Young runner went the distance for fairness
Karen (Blair) Troianello loved running, but wound up facing questions such as, Why do you want to kill men's athletics? She reflects on her experiences in the long battle for gender equality in college sports.
Special to The Seattle Times
YAKIMA — Forty years ago this weekend, I was sobbing in the restroom of a Vancouver, B.C., stadium. I was 14 and had just run my first 200-meter race, wearing borrowed spikes 2 sizes too small. I finished 13th out of 13, and not even the fact a Canadian junior champion had been in my heat gave me comfort. My pride — and my feet — hurt, and I wasn't sure I would ever come out of that stall.
But my coach found me and said — nicely — pull yourself together. Then she added, "Races like that build backbone."
So I wiped my tears away, limped out of that bathroom and got on with my life.
What does that have to do with Title IX, the landmark legislation outlawing sex discrimination in schools receiving federal funds? Nothing — and everything. Had I given up on track that day, my life would have taken a far different path. But I loved to run, and that eventually took me to Washington State University and to the pages of history as the named plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit over equity in athletics. While the lawsuit was based on the state's Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), also passed in 1972, it had its roots in Title IX.
Forty years ago, Title IX wasn't on my radar. I knew women were fighting for equal rights and against stereotypes, but I credit the Bellingham School District for providing enough opportunities so I didn't feel deprived. Oh sure, in middle school, home-ec was mandatory for girls (I protested by cross-stitching "Women's Lib?" on my gingham apron), but after school there were plenty of sports for both sexes. In high school, I never lacked for teachers pushing me toward challenging courses, and coach Leslie Stockton made sure I was in top condition. Thanks to her, I qualified for the state meet four years in a row. On the homefront, my parents expected all their children, boys and girls, to work hard in school, aim for college and prepare to earn a living.
Four years after Title IX passed, I graduated from Bellingham High School and headed off to WSU, where I planned to study journalism and hoped to make the track team. I did both. I ran well enough that a Spokane sports reporter dubbed me "a gutsy freshman runner" and coach Dot Dobie offered me one of the few WSU scholarships for women athletes, worth one semester's tuition and fees. I was humbled, excited and determined to work hard. I knew a college education and the chance to continue running was a privilege not afforded everyone.
Several women had begun to push for equity between the men's and women's athletic departments. Their early efforts to persuade university officials to close the funding gap had focused on Title IX, but no federal or university official was willing to say Title IX's umbrella covered athletics. Through their efforts, more of us got involved, and even as we got more serious about promoting sex equity in WSU athletics, we grew more frustrated with Title IX, which was mired in political haggling. The Northwest Women's Law Center eventually shelved the Title IX arguments and concentrated on the state's ERA.
I didn't always feel gutsy about the lawsuit. But I believed the university could and should do a better job of supporting women's athletics. So despite my trepidation, despite the fact not everyone involved in women's sports wanted to sue the university, we kept at what was a long, hard, uncomfortable process. We raised money, sat through depositions, argued with the university president and answered questions like: Why do you want to kill men's athletics? (For the record, I never wanted to kill men's athletics; I just wanted women to have the same chances.)
I was at my fourth newspaper job before the final verdict came from the state Supreme Court. We won, mostly. WSU sent me a check for just more than $300. I sent two-thirds of it back to the women's track program and went on with my life.
I've always hoped our lawsuit improved conditions for WSU's women athletes, and I think it did. I've seen the huge new training facility open to men and women. It's a far cry from the lone Universal weight machine we used my freshman year. I've peeked into the locker rooms. They're much nicer than the ones we shared with the phys-ed department. And the athletes? They are much faster than I was, and that's great.
A sixth-grade teacher in Yakima always includes a lesson on Title IX. Her students can hardly imagine a time girls couldn't be athletes and were discouraged from certain career paths. Hooray!
A former WSU teammate who coaches in Utah says this generation of girls is generally much more confident than we were. She wrote: "One thing that is nice about coaching cross country and track now is the boys and girls can do their workouts as one. It is a nice mesh of abilities, the top girls easily outrunning some of the boys. It's good for everyone. They learn some valuable lessons that way!" Hooray!
My son, a college sophomore, says he doesn't really think about my lawsuit or Title IX because he grew up in an era of equal (or at least closer to equal) opportunity. In 2010, I watched his Eisenhower High School team, boys and girls alike, win state cross-country championships. Hip, hip, hooray!
If you want to know how Title IX affects you personally, talk to your mom, your grandmother, aunts, neighbors and your daughters. I bet they have some stories to tell. Did your mom play half-court basketball because someone thought girls were too delicate to run full court? Did your neighbor get shunted into secretarial courses when she really wanted to study chemistry? What does your daughter hope to do? Play baseball? Paint? Become a surgeon? I just hope she knows she has choices — because a lot of people worked really hard for her.
Karen Troianello is letters editor at the Yakima Herald-Republic.