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50 years later, how Title IX changed sports at Dartmouth and in the Upper Valley

  • Former Dartmouth women’s tennis coach Chris Kerr, of Wilder, Vt., warms up before a match at the Norwich Racquet Club in Norwich, Vt., on Friday, August 12, 2022. Kerr started coaching at Dartmouth in 1973, the year after the college started admitting women and Title IX was enacted. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

  • Former Dartmouth women’s tennis coach Chris Kerr, right, of Wilder, Vt., and Jean Brown, of Hanover, N.H., warm up before a match at the Norwich Racquet Club in Norwich, Vt., on Friday, August 12, 2022. Tennis was one of Dartmouth’s first six women’s sports teams, along with basketball, squash, lacrosse, field hockey and skiing. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

  • Hartford hockey coach Kylie Young goes over a new play with her team during practice on Friday, Dec., 3, 2021, in White River Junction, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file photograph — Jennifer Hauck

  • Megan Sobel in a 2011 photograph. (Mark Washburn photograph) Mark Washburn

  • Hartford's Caroline Hamilton drives down the field against Green Mountain Valley's Parker Crawford and Paige Fieldhouse their during their VPA Division II quarterfinal matchup on Friday, June 3, 2022, in White River Junction, Vt. Hartford won, 19-8. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file — Jennifer Hauck

  • Sian Beilock, then University of Chicago professor, looks at a brain scan from a functional MRI machine in the lab at the university in Chicago on July 16, 2012. Beilock, a leading expert on the brain science, will become the first woman president at Dartmouth in its over 250-year history on July 1, 2023, succeeding Philip J. Hanlon. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File) M. Spencer Green

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/13/2022 10:43:48 PM
Modified: 8/14/2022 7:26:15 AM

Kylie Young first learned about Title IX as a Hartford High School senior, when she wrote a thesis on the U.S. women’s ice hockey team winning the gold medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics — the first year women’s hockey was played at the Games.

For her project, Young interviewed Judy Parish Oberting, the Dartmouth College head women’s hockey coach at the time.

“That was a big step for me as a high school student to be calling the Dartmouth coach and interviewing her about what she focuses on for women and how to keep them competitive and get them the same kind of drive that men’s teams had,” Young said.

Now two years into her tenure as the head coach at her alma mater, Young, who graduated in 2002, played for the Hurricanes at a time when girls hockey was just starting to take off in the Upper Valley. Prior to the late ’90s, girls routinely played on boys hockey teams, but after the Vermont Principals Association mandated that girls must play on girls teams if their school sponsored them, more schools began to add programs.

When Young was a freshman, Hartford and Hanover were the only Upper Valley high schools to sponsor girls hockey. They played each other frequently despite being in different states because good nearby competition was hard to come by. Young’s senior year coincided with the first VPA state tournament, and the Hurricanes advanced to the Division I championship game before falling to BFA-St. Albans.

“My freshman year, it was not super-competitive hockey,” Young said. “Toward the end of my senior year, we were playing competitively throughout the state against girls who had played just like I did, with a history and a background of hockey knowledge and skill and experience.”

Title IX, signed into federal law as part of the Education Amendments of 1972, makes no mention of athletics — in 37 words, it outlawed discrimination based on sex in educational programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance. The inclusion of “activities” is what required educational institutions to provide equivalent programs for men and women, and the largest discrepancies were in sports.

As the landmark legislation celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, girls and women’s sports teams have become institutionalized to the point where many athletes don’t give much thought to Title IX or even know much about it. But Title IX stands as strong as ever today, protecting access to equitable athletic facilities, equipment and more. In some cases, including at Dartmouth, it has even saved teams from elimination.

Uncertain beginnings

Chris Kerr arrived at Dartmouth to coach women’s tennis in 1973, but she had extensive athletic experience before Title IX. Kerr played tennis and field hockey at Princeton High School in New Jersey and at Douglass College, the women’s college of Rutgers University. She later earned a master’s degree in sports psychology, a new field at the time, from Penn State, with the intention of entering the world of coaching.

Dartmouth began to admit women the same year Title IX was enacted, and it hired Agnes Kurtz that fall to start the school’s first six women’s teams — basketball, squash, lacrosse, tennis, field hockey and skiing. Kurtz coached field hockey, squash and lacrosse herself, and a year later, she brought in Kerr as the athletic department’s second female employee.

