It was a sweltering summer day in 1972, when Dr. Wincie Ann Carruth, Kittie Blakemore and Martha Thorn first stepped into WVU Director of Athletics Leland Byrd’s office armed with a plan. They wanted to start a women’s sports program. And they had the expertise to do it.
Blakemore and Thorn were instructors in the School of Physical Education. Carruth was chair for women’s physical education at WVU. In 1969, Blakemore and Carruth co-wrote the women’s portion of the constitution for the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WVIAC). The three had mountains of data on other women’s sports programs at colleges across the country and had coaches lined up (Thorn would take tennis; Blakemore basketball and neither would require an increase in salary at first).
These women had a strategy for how to phase in each sport based on student interest — starting with tennis. And they had a massive, new federal law, called Title IX(the federal civil rights law in the United States that was enacted as part of the Education Amendments of 1972), to back them up. It was Byrd’s first week on the job. Before his death in 2022, Byrd recalled saying to the three women who stepped into his office that day: “We can start this, but it’s going to have to be on a shoestring. I don’t know where I’ll find the money, but you’ve got $5,000 for the first year (approximately $35,000 in today’s dollars).”
The launch of a women’s sports program at WVU was just the tip of the iceberg.It was a little moment of victory. But it signaled a big change. Efforts at creating a more inclusive, equitable University environment had their roots much further back, even to the 1889 decision to allow the first women to attend WVU. But with Title IX came a force for change at WVU that has grown into not only a robust athletics program, but also a push for reform in everything from working environment to the ways in which the University handles sexual violence, harassment and discrimination. Over the past 50 years, Title IX has shaped careers. Opened doors. And improved lives.
[Izzo-Brown, soccer, “firsts” for women on campus if possible:
Title IX’s text is largely focused on money rather than any specific acts of discrimination. In a nutshell, any public educational institution that is found to be in violation of Title IX can face fines and lose state and federal funding. Providing more equitable access to all the benefits of education (for all genders) has been the outcome, but the avenues through which that occurs have been multifaceted.
“You won't find, in those 37 words of the amendment, the word ‘sports’ at all,” said James Goins Jr., WVU director of equity assurance and Title IX coordinator. “People do think about it in sports because of how much impact it has had. But we have also seen great strides in people just getting equal access to education and employment opportunities.”
One example? Nikki Izzo-Brown, one of WVU’s most decorated coaches and the only coach in Mountaineer women’s soccer history. She built the WVU women’s soccer program from the foundations, turning it into one of the nation’s elite teams. Today, she talks about Title IX as a force working behind the scenes to open doors for her personally and professionally.
“First and foremost, Title IX has given us the funding and the opportunity to compete at a high level,” she said. “I remember these little big moments in my career where it stood out to me. I was playing college soccer in the 90s at Rochester.” At that time, women’s soccer was just ramping up in higher education. Institutions were starting their own teams, expanding them and, finally, giving them the funding they needed to attract real talent and real audiences. “We were playing Cornell, Buffalo — all these Division I teams. And we didn’t even realize it! We were just happy that we could play anybody.”
At the start of her soccer career, Izzo-Brown remembers having to wear a men’s kit (the standard equipment and attire worn by players) to play in. It was uncomfortable;hardly professional looking, but she had no other options. “This was a shirt with sleeves down to my knuckles,” she laughs. But now? Women’s soccer has gained so much popularity (in 2015, the Women’s World Cup final was the most watched soccer game in U.S. history), big brands like Nike are jumping at the chance to outfit players. “Title IX has given us money to create a high level and a high experience for young women who want to play college soccer.”
And when the rare chance to launch her own soccer program at WVU came up after college, she knew it was an opportunity both to turn soccer into her own fulfilling(and record-breaking) career and launch the careers of countless other women. “I look at myself as a life coach. One of our players just signed in Sweden, she's Champions League now. We have 31 professional soccer players” But she really judges her success by the milestones she has helped all her players achieve. Sports and access to equal education have opened countless opportunities for women to advance. “For me to be a part of that journey and for me to be a part of making their dreams come true, that's why I do what I do. Without Title IX, women wouldn’t have been given the same opportunities to sit at the table.”
Convictions Over Consequences
[DEI/Title IX events; It’s on Us;
The other side of Title IX’s influence on education has been just as far-reaching, albeit more contentious. “The biggest impact I think we have seen is the need to address other forms discrimination — other barriers — which include sexual harassment, sexual assault, stalking … behaviors that are getting in the way of people coming to an institution and doing what they can to do to get an education or to work in an environment free of discrimination,” Goins said. “Title IX put mechanisms in place to stop that type of behavior, prevent it and hold people accountable.” Goins added the push to address discrimination and sexual violence really ramped up after the release of what many refer to as the Obama administration’s 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter — new policy guidance sent to over 7,000 U.S. colleges receiving federal funding. The letter set in place new legal obligations on the practices institutions must use to judge cases of sexual misconduct and put the force of the White House behind it.
Although this letter was rescinded in 2017 under the Trump administration, it opened up a much bigger conversation (and new research) about campus safety and equity that resounds to this day. Some 13% of college students reported nonconsentual sexual contact, according to a 2019 Association of American Universities survey.
As a whole, the impact of Title IX legislation and all its nuances can be felt in cultural shifts like the #MeToo and #ImWithHer movements. Institutions across the country have opened or expanded Title IX offices and developed more robust reporting and adjudication processes for instances of sexual violence and discrimination, including at WVU. The 2011 “Dear Colleague” Letter influenced even the course of Goins’ career, as he was named the University’s first official Title IX Coordinator in 2012. Since then, various initiatives at WVU, from “Green Dot” to “It’s On Us,” have helped to deepen the discussion and raise awareness on campus.
Meshea L. Poore, WVU vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion said we’ve come a long way, but these steps are only part of a much bigger climb. “We should celebrate those who have paved the way and remember their struggles and sacrifices. While this struggle persists to this day, we must continue the fight to create equity for all, and it will take all of us working together to take this progress even further,” she said. “After all, progress only happens when good people choose their convictions over consequences.”