Jane Possee found herself in unfamiliar territory in 1975. A graduate of the all-female Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Possee had arrived to coach women’s athletics at Rochester, a campus where the male-to-female ratio was 2-to-1.
Male athletes had easy access for five to six practices a week in the alumni gym, which boasted the Palestra, an indoor track, and a field house, while the women generally practiced just three times a week with part-time coaches in Spurrier Gym—with wooden backboards, no bleachers for spectators, and no scoreboard.
Now the associate director of athletics and recreation at Rochester, Possee had long recognized the role that athletics could play in the lives of students. An athlete since high school, she had played basketball, field hockey, lacrosse, and badminton at Skidmore. Hired to coach the Yellowjackets women’s basketball and women’s field hockey teams, she started the women’s lacrosse team as well.
As she did so, she began to ask for changes.
“Maybe I was a little upstart, but I had no issues raising those questions as standards of what women should have because that’s all I knew,” says Possee, who also taught optional physical education classes. “I don’t think anyone was necessarily keeping anything from us on purpose. I just don’t think they completely envisioned what it entailed to provide for a women’s program.”
Over the past four decades, much has changed at Rochester and other campuses when it comes to athletic opportunities, thanks to leaders like Possee. Some changes were small—a few of Possee’s early requests included a scoreboard and glass basketball backboards for Spurrier Gym and pregame training tables for the women, support that the men had long had.
But powered by their sense of fair play and backed by Title IX, a 1972 federal law, Possee and other pioneering sports administrators have seen remarkable changes when it comes to the equitable distribution of athletic resources at universities since the early 1970s. Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, Title IX, an amendment to federal education law that doesn’t even mention the words “athletics” or “sports,” has become best known for opening doors to athletic opportunities for female students.
Signed in June 1972 by President Richard Nixon, the first section of the landmark legislation reads: “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 educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
Intended to ban sexual discrimination in most federally funded educational programs, the law has transformed women’s athletics, a transformation that can be seen at Rochester. In 2012, the undergraduate enrollment is evenly divided among men and women, Rochester has 12 varsity women’s teams—one more than the number of varsity men’s teams—and the Yellowjackets regularly compete for national titles in NCAA Division III athletics.
George VanderZwaag, the University’s director of athletics and recreation, says Title IX has been a guidepost for much more than decisions about how to field teams or develop athletics programs.
“Obviously we have to meet the letter of the law, but the larger goals of gender equity are much more important than that, and at the end of the day we’re trying to do the right thing by our students,” he says. “What sets us apart from many other institutions in this country is that we’re running an educationally purposeful athletics program, not a commercial entertainment enterprise.”
The changes that resulted from Title IX “clearly allowed our women to grow personally, compete at a very high level, and push themselves to be strong leaders and teammates,” says Possee, who was part of the New York State chapter of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, which at the national level was the equivalent of the NCAA for men. She served in that role until the NCAA took over the AIAW in 1982, when she continued to participate on several championship committees within the NCAA.
By that time, the alumni gym was being used by both genders for practice, and men’s and women’s teams started traveling together to out-of-town games.
The 1980s also brought a tremendous shift in attitude toward women’s athletics, says Terry Gurnett ’77, associate director for advancement for athletics and recreation, who coached women’s soccer from 1977 to 2010.
The players on his early teams had no exposure to female role models in their sport. When the women won the inaugural women’s Division III title in 1986 and came home as champions again in 1987, they earned a level of interest and respect they’d never known before.
“It was a great awakening,” says Gurnett, a former Yellowjacket soccer player himself who finished as the winningest women’s soccer coach in Division III history, and as the third winningest coach in all divisions. As more women pursued athletic opportunities, female and male athletes were quick to realize that “it was OK for women to get out there and sweat and compete.”
Gurnett says that for Rochester, offering ample opportunities for women athletes has been a matter of economics as well. Increasingly, female students won’t consider colleges or universities that have an inadequate number of sports teams to choose from.
While Title IX has brought about historic changes, it has not been without controversy. The legislation has been criticized nationally in some quarters for contributing to a reduction in programs for male athletes as some universities and colleges work to achieve equity. Colleen Doyle ’09W (EdD), a former Rochester women’s lacrosse and field hockey coach who specializes in the study of Title IX as a faculty member at SUNY Brockport, says the law has also had its share of “scary times” when advocates have had to fend off efforts to weaken its provisions or its enforcement.
“I want to make it quite clear that women have had to fight for every right that we have,” Doyle says.
But as VanderZwaag sees it, Title IX has been “a huge success story” and a critical tool in bridging the gender gap in athletics. Even so, he acknowledges the challenge in going beyond the prescription of the law to capture its spirit.
“Frankly, it’s a tough standard to meet because it’s a moving target,” he says. “We’re always going to have to adapt. But if we want to do this well, we can’t get too comfortable.”
Robin L. Flanigan is a Rochester-based freelance writer.