MADISON — For all the sunny days that the University of Wisconsin athletic department experienced in the 1990s — and there were many — it all happened with a dark cloud hovering overhead.
The U.S. Office of Civil Rights, following up on a complaint filed in 1989, had determined that UW was in violation of the Title IX law that requires students of both genders be provided nondiscriminatory participation opportunities, including in intercollegiate athletics.
But a gender equity committee determined there still was plenty of work to be done even before the OCR got involved.
“No one has been harmed, according to the complaint,” then-athletic director Ade Sponberg told reporters in July 1989. “The fact is there is inequity as determined by our study and the complainant is concerned that the follow-up action is carried out.”
Sponberg promised swift action — “Our board has this in place and will get a letter of compliance from the OCR,” he said — but he’d only be on the job a few more months after being forced to resign as the head of a struggling department. The Title IX complaint and a budget deficit of around $2 million were waiting for his replacement, Pat Richter.
Richter had to make some tough decisions, not the least of which was finding the right person to resurrect a moribund football program that was one of the main causes of that bleak financial picture. Richter got it right by hiring Barry Alvarez, who guided the Badgers to a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl victory in only his fourth season.
Achieving Title IX compliance took much longer to complete. In fact, more than a decade passed before that item finally was crossed off UW’s to-do list.
That process, while long, helped shape the current look of the athletic department by eliminating a massive gender disparity among its athletes.
The three prongs
One of Cheryl Bailey’s first moves when Title IX opened opportunities for women was to join the boys track and field team at her high school in western New York.
Bailey (formerly Marra) later pursued a career in athletics administration and landed in Madison in 1990 from Denison University. There was a bit of a culture shock after making the jump from the Division III program in Ohio to a Big Ten program, not to mention the fact that Bailey had big shoes to fill at UW after replacing the retired Kit Saunders-Nordeen.
“She was the person that laid the groundwork at (UW) in the style that only Kit could,” Bailey said. “She was a gentle person and she loved women’s sports. But who could ever be mad at Kit? She just had a way about her and a passion.
“So she really laid the groundwork for all of us and then Paula (Bonner) came after. And we had a very good respect on the campus and working with the Athletic Board because of them. So it was a gradual process of trying to continue to improve the opportunities for women in Madison and nobody really got after us because of the intent of what we were trying to do.”
Bailey, who’s now retired and living in North Carolina, spent much of her first year in Madison studying the Title IX complaint and trying to come up with solutions.
Complicating matters was the dire financial situation that led to UW cutting five sports — baseball, men’s and women’s gymnastics, and men’s and women’s fencing — in 1991.
That controversial decision achieved its mission by saving a lot of money, but it also improved UW’s equity numbers because baseball didn’t have a corresponding women’s sport. In fact, at a time when it was under the microscope of the OCR and in danger of losing federal funding, UW actually had the best ratio of female to male athletes in the Big Ten: According to conference figures from the 1991-92 school year, 35% of UW athletes were female.
But that wasn’t even close to where it needed to be in the eyes of the OCR.
Richter, Bailey and others at UW complained, to no avail, about the school being at a competitive disadvantage among its Big Ten brethren. Indeed, the OCR only steps in when a complaint is filed and doesn’t monitor to see if all schools are in compliance with Title IX.
There were three ways to make that happen:
1. By having participation opportunities for men and women in numbers substantially proportionate to their respective enrollments at the school.
2. By showing a history and continuing practice of sports program expansion for women.
3. By showing that the interests and abilities of women are fully and effectively accommodated in the present program.
While UW only had to satisfy one of those three prongs, that was easier said than done.
UW-Madison emeritus political science and public affairs professor Dennis Dresang was appointed to the UW Athletic Board in 1992 and assigned two important tasks: One was to be the chair of the planning and equity committee and take the lead on the Title IX compliance issue and the other was to lead a certification review assigned by the NCAA that examined academic and financial integrity, commitment to rules compliance and commitment to gender equity.
Those two jobs worked hand in hand because Dresang got a broad overview of the organization and also got in depth with specific aspects, including Title IX compliance. Dresang examined everything from locker room facilities to travel budgets to the types of competitions various teams participate in and he not surprisingly found gaps.
Some of the issues were quick fixes and others, driven by participation numbers, were not. But UW eventually came to the conclusion that fixing that participation discrepancy was its best option to satisfy the OCR because the other two prongs would be impossible to accomplish.
The second prong — showing a history and continuing practice of program expansion for women — was denied by the OCR because UW had cut women’s gymnastics and fencing in 1991. The OCR ruled at one point that UW should reinstate those sports, but the school countered that it wasn’t financially feasible.
Satisfying the third prong included myriad challenges, not the least of which was proving the “interests and abilities of women are fully and effectively accommodated” on a campus as large as UW. Surveys were sent to the general student population and the list of interests and abilities naturally was long.
