Taking a Stand: The Struggles of Title IX at MSU

Campus Archaeology rarely enters the realm of documentary detail – we use MSU Archives extensively, but we are generally looking for documents and images that help us to better interpret the material remains we find. This week, we take a bit of an exception to this pattern, primarily because it provides us with the context to better understand how MSU Athletics has grown, as well as the importance of the very beginnings of women’s athletics.

Exploring this week’s theme of women in history, I wanted to highlight women on campus in the past who have paved the way for women today. One of the clearest and best documented examples of women’s impact relates to Title IX legislation and the MSU women’s varsity basketball team. These women – not all that long ago – took a stand against the unfair treatment of women in athletics. Historically, prior to Title IX, women had participated in athletics at MSU since 1888; 18 years after the first large group of women were admitted to the university.

Title IX (passed in 1972) prohibits any university that receives federal funds from discrimination on the basis of sex or gender. In terms of athletics,  universities must provide the funds to give each sex equal opportunities. Although the passage of Title IX was a step forward for women in both academic and athletic contexts, the implementation and acceptance of the law was not immediately felt. It was difficult to determine how to make changes and what met the definition of “equal opportunity.” Overall, however, Title IX paved the way for equality in sports, although many inequities remained.

1932 Women's MSU Basketball Team. Courtesy MSU Archives
1932 Women’s MSU Basketball Team. Courtesy MSU Archives

Some women on campus did play basketball as early as 1889. But, it was in 1919 that physical education for women was formally established on campus. Physical education at that time primarily consisted of non-contact sports and calisthenics. Women were not allowed to compete in intercollegiate games until much later. And it wasn’t until the 1960s that changes to athletics on campus dramatically increased the number of women in athletics .

After the passing of Title IX in 1972, the law was met with opposition, especially from the athletic departments across the country. Full compliance of the law was not required until 1978, which allowed appropriate time for universities to make adjustments in budgets, recruitments, and scholarships for women. Still, many universities, including MSU, did not meet these requirements by the deadline.

In April of 1978, Mary Pollock, the Director of Women’s Programs and the Title IX Coordinator, brought informal allegations to the attention of Clarence Underwood, the Assistant Director of Athletics, regarding Title IX violations.

Title IX complaint letter from MSU Women's Basketball Team. Courtesy MSU Archives
Title IX complaint letter from MSU Women’s Basketball Team. Courtesy MSU Archives

Underwood wrote a letter to Joe Kearney, the Athletic Director, regarding Pollock’s claims, stating: “the major complaint was that in using the men’s intramural gymnasium for competitive games, the floor is warped, lockers are inadequate and no hair dryers are present.” He later states: “Ms. Pollock impressed me as a person who is trying to make a professional name for herself by using athletics as her culprit” and that “I was not particularly fond of her disposition in our discussion and told her that I personally did not appreciate her threatening manner. My personal opinion is that she is full of bluff.”

These comments by Underwood have to be taken in context. While they may shock or surprise us today, his remarks were quite common and accepted at the time.

Due to these grievances, members of the 1977-78 women’s varsity basketball team brought a complaint a few weeks later on April 25, 1978 for violations of Title IX. After no action was taken, the women put forth an official complaint later that year. Their complaint outlined 12 points regarding unfair treatment in comparison to the men’s team. They stated that they were “seeking an immediate remedy for unhealthy, and grossly unfair practices” concerning safety, health, and general fairness. And although budget differences were extreme ($116,000 for the men and $13,500 for the women), they strategically chose not to address inequality of funds so that these other complaints could be quickly resolved.

One of the major points outlined by the team regarded the duties of the coach. The men’s team had one head coach, two assistant coaches, and a manager, while the women had only one head coach and assistance from the junior-varsity coach, who was a 1/4-time graduate assistant. Additionally, the women’s head coach also had to hold a teaching position at the university, requiring her to split her time.

Coach Karen Langeland and the 1979 Women's Basketball Team. Courtesy MSU Archives
Coach Karen Langeland and the 1979 Women’s Basketball Team. Courtesy MSU Archives

Additional complaints regarded the unfair, unequal treatment for the women’s team, such as lower per diem rates, inadequate facilities, limited supplies, and unequal transportation and lodging.

From this formal complaint, MSU President Edgar L. Harden formed a committee, and ordered a legal audit to determine if the Athletic Program was in compliance with Title IX. Additionally, the judge  assigned to the case immediately ordered that MSU provide the women’s team with the same per diem and lodging as the men’s team. Still, by 197, little had been accomplished to correct these deficiencies. In a subsequent letter to the judge, two members of the women’s varsity basketball team made it clear that the team alone was involved in suit, not their coach or any other individuals. The university had already terminated Mary Pollock and the team did not want further consequences.

Formal complaint from the MSU women's varsity basketball team. Courtesy MSU Archives
Formal complaint from the MSU women’s varsity basketball team. Courtesy MSU Archives

The legal audit determined two main areas of deficiency: the grant-in-aid program and an inequality of facilities. The Title IX committee agreed, stating that although MSU had rapidly increased the number and amount of scholarships for women, additional funds should be allocated to improve facilities and scholarships for women athletes. Further inequalities, such as better locker space, a refurbished basketball floor, equal per diem and lodging, and a full time women’s equipment manager were also eventually met.

Title IX has been in effect for over 40 years, but discrimination on the basis of sex and gender is still exists, extending beyond athletics. While it can be uncomfortable to hear about less than wonderful parts of MSU’s past, we can be thankful for women who chose to take a stand. We are also thankful for the MSU Archives who has kept all of this documentation.



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