Net Point: Former tennis star knows reach of Title IX

In 1972, a little known Congresswoman from Hawaii, Patsy Mink, helped level the playing field for generations of female athletes to come, coincidentally shaking the foundation of college and high school athletic programs from coast to coast.

Marissa Pollick was a sophomore at Berkley High School at the time Mink authored the Title IX Amendment of the Higher Education Act, competing for a spot on the boys tennis team.

Back then, which relatively speaking wasnt all that long ago, there wasnt a girls athletic program at my high school, let alone a tennis team, said Pollick, who was a Midwest ranked female tennis player as a teen. If I wanted to play high school tennis, my only choice was to try out for the boys squad.

Which she did, successfully landing a spot on the team with another female player, earning a letter for her efforts on the tennis courts. The following season, Pollick was a charter member of the first varsity girls tennis team at the suburban high school, literally serving an ace for hundreds of female players to follow. As one of the early beneficiaries of the Title IX movement across the athletic and educational landscapes, Pollick had little reason to know at the time that in later years she would discover the wonders of the legislation all over again.

Title IX consulting work is my true passion, said Pollick, an Ann Arbor attorney who helps colleges and school districts navigate the sometimes choppy legal waters surrounding the federal law. The law is far reaching and compliance issues can be complex, which is why it is important for schools and universities to understand its scope before legal consequences arise. The case law is moving very fast on the Title IX front, in ways that few experts would have anticipated.

At the heart of the up-tick in Title IX litigation has been a series of cases arising out of Fresno State University, according to Pollick.

Several of the coaches there questioned whether inequities existed in the way the mens and womens athletic programs were funded, Pollick explained. They complained that there were serious differences in staffing, facilities, and budgets between the mens and womens programs. The coaches were fired by the university and later filed suit under provisions of Title IX, alleging that they were wrongfully dismissed in retaliation for questioning the universitys commitment and compliance with Title IX. In effect, they said they were fired for being whistle-blowers. In both cases, and in several others that have followed in other states, the courts awarded multi-million dollar verdicts in favor of the plaintiffs. The stakes can be enormously high for the defendants in these cases, which is why schools and universities are deciding to reevaluate their programs to guard against any such outcomes.

Gender equity issues are among the hot topics that Pollick discusses during a class on Sports Law that she teaches for graduate students at the U-M. The course, which she has taught since 2003, attracts students from the School of Kinesiology, the U-M Law School, and the U-M Business School. Many of the students, according to Pollick, hope to pursue careers as sports agents or athletic administrators.

We touch on a lot of legal issues surrounding sports, including contract disputes, tort liability, and Title IX compliance, Pollick said. There is no shortage of material to be discussed, especially as college and professional sports have grown over the last two decades. In the last year alone, we had such issues as the contract dispute involving (U-M football coach) Rich Rodriguez and the suit filed against the university to gain greater accessibility to Michigan Stadium for those with disabilities. There also have been a number of cases in which spectators have been injured by foul balls or hockey pucks.

Pollicks standing in high school as one of the states finest female tennis players led her to Ann Arbor, where she was a 4-year letter-winner and two-time captain of the womens tennis team. She was inducted into the M Women Athletic/Academic Hall of Honor in 1976, a distinction for athletes earning four varsity letters who carry a cumulative grade point average above 3.7. As a freshman in 1974, she was among the first group of women to receive a coveted varsity letter.

The letter, in that instance, was decidedly lower case.

The letters we received, as females, were smaller than those awarded to male athletes, Pollick said. The M did not measure up to the M the male letterwinners received. It was another case of women being treated differently than their male counterparts.

While Pollick helped the Wolverines challenge for several Big Ten titles during her college tennis days, she harbored no illusions about pursuing a pro career, opting instead to attend law school at Michigan, where her father, Sidney, earned his law degree.

Upon graduation in 1981, she spent 2 years with a major firm in Chicago, specializing in labor and employment litigation for national corporate clients. She returned to Michigan in 1983, joining her fathers firm, Bonk, Pollick & Strote in Southfield, where she practiced for the next 12 years. After spending 7 years with Butzel Long in its Ann Arbor office, Pollick opened her own firm in Ann Arbor in 2002, serving corporate clients in addition to her work as a Title IX consultant.

Her ability to knock down gender barriers extends beyond the tennis courts. In 1993, she became the first female member of the University of Michigan M Club, an organization for varsity letter-winners that had previously been an all-male bastion for former Wolverine standouts. Six years after joining the club, she was elected president, the first female to hold the position.

I can offer current female athletes a sense of history about some of the struggles that we have endured over the years, Pollick said. Ive experienced some of them firsthand, while I am just as aware of the work that others did to blaze the trail for the women of today. I only have to look at my own mother (Esther), who as a U-M student in the forties wasnt allowed to walk up the front steps of the Michigan Union. We all have our own war stories to share about gender inequality.

Due in large measure to the reach of Title IX, female participation in athletics has grown dramatically since the legislation was enacted 36 years ago. Then, according to published reports, fewer than 32,000 women played sports in college and approximately 300,000 girls participated in high school athletics. Now, some 170,000 women compete on the collegiate level while upward of 3 million girls enjoy high school athletic competition.

The numbers bring a smile to the face of Pollick, who in 2002 became just the second woman inducted into the Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

Its heartening to see that gender is no longer a barrier to participation, Pollick said. The challenge that schools and universities will continue to face, however, is to strike a balance between what is offered to the mens and womens programs. We may be just at the beginning of a new chapter in the history of Title IX.

By Tom Kirvan

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