That left the “substantially proportionate” participation prong that meant UW had to get the ratio of female to male athletes to somewhere close to 50% on a campus that essentially was split evenly between men and women.
Cutting men’s sports was on the table — wrestling was discussed heavily — but Bailey and others made it clear they didn’t want to pursue that option. Adding women’s sports was a must, but the financial picture had to be considered.
UW instituted a roster management plan that cut roster spots on men’s teams and placed minimum roster totals for women’s teams, a move that was met with some resistance.
“It was pretty acrimonious at the time,” said Barbara Wolfe, a UW-Madison professor in the department of economics who served on the Athletic Board. “It wasn’t that at the university there were a lot of people who were that concerned. But those who were concerned had very strong views.”
Bailey at one point gathered all the UW coaches in a room and split them into three groups to come up with ideas on how to achieve proportionality among men and women participation numbers. Some proposed cutting teams, but never their own; others proposed adding more sports, apparently oblivious to the fact that expansion would cut into their own budgets.
It eventually hit home with the coaches how difficult a task this was for UW administrators. Even the No. 1 revenue producer, Alvarez’s football program, had to adjust: In 1995, the Badgers’ roster was cut from 120 to 105, a significant reduction to the walk-on population.
“I can’t say enough about her and how she managed to get it all done,” longtime UW athletics administrator Vince Sweeney said about Bailey. “For me, it felt like Cheryl was clearly a strong and passionate leader of women’s athletics. But her approach was to do it within the context of building a better athletic department and creating more opportunities for women, and she was not about taking opportunities away from others, in this case men. I think she did such a great job of advancing women’s athletics without tearing anything else down, and I don’t think she ever got enough credit for that.”
Expansion, but which sports?
Just because adding more women’s sports teams was a no-brainer move for a department in need of boosting participation numbers for that gender doesn’t mean coming up with the right fits was easy.
The sales jobs began once news broke that women’s teams were going to be added. Dresang said he was asked to lunch by six women who wanted to start a women’s wrestling program.
“You didn’t want to add a sport and then have it not have the kind of interest and not really satisfy what you were trying to achieve, which was to create more opportunities for young women in terms of participating in competitive athletics,” Wolfe said.
Softball was a natural fit and had been talked about for years, even before baseball was dropped, and UW announced it was adding it in 1994. The Athletic Board also approved the addition of lacrosse at the time, but that plan changed when a handful of Big Ten teams dropped plans to add women’s lacrosse programs, meaning UW would have had to play a schedule dominated by East Coast programs.
The women’s rowing program was expanded to 170 participants with the addition of a 75-member lightweight team that won five national titles in the lightweight eight in the 2000s and five more in the lightweight four in the 2010s. Women’s hockey debuted in 1999 — that program has won six national titles — and gave UW more women’s teams (12) than men’s teams (11) among its 23 sports.
Increased opportunities and equality were showing up in other ways as well.
Bailey worked hard to improve the salaries of women’s coaches and also took over administration for some men’s programs, a rarity back in the 1990s. When UW hosted the NCAA Division I volleyball Final Four for the first time in 1993, longtime women’s sports information director Tam Flarup remembers surveying the room with a big smile on her face.
“It was the first time I was ever in a room and it was all women,” Flarup said. “And I don’t think it was because it was a women’s championship. I think it’s because we had made enough advancement and that women were in positions like that to be at the table. And we all just let out a big sigh and recognized the importance of that moment.”
It was a typical November for the UW athletic department in 2001: Namely, busy.
Bo Ryan made his debut as Badgers men’s basketball coach on Nov. 17 and the women’s program, led by Jane Albright, was in the early stages of a 16-1 start to the season.
Three days after Alvarez and UW closed the regular season with a 42-31 loss at Minnesota to cap a 5-7 season, the football program’s only losing campaign in the last 26 seasons, better news arrived:
On Nov. 27, UW announced it had achieved Title IX compliance in the eyes of the OCR, some 12 years and four months after Sponberg had shared the news that the school was under investigation.
According to documents submitted by UW for the 2000-01 academic year, women made up 52.44% of the student-athlete population and the UW undergraduate enrollment included 53.29%. Those numbers were enough to satisfy the OCR’s first prong.
When that dark cloud finally lifted, there was acknowledgment of the news but no big celebration. More than two decades after the fact, some of the parties most involved in the pursuit of Title IX compliance remember little about that announcement.
“It had taken so long that it was almost like, ‘Is it over? Yeah, it’s over,'” Richter said. “It wasn’t anything to celebrate because it had taken so long and things that happened had happened in very small increments to get the monkey off the back.”
Another big reason the champagne didn’t come out that day in November 2001 was that the job wasn’t over. UW didn’t want to fall out of compliance with Title IX, so roster management continued and officials continued keeping a close eye on participation numbers.
“Wisconsin has done it right, even with a little nudging from OCR,” Bailey said. “We should all feel proud.”
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