Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Female athletes have Blair to thank

Forty years after Title IX was passed into law, the impact of Blair v. Washington State University cannot be overlooked

Sandy Ringer Seattle Times

Her eyes focus on the sixth-grade girl sprinting around the track, chasing a personal record.

She watches with the pride and enthusiasm of a mother, except this is not her daughter.

They are acquainted, but the identity is not as important as the ideal.

Girls are out there running, faster than ever,and that alone is enough to cause 54-year-old Karen Troianello’s eyes to tear up on occasion.

Yeah, girls!

Troianello is more than a passionate advocate of sports for girls. She is a pioneer who left her name – her maiden name – forever etched in state history. She is the former Karen Blair, the named plaintiff in the landmark Blair v. Washington State University lawsuit in 1979 that forced greater gender equity in college athletics.

Saturday marks the 40th anniversary of Title IX, federal legislation signed into law June 23, 1972, that prohibits sex discrimination in education. But it took the Blair case, years later, to set the wheels of equality in motion.

At Washington State, the University of Washington and other colleges around the country, it meant there would be no more hand-me-down uniforms, no more car caravans to competitions while male athletes rode team buses or planes. Fewer inferior facilities and more full-time coaches. More first-rate opportunities and scholarships instead of second-class treatment.

When Karen Blair arrived on WSU’s campus in the fall of 1976, track and field was one of just five women’s varsity sports, the others still considered club sports. The 10 men’s programs, however, were recognized, funded and promoted, and competed on a national level.

Today, WSU and Washington have more women’s sports than men’s, and the women share state-of-the-art facilities and enjoy other benefits brought by Title IX, including equal money awarded in athletic scholarships.

“We definitely aren’t wearing any hand-me-down uniforms anymore,” said Katie Grad, who will be a senior next season on the WSU women’s basketball team while pursuing a master’s degree.

Nationally, nearly 200,000 women participate in college sports, according to the NCAA. More than 3 million compete in girls high school sports.

For the bespectacled Troianello, a modest 5-foot-4 with salt-and-pepper hair and a dimpled smile, working as a volunteer official at meets in Yakima is repayment to those who served the role at her Bellingham High School meets in the 1970s.

Back then she ran simply for the joy of it, before it became clear she and other female athletes were climbing an uphill battle for equality.

When Title IX passed in 1972, supporters hoped it would mean a world of difference to college women athletes.

“You thought it would, for about 10 minutes,” said Jo Washburn, who was WSU associate director of intercollegiate athletics for women at the time. “Then nothing happened, nothing happened and nothing happened, and excuses were made and so on. You then soon woke up that it was going to be a long, hard fight.”

It was a fight Blair and 38 other female athletes at WSU chose to champion, along with 11 coaches of women’s sports. They alleged they were denied an equal education by WSU because the women’s athletic programs were of lesser quality than the men’s programs, and that they were victims of sex discrimination.

Mary Ellen Hudgins, litigation director of the fledgling Northwest Women’s Law Center in Seattle, was willing to take up their cause. She sued not under Title IX, but the state’s Equal Rights Amendment.

The fight, ultimately, took eight years to win.

At first, Blair was just happy to have the opportunity to run for the WSU track team. Athletic scholarships for women were prohibited by the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, the governing body at the time.

Recruiting? A ridiculous notion.

Once on campus, Blair responded to a flier inviting women to turn out for track and field. The program was overshadowed by the renowned men’s team, which drew top Kenyans like John Ngeno and was coached by John Chaplin. Chaplin seemed to consider the women a nuisance, Blair said, and they tried to stay out of his way.

The women used what she called a “prehistoric” weight room that paled in comparison to the one at her high school.

And the uniforms? Sue Durrant, then women’s basketball coach, laughs at the mention and notes that WSU did not even begin to have official uniforms until the 1970s.

“Uniforms were what they wore for their PE classes,” she said of the early days.

Travel, teaching/coaching loads and salaries were other areas of glaring inequities.

While men’s teams generally were bused or flown to events, the women caravaned in state-owned vans driven by coaches and the athletes themselves. Overnight stays meant three or four women to a room, compared with one or two for the men, and the accommodations were often inferior. The women also received less meal money.

“It is difficult to feel that I am first-rate when it is so clearly demonstrated that I am not considered of much importance by Washington State University, but men doing the same things are very important,” Blair said at the end of her 38-page pretrial interrogatory.

“This kind of treatment has cost me more than money. It has cost me the respect of other students at Washington State University and generally makes it difficult for me to perform as well academically or athletically.”

Seven years after the passage of Title IX, changes had been few and frustrations high. Even though a federally mandated self-study showed clear deficiencies, little happened.

As the inequities became obvious, Blair tiptoed into the lawsuit.

