Bulldogs in much better place for 50th anniversary of Title IX than they were for the 25th
UMD held a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Title IX back in May featuring a panel of distinguished female athletes and coaches. During the 25th anniversary of Title IX back in 1997, the Bulldogs were being investigated for gender inequality and a misuse of funds.
Karen Stromme was just 23 years old in 1983 when she began the first of her 21 seasons as the University of Minnesota Duluth women’s basketball coach.
Fresh out of Bethel College, the Duluth Central High School graduate went to Romano Gymnasium to find out when her team was scheduled to practice. She was informed the men went from 2-4:30 p.m. Her women’s team would follow from 4:30-6 p.m.
She was surprised to hear her squad was only allotted an hour and a half compared to the two-and-a-half hour window for the men.
“I remember right from the get-go, even though there were teams, things were different,” Stromme said.
It didn’t take long to get practice times evened out, said Stromme, who went to her superiors at UMD and cited Title IX, the federal law that prohibits gender discrimination by educational institutions that receive federal financial assistance. Signed by President Richard Nixon in 1972, the landmark legislation celebrated its 50th anniversary in June.
In addition to getting equal practice time as the men, Stromme said the men’s team later agreed to alternate preferred practice times.
Tackling something as profoundly big as Title IX and gender inequity in sports can be tough, Stromme said, which is why the longtime Bulldog took the approach of changing the things she could, tackling one inequity at a time.
“The biggest thing that I learned was to pick my battles,” said Stromme, UMD’s senior associate athletic director and senior woman administrator who was part of a Title IX panel hosted by UMD last month ahead of the law’s 50th anniversary. “Let’s just get the practice time changed. Let’s make sure that is something that is going to be the same for the women. Then we concentrated on the things that we could, and we didn’t look over our shoulders at everything that we didn’t have. We started competing and having great practices and great competition and people were starting to notice about women in sports.”
Stromme’s teams at UMD were tough to ignore. Her Bulldogs put together 21 consecutive winning seasons, won 12 Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference titles and won four of a possible five NSIC postseason championships. The winningest coach in UMD basketball history — 440-184 with a .705 win percentage — also took the Bulldogs to eight NCAA tournaments and seven NAIA tournaments.
Stromme has served as a full-time administrator at UMD since 2005 and was scheduled to retire this month, but has delayed that to serve as the interim athletic director — she also held that title in the winter and spring of 2013 — following the departure of Josh Berlo to Denver.
As an administrator, she’s now part of the checks and balances that have been put in place to ensure the Bulldogs athletic department is always Title IX compliant. Stromme said she, Berlo and assistant athletic director Abbey Strong — who oversees NCAA compliance — meet quarterly to review rosters and scholarship dollars to ensure there is gender equity at UMD.
“It’s our responsibility as administrators to keep ourselves apprised,” Stromme said.
UMD learns about Title IX the hard way
Administrators at UMD weren’t always as apprised of Title IX as they are today. In fact, when the law celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1997, the Bulldogs’ athletic department was under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for not complying with Title IX.
Women’s soccer coach Greg Cane, whose program was started in 1994 as an initial attempt to bring UMD into compliance with Title IX, said UMD was a sitting duck during an era when many schools were not in compliance with Title IX.
“These institutions, they weren’t prepared for that at the Division II and III level,” said Cane, whose program lacked a full-size practice field when it first started out. “They had to take a more gradual approach because they didn’t have the funding for it. Had they been committed, had these chancellors been committed from the start and just done it, then you don’t get yourself into that trouble. You don’t get the spotlight put on you. There were a lot of schools who weren’t in compliance, but they’re always looking for examples so that people sit up.”
UMD got on the Department of Education’s radar when it decided to cut the men’s wrestling program, citing financial reasons. A group of wrestling alumni, including All-American Jim Paddock and Tom Lamphere, used public data requests to obtain copies of the UMD athletic department budget. Their hope was to find a way to save the program.
They were unable to save wrestling, but they did uncover financial improprieties by then-athletic director Bruce McLeod, resulting in his resignation. Paddock and Lamphere also discovered UMD was not in compliance with Title IX, and that thousands of dollars from the Minnesota legislature earmarked for women’s athletics were not being spent on women’s athletics.
UMD was one of a number of schools whose athletic department budget was being supplemented by the state to get it in compliance with Title IX, however, female athletes at UMD in the mid-1990s were receiving less than 20 percent of university scholarships and recruiting dollars.
