THE phrase "level playing field" has taken on new meaning for female athletes at Colgate University. A federal judge ruled this week that because the school supports a men's varsity hockey team, it must also give women an equal opportunity to play ice hockey at the varsity level. Until now, the team has had only club status.
The decision, the first federal ruling on a women's intercollegiate sport, sends a strong message to college athletic directors everywhere: Ignore women athletes at your peril.
Twenty years ago, Title IX of the federal Education Amendments decreed that any school receiving federal aid must provide "equal athletic opportunity for members of both sexes." Even so, women's sports continue to struggle with two problems. First, there is the hurdle of outdated attitudes holding that men are athletes and women are cheerleaders. The second obstacle involves money.
Opponents of gender equity argue that it makes no sense to cut back on highly lucrative men's football and basketball teams, for instance, simply to pay for women's sports. Yet the judge in the Colgate decision is not demanding that men's and women's teams receive equal funding. The university's only obligation, he said, is to provide "equivalent benefits and opportunities," so that Colgate no longer treats female hockey players as "chimney sweeps" and male players as "princes."
The ultimate argument is that women deserve an equal opportunity to develop their skills, whether the arena for competition is an office or an ice hockey rink. And those laggards who ask, "What's a woman doing playing hockey, anyway?" haven't been keeping up with the news. This fall, a 20-year-old from Quebec named Manon Rheaume became the first woman to try out for a National Hockey League team. She compiled the second-best record among Tampa Bay Lightning goalies at training camp and won a contract. "I
have no illusions about playing in the NHL," Ms. Rheaume told interviewers. "All I want is to learn. That's why I'm here. I just want to find out what I can do."
She might have been speaking for the Colgate women hockey players and for a lot of other women too, on and off the ice.