Field hockey is one of the women's sports at Brown University. In 1992, the school's female athletes sued for better Title IX compliance. (Mike Cohea/Brown University)

Field hockey is one of the women’s sports at Brown University. In 1992, the school’s female athletes sued for better Title IX compliance. (Mike Cohea/Brown University)

On a recent morning in a cafe, in Providence, R.I., Margaret “Digit” Murphy — for 22 years, the head coach of the women’s ice hockey team at Brown University — reflected on the lawsuit several of Brown’s female athletes brought against the university in 1992 for failing to comply with Title IX.

That action came about a year after the university had downgraded the status of two women’s teams and two men’s teams. The charge was that cutting funding for women’s gymnastics and volleyball demonstrated a failure to provide female athletes with opportunities proportionate to their numbers at Brown, where women slightly outnumbered men.

Among those caught by surprise by the lawsuit, and by the contention that female athletes had been shortchanged at Brown, was Mike Goldberger, a veteran of 38 years in the university’s administration, the last seven of them as athletic director.

It was hell going through a Title IX battle in the ’90s… It really was a men vs. women issue that really didn’t have to be that way.
– Margaret 'Digit' Murphy, Former Brown women's ice hockey coach

“We always felt at Brown that we had done a great job in terms of providing opportunities for women in college athletics,” Goldberger said. “Because I think at the time, we had offered more varsity opportunities than any other college in the country for women.”

Various judges failed to find that argument convincing. In 1993, the first district court of appeals ruled that Brown had failed to meet any of the three provisions that would have demonstrated compliance with Title IX. Four years and lots of arguments later, the Supreme Court denied Brown’s appeal, after which the university finally settled. In the negotiations that followed, Beverly Ledbetter represented Brown.

“That all-night session is still locked in my memory,” Ledbetter said. “I was far more awake than my colleague on the other side.”

As Ledbetter put it, 15 years ago Brown agreed “to strive to make the number of opportunities for women in the athletic enterprise equal to their ratio in the student population.”

According to Lynette Labinger, who represented the students suing Brown, that’s what the university has been doing — or trying to do — ever since. “The case technically is still alive,” Labinger said. “Every year we get reports, usually some time around August.”

According to Labinger, within the last few years, Brown failed to “stay within the limits of the permitted variance,” thus inspiring the attorney to suggest some adjustments. Recently, Brown’s administration has revisited the possibility of cutting women’s teams for budgetary reasons, but so far they haven’t done it.

Goldberger, who will be retiring shortly as Brown’s athletic director, has been involved in the annual reporting of Brown’s numbers. He did not feel that the lawsuit and the consequent requirements had necessarily stigmatized anybody at the university.

“I’m sort of shocked that people don’t think much about it at all, and I sort of lived through it,” Goldberger said. “I was in the Admissions Office at the time, and sort of saw us as the seminal case in Title IX in the country, and was surprised at how little people thought of Brown and the Title IX case outside of the university.”

Murphy, who won multiple championships and helped develop seven Olympians while she was at Brown, still thinks about what the Title IX suit meant to her and to her former colleagues. “It was hell going through a Title IX battle in the ’90s,” Murphy said. “You could actually sense the tension in the air at staff meetings. You knew who was on one side of the issue and who was on the other side of the issue. It really was a men vs. women issue that really didn’t have to be that way. And it was hard. I remember in 1994 being seven months pregnant, and being on the stand, testifying against my employer. I mean, that was pretty hairy.”

For Murphy, the court case and the fight it occasioned continue to be defining events. “Taking the stand comes with a price,” she said. “You know, and you label yourself. I think a lot of the other women that did take the stand and had the courage to do that as coaches and athletes were leaders, but you get labeled.”

The labeling may have been inevitable, but at least according to some of those involved, the court fight was unnecessary. Arlene Gorton, now retired, was an associate athletic director at Brown during the ’90s.

“Are women’s sports better off because of the Title IX case?” Gorton asked. “And because of the Brown case? I don’t think there’s any question about it. But the money could have gone into the programs, and it confounds me why it didn’t go into the programs to bring equity, rather than fighting the case.”

In Gorton’s view, the colleges that run afoul of Title IX and the people who’ve argued against the law’s implementation missed a basic point.”My feeling is, you think of a family,” she said. “A family doesn’t support some of their children better than the other children. They share the money, and this is what I wish the colleges were doing. But it’s not the way it’s going. There are priority sports, and the priority means how much media attention does it get?”

Digit Murphy during her days at Brown University.  (Courtesy Photo)

Digit Murphy during her days at Brown University. (Courtesy Photo)

Gorton remembered that when she was at Brown, if the football team had lost, alumni would drop by the office to complain about what a lousy weekend it had been. They wouldn’t have noticed that all the women’s teams playing that weekend had won.  She doesn’t think that has changed at Brown or anywhere else. Which is not to say that nothing has changed.

Carolyn Norris, a former coach currently occupying a position similar to the one Gorton held in the athletic department, told me that her coaching colleagues at Stanford, Duke, U.N.C. and like institutions had all seen conditions improve, though she doesn’t think the work is finished.

Ironically, those improved conditions have made the work of people like Murphy’s successor, Amy Bourbeau, more difficult. As an Ivy League school, Brown doesn’t offer athletic scholarships. Schools that didn’t have women’s ice hockey teams 20 years ago do. “A lot of them have 18 full scholarships to give,” Bourbeau said. “So it makes it such a challenge for us to get good qualified players to come to Brown, because they might have 20-30 other opportunities. I love watching that happen, but as a coach at Brown, I cringe.”

A couple of years ago, Bourbeau’s predecessor took on a different challenge: Murphy walked into Goldberger’s office and told him she wanted to apply for a position that had become vacant: head coach of the men’s hockey team. Initially, she was not encouraged, and though the football coach, among others, told her she’d nailed the interview, she didn’t get the job. If she had, wouldn’t that have said something about opportunities for women involved in sports at Brown 20 years after that Title IX lawsuit was filed?