“We saw something that was really innately wrong, and the women were really suffering from it,” said Paddock, who is a retired St. Paul assistant principal that now teaches adapted physical education in Richfield. “They’re never going to bring us back, but we got to hold them accountable for what they did to the women.”
Paddock, who wrestled for the Bulldogs from 1977-82, filed a complaint against UMD with the Office for Civil Rights in 1997. A group of female athletes, led by former soccer player Julie Grandson, also sued UMD for discrimination.
Grandson’s lawsuit was dismissed and the Office for Civil Rights did not take action against UMD — though it would monitor the school through 2000 — but only after the university put forth a plan that tripled financial assistance for women and raised the amount of scholarships for female athletes.
To address discrepancies in staffing, Cane — who was also the tennis coach during those first seasons — had his position of head women’s soccer coach upgraded to full time. A part-time assistant coach was also added to the women’s soccer program. Stromme’s assistant coach was upgraded to full-time, as well.
UMD also announced in September of 1997 it would add an NCAA Division I women’s hockey program, which has gone on to win five NCAA titles and was a win away from a sixth national championship in 2021-22.
“It's hard and it still hurts that the program's gone, but at least some good came out of all the work that we did,” Paddock said.
Describing that era of UMD athletics, Stromme admitted there was some ignorance about Title IX at the time, resulting in a “profound restructuring” of the department. UMD never looked back from there, she said.
“You don’t know you’re doing something wrong until somebody holds you accountable for that,” Stromme said. “We learned the hard way.”
“We learned what Title IX really meant, what equality really entails,” Stromme said. “It was a giant leap where we were held accountable for the law.”
Title IX was life-changing
Lindsey Dietz played four years for Stromme on the UMD women’s basketball team from 2002-06, earning All-American honors three times. She then served as a student assistant coach for two more seasons through 2008 while earning a Master’s degree in mathematics.
Dietz later picked up a Ph.D in statistics and is now an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis. She was part of UMD’s panel back in May that celebrated the 50th anniversary of Title IX, along with other notable UMD female athletes. She shared a story from a recent trip she made to Washington D.C.
“I had half a day to go do some sightseeing. I wanted to go to the archives to see the (U.S.) Constitution,” Dietz said. “I went in and they had Title IX on display, and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m more interested in this, actually, than seeing the Constitution,’ because I think this had a bigger impact overall on where I’ve come from and where I’ve been.”
It was a sentiment that was echoed by each of the panelists, including Stromme, who was in seventh grade when Title IX was signed into law in 1972 by Nixon.
While no one thinks twice these days about parents shuttling their daughters from one sporting event to the next — Dietz described herself as a six-sport athlete whose parents eventually made her whittle it down to three — Stromme said, “that’s not the way that it was for me.”
“I was 6 feet tall in seventh grade and all I wanted to do was being like everyone else. I couldn’t be,” said Stromme. “When it was announced that we were going to have the first ever girls basketball team at Woodland Junior High School, I was beyond excited. I can honestly tell you from that moment forward, it changed my life about who I was and what I could do.”
Stromme said Title IX made women, who were once ridiculed for playing sports, proud to be athletes. And having grown up in the age of Title IX, she said she feels, “a profound sense of responsibility,” to educate people on the way things were and how it impacted people.
She said the expectations of student-athletes — especially women — are exactly where they should be as the law begins its 50th year in the United States. And she’s happy to hear from players when expectations are not being met.
“Keep Title IX in your hearts. Just because it’s here, doesn’t mean it’s going to stay here forever,” Stromme said. “We have to keep doing our work to help people understand what it was, how we got here, why we should be here and what we need to do to ensure that equality in education for gender is going to remain. It’s an important thing.
“It doesn’t happen in a day. It happened in 50 years, but, boy, it’s pretty cool that it did.”
What is Title IX?
It's part of the Higher Education Amendments of 1972, a federal law that prohibits gender discrimination by educational institutions that receive federal financial assistance. The exact text reads:
No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.
Who does Title IX apply to?
All public and private educational institutions — from elementary schools to universities — that receive federal funds. That includes any college whose students receive financial aid from the federal government.
Does Title IX only apply to athletics?
No. The law applies to all aspects of education, including course offerings, financial assistance, housing, other activities, etc.
How do schools stay in compliance with Title IX?
Women and men must be given equal opportunities to participate in sports. The proportion of male-to-female student-athletes should mirror that of the school's student body. Scholarships should also be proportional. Treatment of male and female athletes (in terms of equipment, scheduling, coaching, facilities, recruiting, etc.) should be equal. Title IX does not require schools to offer identical sports.
To learn more, check out the NCAA's Title IX FAQ.