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, known as Title IX. 

Title IX was passed into law June 23, 1972, stating that "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance." 
"When I played it wasn't exactly prime conditions for field hockey," said Shannon Hlebichuk, a 1998 UMass Lowell grad. 

Today, she's the school's assistant athletic director and field-hockey coach. 

"When I came back to UMass Lowell the turf field had been built and the facilities were great. It was completely foreign to me. I remember going to the Statehouse while I was in college with other female athletes to ask for more money for athletics. To me, the new field was a direct result of Title IX." 

Of course, Title IX extends well beyond athletics. But its passing continues to reshape the landscape of collegiate sports. 

Men's athletics no longer receive openly preferential treatment. The goal is to strive to achieve gender equity by focusing on meeting the needs of women interested in athletics. Title IX has helped education officials recognize their responsibilities toward providing equal athletic opportunity. 

To achieve Title IX compliance, schools must meet one of three prongs: 

* Provide athletic opportunities to male and female students in proportion to their overall enrollment at the institution. 

* Demonstrate a history of continually expanding athletic opportunities for the underrepresented sex. 

* Demonstrate that the available opportunities meet the interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex. 

While athletic interests and abilities of male and female students must be equally accommodated, colleges and universities have discretion in determining what the interests and abilities of their students are. 

Under Title IX, the total amount of financial assistance awarded to men and women must be substantially proportionate to their participation rates in athletic programs. 

That's according to the U.S. Department of Education. UMass Lowell complies with Prong 2. 

"Sports must be about much more than just playing games," said Dana Skinner, UMass Lowell's athletic director since 1995. "I believe Title IX's impact is one of the great civil-rights success stories. It dramatically changed the playing field for girls and women in sports. To go from 8 percent of high school student-athletes being girls in 1971, to over 41 percent and 3 million girls competing today, is dramatic." 

According to a report by the American Association of University Women, fewer than 32,000 women competed in intercollegiate athletics in 1972. Also in that year, women received 2 percent of school athletic budgets. Athletic scholarships for women were nonexistent. 

"We are always looking to progress. We have made great strides in the past and will continue to make great strides," Hlebichuk said. "In general, Title IX has provided a good-faith effort for more opportunities to both men and women. And that's what we want." 

Dracut High grad Nicolle Wood is the senior women's administrator for athletics at Salem State University, and also the women's soccer coach. She deals with Title IX frequently. 

"We are very fortunate because our AD does a great job and it has never been an issue," said Wood, who played on Dracut's first varsity girls soccer team in 1988. "On a larger scale it's been great. A common misconception is that it only tilts the scale in favor of female athletics. But if we add a brand-new female locker room, then the expectation is that we'll do the same for the men. We actually have more female athletes than male athletes. 

"I can't even imagine life without Title IX." 

Denise Legault and Claire Chamberlain can. 

There for the beginning 

Legault was hired as a physical-education instructor by Lowell State in 1969, and served as a coach and administrator until she retired in 2002. Chamberlain was hired as a physical-education instructor in 1971, and also coached before retiring in 2008. 

Together, Legault and Chamberlain saw a need for women at the school to be able to compete athletically. 

With the encouragement of their open-minded athletic director, James Ciszek, Legault and Chamberlain began to form women's teams at Lowell State. Legault started and coached women's volleyball and softball, while Chamberlain did the same with women's basketball and tennis. 

"We didn't know that we were doing anything unusual," said Legault, who lives today in Atkinson, N.H. "We were really fortunate to be able to work with Jim. We didn't realize that other schools were having major problems forming women's teams." 

Conditions weren't ideal. 

Recruiting trips were confined to the cafeteria. 

"We had eight players that first year of softball. I can remember saying in the cafe, 'We have a game tomorrow if anyone wants to play,' and just looking for volunteers," Legault remembered. 

The volleyball and basketball teams shared plain gray T-shirts for uniforms. 

Then there was the split gym time to accommodate more than one team at a time. Three-sport athletes would hustle from practice to practice. Games would often start late because the fields and courts were being occupied by youth leagues. 

"I remember there were a lot of music majors who played and the instructors weren't happy about piano or violin players playing volleyball," said Legault. 

If there was snow, Legault and Chamberlain had to shovel. 

"These things would just never happen now," said Chamberlain, a Chelmsford resident. 

As time passed, and Title IX gained steam, things got better. Legault recalled going to a sporting-goods store with Chamberlain and paying for field-hockey equipment with her credit card. She went back to the school with a receipt and received reimbursement. 

"Denise and Claire were instrumental in giving female athletes a voice," said Hlebichuk. "They were pioneers and we should always recognize their efforts." 

Legault and Chamberlain were inducted into the UMass Lowell Athletic Hall of Fame in 2010 for their tireless work in developing women's sports at UML. 

"I try to look at the positives. We had some wonderful camaraderie and a lot of fun back then. I'm glad I had Claire for support and to go through it with me," Legault said. 

But the advancements have been a welcome sight. 

"Title IX's impact was absolutely huge," said Chamberlain. "Before Title IX, female sports were sporadic at best. You still have some of those relics from the past who have been slow to change. But the impact has been wonderful." 

Work in progress 

According to the American Association of University Women, 62,000 more men than women were participating in intercollegiate sports as of 2008. Yet the common complaint against Title IX is that attaining compliance has been done largely by eliminating sports programs for men. 

In February 2002, after some men's collegiate wrestling and gymnastics teams were dropped, the National Wrestling Coaches Association and College Gymnastics Association filed suit against the U.S. Department of Education, alleging that Title IX regulations are unconstitutional. The District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the case in May 2004. 

Skinner admitted Title IX is certainly part of the equation when schools are forced to make budget cuts, but he said there are a number of factors. 

"While it's convenient to blame Title IX for cuts in men's programs, I believe it's an unfair charge," Skinner said. "No athletic administrator wants to cut a program and eliminate opportunities for young people. We'd all have 100 sports programs if we could. 

"Schools are all members of conferences that commit to a greater number of sports than they did years ago when basketball and football received the bulk of the funds," he added. "In addition, the demand for recreational sports programs has exploded. Schools are building new recreation centers and developing programming. Meeting the broader interests of the students is far more complex today than it used to be." 

UMass Lowell recently added women's rowing to give the school eight women's sports. There are seven men's teams. 

"We should be finding ways to add, not subtract," Wood said. "Eliminating teams because of Title IX is lazy." 

Salem State and UMass Lowell don't have to deal with the proverbial elephant in the room -- football. 

UML dropped football in 2003 for budget reasons, not because of Title IX, according to Skinner. Having a big-time college football program can make things very difficult in relation to Title IX, due to the heavy volume of roster spots, scholarships and money made for the school. No other sport, men's or women's, is remotely comparable. 

While Wood said she feels fortunate Salem State doesn't have the football headache, she believes schools that do should be able to comply by meeting just the one prong. 

UMass Lowell competes in Division 1 in men's hockey. The River Hawks play in arguably the nation's top conference, Hockey East. The school is exploring the options for potentially added an equivalent women's sport at the Division 1 level. Just recently, NCAA regulations were adjusted to allow schools to elevate a sport for equity purposes. 

"Over the years, we've increased the number of coaches for women, practice and game facilities were built or renovated, new office space was provided, and locker rooms were constructed for women's athletic teams," said Skinner. "To ensure continued vigilance, the campus appointed a Title IX coordinator and a standing Gender Equity Committee." 

Meaning the process will continue.