After 40th anniversary of Title IX, the fight still continues
by Amy Radon, Staff Attorney
I felt lost as an incoming freshman at Arizona State University, which at the time was the second largest university in the United States with an enrollment of over 50,000 students. Coming from a high school where my graduating class had a mere 130 students, the transition to ASU was a shock to the system. I wasn’t interested in engaging in ASU’s notorious party-school culture, and found it nearly impossible to make friends in the stadium-sized lecture halls where my classes were held. After a month of feeling like I’d maybe never find my place, I noticed a neon-green flyer posted on the bulletin board of my freshman dorm: Women’s LAX Tryouts, This Wednesday Thru Friday, Bring Mouthguard.
I actually had no idea what “LAX” was, but I decided to email the coach to see if I could try out. She told me that she’d love for me to try out for the lacrosse team and that she was looking to build the program with newbies like myself. I showed up on Wednesday for tryouts and held a lacrosse stick in my hands for the first time in my life.
Everyone who tried out made the team that year, and we were pretty evenly divided between experienced players and new players like myself. I never became any good at the sport, but it didn’t matter to me: I had 15 new amazing friends; I felt a sense of pride every time I put on my uniform; and I was a part of something larger than myself. I had found my place.
Looking back on my experience at ASU, I took for granted the fact that my team had a budget to play in out-of-state tournaments, that we had used — but fully functional — equipment and uniforms, that we could practice on a field close to our dorm rooms three times a week in the evenings, and that we had referees for our games. I took for granted that ASU even fielded a women’s lacrosse team at all. Other women, I would come to learn, are not so fortunate.
Take the women’s volleyball team at Fort Valley State University in the small town of Fort Valley, Georgia. Imagine their surprise when school administrators called the players in for a meeting to inform them that their team was going to be cut, and the players were losing their scholarships. The reason for the school’s decision, according to the administrators, was that there was no room in the budget to continue to support the team. Apparently these administrators hoped the volleyball players would ignore that the school had just spent $9 million on a new football stadium, not to mention the fact that FVSU has never provided athletic opportunities for its male and female students in numbers anywhere near proportionate to their respective enrollments. (In fact, prior to cutting the volleyball team, FVSU’s athletics program offered women only 38 percent of the opportunities to participate in sports, even though female undergraduate enrollment was 57.8 percent of the student body.)
The FVSU women’s volleyball team is just one of the many teams that Public Justice has been honored to represent in fighting to uphold Title IX’s promise of gender equality in scholastic athletic programs. My colleague Spencer Wilson and I travelled to Fort Valley on a hot summer day in late June to meet with the team in person. I’ll never forget that meeting. Many of these players decided to attend FVSU because they had been promised the opportunity to play volleyball at the collegiate level. Some even told us that they wouldn’t have been able to afford FVSU’s tuition without their volleyball scholarships. But what I sensed more than anything from this meeting was that these women — many of whom had been playing volleyball for as long as they could remember — felt like they were being drained of their lifeblood and were, in short, losing their place.
FVSU did the right thing in the end and reinstated the team in time for tryouts to begin at the start of the school year. But this won’t be the last time a school makes a decision to cut a women’s team in violation of Title IX, or retaliates against a coach for raising Title IX concerns, or denies a female athlete the opportunity to try out for a men’s team in a sport not offered for women. I’m proud to work for an organization that has been a leader in fighting for gender equality in athletic programs at the collegiate, high school, and even middle school levels. And I’ll keep on fighting to ensure that our young girls growing up have the same opportunities I did to be a part of a team, to face and conquer challenges, and to feel a sense of belonging and pride.