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University extending opportunities
for women student-athletes
September 14, 1998

When Jennifer Schiavone graduated from Somers High School, she thought her lacrosse career was over. Although she had played interscholastic sports for her school, the availability of playing intercollegiate lacrosse wasn't a factor in her choice of college.

Still, when she discovered that she could play lacrosse as a club sport at UConn during her freshman year, she was happy to join in.

The next year, in 1996, lacrosse was upgraded to a varsity sport, and Schiavone seized the chance to play for the University as one of the inaugural members of the Division I lacrosse team. It was an opportunity that has not only changed her life at UConn but also shaped her career plans.

It's a tough balancing act to take classes and hold a job at the same time, says Schiavone, who will enter her senior year in the fall, but it's worth it. "It was amazing playing for the first season of the program. You think, 'this is it, you're starting it,'" she says. "It's a privilege to be playing for the University."

Women's lacrosse is just one of the new opportunities opening up for female student-athletes, as the University takes concerted action toward fully implementing the federal legislation known as Title IX.

"We've had a very sound women's athletic program here for a long time," says Jeff Hathaway, senior associate director of athletics. The successes of UConn women's athletics include a field hockey team that won the national championship in 1981 and 1985, a soccer team that has been one of only two along with North Carolina to participate in every NCAA tournament since women's soccer became an NCAA sport, and the highly successful women's basketball team.

Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender in educational institutions, in areas including admissions, financial aid, and employment, was passed as part of the Education Amendments of 1972. Renewed emphasis on the legislation particularly on gender equity in athletics came in the early 1990s, with the 20th anniversary of its passage.

In addition, says Irene Quong Conlon, director of the University's Office of Diversity and Equity, increasing numbers of young women who have played competitive sports at the elementary and secondary levels are now entering college and expecting similar opportunities at the postsecondary level.

Hathaway says the University has approached Title IX by "developing a philosophy that when we make decisions, we make them with the thought process that we're trying to develop equitable opportunitie s for all our student athletes."

From the start, the University decided to expand the athletics program by increasing the participation of female student-athletes, and not to cut back on men's athletics, a pitfall that has caused a furor at some other colleges. "We were really committed to not having one group of student-athletes benefit at the expense of another group of student-athletes," says Hathaway.

A five-year plan prepared by consultant Lamar Daniel, who previously worked with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, identified three women's sports in which interest was high and the University had a base on which to build. Lacrosse was launched first, in 1996, and crew in 1997. A third sport, possibly ice hockey, may begin in the year 2000.

Both lacrosse and crew now have a full-time head coach and an assistant coach (full-time for lacrosse, part-time for crew), opening up additional leadership opportunities for women. The athletics division also has a female strength coach unusual in intercollegiate sports.

Although all the lacrosse club players were given the opportunity to play varsity, "we had to make the decision if we were willing to make the sacrifice," says Schiavone, a goalkeeper for the women's lacrosse team. "It was a big change going from playing club to Division I."

Playing varsity means practicing up to three hours a day, six days a week, as well as an hour of strength conditioning three times a week, she says. What's more, "It is not an option not to go to practice," adds Joy Mammen, '98, who was women's lacrosse captain at both club and varsity levels.

There were also some tradeoffs for the new team. Unlike the club members, the varsity players no longer have to schedule their own games, work with the grounds crew to get their field lined, or raise money to buy uniforms and pay referees.

The team's first Division I victory, an overtime win against Manhattan College in 1997, was "one of my proudest moments at UConn," says Schiavone.

The team's rising success and other developments in women's sports are a source of pride for the University, too.

"The first set of uniforms, the first win in lacrosse, the first boats with each one of these victories, we all shared the excitement in the student athletes' eyes," says Hathaway.

Although the new sports are the most visible, there have been other moves toward equity for female athletes. For example, the University has added 57 athletic scholarships for women since 1990, in sports including softball, swimming, track and volleyball, to bring the numbers up to the NCAA maximum levels.

And the locker room facilities in Gampel Pavilion and the newly renovated Guyer Field House are now of a uniformly high standard, irrespective of gender.

In addition, greater attention has been paid to issues that particularly affect female athletes. Jeffrey Anderson, sports physician with the Division of Athletics, has developed a women's athletic performance team comprised of student peer counselors, to promote health and fitness and combat such ailments as eating disorders and osteoporosis that beset some elite women athletes.

Quong Conlon says the increased focus on women's athletics has had a positive effect on the University that goes beyond athletics, because it has focused greater attention on gender equity. "Title IX is an institutional issue," she says, "It's not just about athletics."

For Schiavone, too, playing varsity sports has had a far-reaching impact. She says the hectic schedule has helped hone her time management skills and her grades have improved.

The opportunities have also given her new goals for her future. A communications major, Schiavone is now considering a career in sports management.

Elizabeth Omara-Otunn.