“There was a huge discrepancy between what the men were getting and what the women were getting,” Kerr said. “There was a men’s faculty locker room, but the women coaches, even for many years, they had to change in the locker room with all the athletes and undergraduates who wanted a locker.”

Women’s teams in swimming and diving, sailing, track and field, rowing, cross country and ice hockey were added later in the 1970s, with golf and equestrian joining them in 1981. Volleyball and softball began play in the 1994-95 academic year, and rugby became the newest women’s varsity sport in 2015.

Kerr spent 26 years at Dartmouth, leaving in 1999 with a 221-125 record. By then, the women’s tennis team had its own locker room space, and Kerr had enough money in her budget to hire an assistant coach.

“We had better budgets in terms of uniforms,” Kerr said. “(Title IX) just gave life to women in sports. I don’t see any of the changes as being bad changes. Dartmouth’s facilities are so much better than ever before, and all of men’s and women’s athletics drives that. And as you get more of a 50-50 student population, the women have much more to say now, whereas before, all the alums were basically men.”

When the NCAA began administering women’s championships in 1981, it also created the position of senior woman administrator, a designation for the highest-ranking woman in an athletic department. From 2003 until 2018, that role at Dartmouth belonged to Megan Sobel, now the athletic director at Hanover High School.

Sobel played field hockey and softball at Smith College and then Lafayette College, where she graduated in 1992. But she did not learn much about Title IX until pursuing her master’s degree in athletic administration at the University of Iowa, which had separate athletic departments for men and women at the time.

“It’s all of our jobs and coaches’ jobs to help educate girls and women on (Title IX), and boys and men, maybe even more importantly,” Sobel said. “There just needs to be more of a focus on educating people on what it is. The primary purpose of it wasn’t athletics, but because there were so many disparities in athletics, that became the focus. We need to do a better job of helping people understand it.”

The senior woman administrator position is a senior management role without a specific job description — Sobel oversaw both men’s and women’s teams at Dartmouth, but was integral in helping the women’s programs catch up to the men in terms of budgets, salaries, uniforms and facilities.

For its first 17 seasons, Dartmouth softball played at Sachem Field in West Lebanon, a facility with no bathrooms and patchwork dugouts. It stood in stark contrast to the baseball field, especially after a $5.2 million gift from alumni Mike and Cindy Biondi funded a renovation of the baseball facility in 2009. Sobel approached Jim Yong Kim, Dartmouth’s president at the time, and told him softball needed a comparable stadium. Dartmouth Softball Park, which cost $3.1 million of the school’s money to build, opened in 2012.

“In terms of opportunities, and particularly the percentages of female students versus female athletes, it’s still off,” Sobel said. “They’re working on fixing that, but if you look at travel and all of those things, colleges are still behind.”

The Dartmouth lawsuit

Due to budget shortfalls during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dartmouth announced in July 2020 that it was eliminating the men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s and women’s golf and men’s lightweight rowing programs.

Student-athletes from the five teams tried a number of avenues for reinstatement, including signing an open letter to President Phil Hanlon, and members of the swimming and diving team alleged that the cuts discriminated against Asian athletes. But that December, 21 student-athletes from the women’s golf and women’s swimming and diving teams brought a lawsuit against Dartmouth, alleging that the cuts left the school out of compliance with Title IX.

Colleges can comply with Title IX using at least one prong of a three-part test, but the most common method — Prong 1 — is to ensure that the ratio of male to female student-athletes is proportional to the gender breakdown of the undergraduate student body as a whole. California attorney Arthur Bryant, who represented the plaintiffs, alleged Dartmouth was noncompliant via Prong 1 even before the cuts. The lawsuit was settled and the five programs were reinstated in January 2021.

Athletic director Harry Sheehy retired 11 days after the reinstatements, and Dartmouth released a new gender equity plan in March 2022 under interim athletic director Peter Roby. The plan calls for expansions and renovations to the rugby clubhouse, Berry Sports Center and Thompson Arena to ensure gender-equitable facilities for men’s and women’s teams.

