Saturday marks the 40th anniversary of the passage of the legislation known as Title IX. This year also marks the 20th anniversary of one of the most influential lawsuits brought under that legislation: the suit filed by several female athletes at Brown University after funding for their gymnastics team disappeared.
In 1991, Brown University made some budget cuts. Among those affected by those cuts were the members of the women's gymnastics team. In 1992, some of those women filed a lawsuit against the university, contending that Brown had failed to meet its responsibilities as defined by Title IX. Mike Goldberger, who has been an administrator at Brown for 38 years and is currently serving as the athletic director, said he was among those surprised by the lawsuit.
"We always felt at Brown that we had done a great job in terms of providing opportunities for women in college athletics," Goldberger said, "because I think at the time that we had offered more varsity opportunities than any other college in the country for women."
In terms of numbers of teams, Goldberger wasn't far off. But at Brown, female students outnumbered men by about 52 to 48 percent, and their athletic opportunities were not commensurate with those offered to the males — or so said the First District Court of Appeals.
Four years after the suit was filed, Brown agreed to a settlement. According to Beverly Ledbetter, who represented the university, that settlement required the university to "strive to make the number of opportunities for women in the athletic enterprise equal to their ratio in the student population."
But according to Lynette Labinger, one of the attorneys who represented the students, "settlement" did not mean "settled."
"The case technically is still alive," Labinger said. "Every year we get reports, usually some time around August."
Some years, those reports have been perfunctory. At other times, according to Labinger, Brown has "failed to stay within the limits of the permitted variance," and adjustments have been made — quietly — which was not the case during the four years after the lawsuit was filed.
Digit Murphy was the head coach of the women's ice hockey team for 22 years, and she remembers the hostility apparent among colleagues before the settlement occurred.
"It was hell going through a Title IX battle in the '90s," Murphy said. "You could actually sense the tension in the air at staff meetings. You knew who was on one side of the issue and who was on the other side of the issue. It really was a men vs. women issue that really didn't have to be that way. And it was hard. I remember in 1994, being seven months pregnant, and being on the stand, testifying against my employer. I mean, that was pretty hairy."
Another of the women present at those staff meetings was Arlene Gorton, for many years an associate athletic director at Brown. Now retired, Gorton has mixed feelings about the lawsuit and how the university responded to it.
"Are women's sports better off because of the Title IX case? And because of the Brown case? I don't think there's any question about it," Gorton said. "But the money could have gone into the programs, and it confounds me why it didn't go into the programs to bring equity, rather than fighting the case."
Gorton remembers that when she was associate athletic director, after Saturdays, when the football team had lost, the alumni would grumble that it had been a lousy weekend. They wouldn't have noticed that all the women's teams playing that weekend had won. The impact of Title IX notwithstanding, she's not sure how much of that has changed, or how today's college administrators can have failed to embrace simple fairness.
"A family doesn't support some of their children better than the other children," she said. "They share the money, and this is what I wish colleges were doing. But it's not the way it's going. There are priority sports, and the priority means how much media attention does it get?"
On the 40th anniversary of Title IX, or at any other time, it's a notion impossible to refute.
This program aired on June 22, 2012.