“Are you sure we want to do this?” she’d ask herself, leery of suing a university. “I didn’t go off toWSU thinking, ‘Damn it, I’m going to strike a blow for women’s rights.’ ” She felt a little guilty, in part because she was among the early recipients of scholarship help from WSU her sophomore year.

And in part because she was – and still is – a Cougar, through and through.

“I was proud to wear the crimson and gray, even if it was hand-me-downs,” Blair said.

While Title IX had been challenged, there was more complacency than compliance. Two civil rights complaints by WSU athletes went nowhere. Then the WSU athletes and coaches found the Northwest Women’s Law Center, a Seattle firm just getting off the ground.

Hudgins – a 30-year-old feminist but nonathlete – was hired to handle the case. It was her first major lawsuit.

“It didn’t really matter that it was sports. It could have been something else,” she said. “But it was one of the most glaring examples of where women were still really being discriminated against in the mid-to-late ’70s.”

Hudgins admired the grit of the athletes and especially the coaches, most of whom realized they were damaging their careers.

Durrant, who had given up volleyball several years earlier, stepped down as basketball coach after the trial because “I could see the writing on the wall.”

Washburn didn’t join the suit because she thought she could serve the women’s programs better without going to court, but she was a strong advocate. When the men’s and women’s athletic programs merged after the suit, Washburn lost her position in the department, was relegated to full-time teaching and took a salary reduction.

WSU’s most high-profile female athlete at the time, Jeanne Eggart (now Helfer), didn’t sign on to the suit. It wasn’t an easy choice.

“I’m not saying I made the right decision,” said Helfer, the former girls basketball coach at Mead High. “As I look back now, I don’t know. They made tremendous gains. Without Title IX, without Karen, would the university have been to the point they were? Probably not. Am I grateful for Title IX? Absolutely.”

Hudgins recalls the difficult fight during the trial – staying for 2 1/2 months in an unheated basement in Pullman, renting and borrowing cars to get to the trial in Colfax, 30 miles away, the daily media coverage that often seemed slanted toward the defendants.

After two weeks of deliberation, Judge Philip H. Faris faced a packed courtroom in March 1982 when he made his ruling in a 40-minute statement.

He said discrimination at WSU had continued an “unreasonable length of time” and ordered allocation of equal money for men’s and women’s athletics based on the ratio of female undergraduates to female undergraduate athletes.

It was a win for the women, but only a partial one. Faris excluded football from the figures used to calculate sports participation and scholarships.

Both Blair and Hudgins recall their disappointment, calling it a semi-victory. Over the next 10 months, the judge and lawyers hammered out detailed findings of fact and conclusions of law, signed in January 1983. It set the table for an appeal to the state Supreme Court, primarily on the football issue.

Blair attended the hearing in Olympia and could only shake her head when one of the appellate judges asked if this meant girls wanted to play football.

In April 1986, she received her settlement check from the original lawsuit – a judgment of $271.85 for the inequitable uniforms, meal money and other discriminatory treatment, plus $97.31 in interest. Total: $369.16.

She felt guilty for taking it.

“It was never about the money,” she said.

More than a year later, in August 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that football must be included in WSU’s financial calculations. Blair was working at the Yakima Herald-Republic (a sister paper of The Seattle Times), where she is still employed as the letters editor, when she received a phone message from a fellow plaintiff.

“WE WON!” the message said.

Cut to the present day

The legacy of Title IX is evident at campuses all over the country in the explosion of opportunities for women athletes. At Washington State, during the 2010-11 school year, there were 287 participants in men’s sports, 285 in women’s sports. At Washington, there were 408 men participants, 431 women.

The effect of Title IX on high schools is obvious. Forty years ago, only 7.4 percent of participants in high school sports were girls. In 2010-11, it was 41.4 percent.

In the end, gains for women’s sports were achieved at times by cutting men’s sports. For instance, in 1979, nine Pac-10 members offered wrestling. Today, programs exist in only three Pac-12 schools.

Don’t blame Title IX, Hudgins said.

“I see it as the men’s programs making choices about what they want to serve,” she said, “and if they want to serve football more than wrestling, fine, so be it. But don’t blame it on us. Don’t blame it on women having their fair share of athletic opportunities.”

The women who fought the battle in the Blair case believe there is still further to go.

“Title IX has changed the landscape in many ways,” said Durrant, who retired from teaching in 2005 and lives in Pullman. “I think women in general feel like they have more opportunity to make choices from a bigger selection. … But there are a lot of glass ceilings and there’s still discrimination. Everything hasn’t been solved.”

Still, Troianello sees the daughters of friends competing in a variety of sports. She sees sixth grade Erica racing around the track, a vision so few witnessed 40 years ago.

She hopes in another 40 years it will be today’s young female athletes giving back.

“When they are out in the world, it will be their job to help out so others can have the same empowering experience they did,” Troianello said.