After Roby’s interim tenure ended earlier this summer, Dartmouth named Mike Harrity, previously a deputy athletic director at Army West Point, to lead the Big Green’s athletic department.

“I read the full plan on my first day on July 18,” Harrity said. “It’s remarkable work by a team that I’m getting to know. It’s not just about checking a box and saying we did something, because this work is never done. This plan covers everything from strength and conditioning, sports medicine, human resources that this department didn’t have. What it’s going to do is help all students who participate in varsity athletics enhance their experience.”

A dearth of female coaches

Before Title IX and in its infancy, the overwhelming majority of coaches for girls’ and women’s teams at high schools and colleges were women. That changed dramatically as women’s sports became more visible and popular, and although the trend has reversed recently — the percentage of female head coaches for women’s teams has increased for four consecutive years at the NCAA Division I level — just 43.4% of Division I women’s teams were led by women in 2021-22, according to the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport.

The Ivy League led all conferences with 56.4% female head coaches, and at Dartmouth, it’s even higher than that, with 10 out of 15 female head coaches for all-women’s teams.

Still, Sobel said the coaching industry as a whole needs to do better at recruiting female coaches and administrators at both the college and high school levels. At Hanover, where Sobel has been athletic director since 2018, six out of nine head coaches for girls’ teams last year were women. But in sports like soccer, basketball and ice hockey, female high school head coaches in the Upper Valley are few and far between.

Only White River Valley and Sharon Academy, a private school, had female head coaches for girls soccer, and Sharon’s Rachel Milito was a co-head coach with Andy Ruddell. In girls basketball, just two of the 13 head coaches at Upper Valley high schools were women, and in girls hockey, Hartford’s Young is the only female head coach among the four schools that field teams.

When she took over the Hurricanes’ program, Young was struck by the relative lack of women coaching high school girls teams.

“It’s a little bit more challenging when you’re not of the same sex as your team,” she said. “But more than that, being a role model and being the person who has done this before — male coaches can’t say that they were once girls in high school and dealt with the issues girls in high school deal with. I can have a better connection to the players because I’ve experienced what they’re going through.”

At Hartford, six of the seven all-girls teams had female head coaches, with soccer’s Jeff Acker the only exception. For Caroline Hamilton, a 2022 Hartford graduate and a standout in field hockey, indoor track and lacrosse, that representation is critical.

Hamilton served on Hartford’s athletic leadership council, which made Title IX the theme for the annual athletic awards night in honor of its 50th anniversary.

“I was so fortunate to have female coaches,” Hamilton said. “It’s so important for young female athletes to see women in positions of power. Schools that can integrate women into positions of power, not just in athletics but in administration, it’s so vital. Even if there are men in those positions, they should be focused on the fact that they can’t fully understand the experience of a female athlete and acknowledge that and do their best to support their female athletes.”

The next 50 years

Last month, Dartmouth selected its first woman president, Sian Beilock, who will take over for the retiring Hanlon in 2023. Beilock is currently the president of Barnard College, the women’s college of Columbia University, and she played lacrosse at the University of California at San Diego. Her work in academia includes extensive research on athletes dealing with pressure and making the transition from playing to coaching.

Beilock stressed the importance of having women coach girls’ and women’s teams, but said there may be overlooked barriers to entry that often keep them out.

“We know that women spend most of the time doing unseen labor in the house, whether it’s with children or caring for parents,” she said. “I’d want to know what the barriers are to finding women and having more women coaches and seeing if we could work on some of those.”

Dartmouth is celebrating the 50th anniversary of both Title IX and Big Green women’s athletics throughout the year as a means of educating the community on the law and its continued impact. Both men’s and women’s teams are wearing a patch of the commemorative logo on their uniforms, and an Instagram account with the handle @50yearsofwomeningreen has been highlighting athletes, coaches and accomplishments from the Big Green women’s programs.

That education, Sobel emphasized, is crucial to understanding Title IX’s successes and shortcomings, which in turn can help continue to level the playing field in the coming years and decades.

“We need to do a better job making sure that people are educated about Title IX and what it is and what it isn’t,” Sobel said. “It’s constantly changing, so everyone needs to keep it on their radar and keep talking about it and having those discussions.”

Benjamin Rosenberg can be reached at brosenberg@vnews.com or 603-727-3302.




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