Obama Administration Tells Small Catholic College: Start a Women's Ice Hockey Team

Susan Jones | October 3, 2012 | 10:01am EDT
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Merrimack College has a Division I men's hockey team, and to settle a federal gender discrimination complaint, it has agreed to create a women's hockey team that eventually will compete at the Division I level. (Photo from Merrimack College website)

(CNSNews.com) – Women who want to play intercollegiate ice hockey probably wouldn’t apply to Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., because the small Catholic school doesn’t have an ice hockey team for women.

But that’s about to change.

Following a federal civil rights investigation, Merrimack has agreed to create three new female athletic teams, including a women's hockey team that eventually will play at the Division I level – just as the Merrimack men’s hockey team does.

As a first step, the school said it needs to find out "if there is sufficient interest and ability” among current students to launch a club hockey team for women – the first step on the path to a Division I women’s team.

The school, which only has about 1,900 students, has agreed to start recruiting female hockey players next year.

The addition of a Division I women's hockey team follows an investigation by the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights, which found Merrimack to be in violation of Title IX -- a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in programs and activities that receive taxpayer money from the U.S. Education Department.

Federal civil rights investigators noted that Merrimack College is located in a region where hockey is popular among both men and women. In fact, in its report, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) said there are more than 80 public and private girls' high school hockey teams in Massachusetts alone, including in the cities and towns surrounding Merrimack.

"The College is aberrational in this region of the nation insofar as it has a Division I Men's hockey team but no women's hockey team," the report said. “Accordingly, OCR determined -- and the college agreed -- that there was sufficient interest and ability of female hockey players in the college's normal geographic competitive and recruiting areas to support a team."

Merrimack College said it will immediately begin a search for a women's hockey coach, who will have a starting annual salary of $60,000-80,000, including a monthly car allowance and performance incentives.

The school said the female hockey players’ locker room and accompanying lounge "will be the same quality and size" as the men's facilities. And all pre-season promotional materials and expenditures will be equal to that of the men's hockey program.

Aside from the new hockey team, the college agreed to create and fund a new women's swim and dive team and a new women's water polo team. And it agreed to expand and grow three other women's teams -- track and field, crew, and golf.

The new and expanded teams will add sports-participation opportunities for more than 80 female students.

'Reminds us how critical Title IX remains'

During its investigation, the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights found that Merrimack discriminated against female students in two ways – first, by denying them equal opportunity to participate in its intercollegiate athletic program; and second by awarding women fewer athletic scholarships than it gives to men.

In the 2009-10 school year, Merrimack had a student body of 1,917--with 997 (or 52 percent) being men and 920 (or 48 percent) being women. Of the 1,917 students, 393 played intercollegiate sports. These included 251 male athletes and 142 female. That meant 63.9 percent of Merrimack's intercollegiate athletes were men and 36.1 percent were female.

"This represented a significant disparity of 12.6 percent between women enrolled at the college and women participating in intercollegiate sports," the Office of Civil Rights concluded. "To achieve proportionality in opportunities without decreasing opportunities for male students, the college would have to create 87 new participation opportunities for female athletes."

The college agreed to do so.

In January 2011--after OCR began its review--Merrimack announced that it was adding a women's golf team and a crew team, but those additions were "not significant enough to bring the college into Title IX compliance,” investigators said.

OCR also faulted the college for not periodically assessing its student body to determine their athletic interests and abilities.

“I appreciate Merrimack College’s efforts to work cooperatively and proactively with OCR to address the practices uncovered by our investigation that disadvantage women athletes,” said Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali in an Oct. 1 announcement.

“As a result, the college now has a plan to provide equity in athletic opportunities and the athletic financial assistance necessary to support its athletes. In this year marking the 40th anniversary of Title IX, a case like this reminds us how critical Title IX remains in ensuring equal opportunity for women, including in athletics.”

OCR said the college -- after it was presented with its various compliance problems -- "aggressively sought to address these issues."

Among the other remedies, the college will create a “Title IX Committee” to ensure compliance with federal law in the years to come.

The college said it aims to achieve Title IX compliance within five years, and to meet its goal, it says it will grow some athletic programs and reduce others.

“The College agrees that if, upon commencing the 2013-2014 season, it has not met 85% of its recruiting goal for women's intercollegiate sports at that time, it will halt its recruitment for men's tier II and III sports until such time as its recruitment for women's intercollegiate sports reaches at least 85% of the level outlined in this agreement..."

Merrimack College describes itself as a "selective, independent college in the Catholic, Augustinian tradition." It students come from 22 states and 20 countries. Undergraduate tuition, room and board runs around $45,610.

President Obama's Education Department says enforcement of Title IX is a "top priority" for its Office for Civil Rights.

In fact, the Obama administration in 2010 withdrew the Bush administration's more lenient interpretation of Title IX. Under changes ordered by the Bush administration in 2006, schools could show they were in compliance with Title IX by using online surveys to determine if the available athletic programs were enough to meet students' interest.

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