Dreams came true for Ashley Monahan Kenitzer in 1995 when she became part of BYU’s newly NCAA-sanctioned women’s soccer team.
A life course changed forever for All-American wrestler Aaron Holker when BYU dropped its wrestling program after the 2000 season.
Kenitzer and Holker are both former BYU athletes who said their lives were impacted by Title IX, a statute celebrating its 45th anniversary this year. Title IX was passed to prevent sex discrimination in educational programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance. In the Title IX era, both BYU men’s and women’s athletic programs have seen changes — sometimes celebrated, sometimes controversial — attributed to compliance.
Title IX’s impact on women’s sports at BYU
Title IX is often credited for enabling opportunities for female athletes at BYU. It added women’s sports which were financially supported at the collegiate level, according to BYU women’s soccer coach Jennifer Rockwood.
“Title IX has given (women) an opportunity to live their dream and live their passion,” she said.
When Title IX was passed, BYU did not offer women’s athletic scholarships. BYU broke its male-athletes-only scholarship tradition in 1974 by awarding athletic scholarships to females for the first time.
“That’s obviously huge to give opportunities to young girls to move on, to play the game they love and to help pay their way through school with it,” Rockwood said.
Kenitzer said she personally feels grateful to Title IX.
“I think all the girls on the (club) team knew that it was because of Title IX that we were lucky… that we were probably going to be getting a sanctioned team,” she said.
Women’s soccer was not the only addition to BYU athletics in the Title IX era. Starting in the 2000 season, BYU also added women’s softball as an NCAA-sanctioned sport.
Rondo Fehlberg, who served as BYU’s athletic director from 1994 to 1995, said BYU has seen marvelous accomplishments of amazing female athletes thanks in part to Title IX.
“We recruited them hard and we were very successful and we had some excellent, excellent teams,” he said.
Title IX’s impact on men’s sports at BYU
While Title IX is often praised for affording opportunities to women, the regulation detailing its enforcement is sometimes criticized.
According to Mark Schultz, who was coaching men’s wrestling when the program was cut, Title IX regulation has been unfair to male athletes.
“It’s definitely reverse discrimination now,” he said. “The pendulum has swung far, far, far to the extreme opposite side. It’s time to swing back to the center.”
Regulation controversy stems from a three-prong test for compliance. One of the prongs, sometimes referred to as “proportionality,” requires schools to provide participation opportunities to men and women that are proportionate to the rates of undergraduate enrollment at the school.
BYU announced in 1999 that it would eliminate men’s gymnastics and wrestling after the 2000 season concluded. Athletes, coaches and athletic administration said Title IX was the primary reason given to them for cutting the programs.
“I was told 100 percent it was Title IX,” said Russell Brunson, a wrestler who had just finished his freshman year when the decision was announced.
Brunson’s father, Ross, started the Utah Amateur Wrestling Foundation to collect pledges and donations to create an endowment to permanently finance the wrestling team. Fehlberg, who assisted in the fundraising efforts, said as they approached the fundraising goal, they were dismayed to learn that they would have to raise enough money to fund an equivalent women’s program, a task he said they were not able to accomplish.
In a January 2000 Daily Universe article, university officials said pressure from the Office for Civil Rights, which enforces Title IX, influenced the decision to cut the sports.
The so-called pressure BYU faced was not unusual. Throughout the country, men’s gymnastics and wrestling were often cut, according to Schultz, which increased the difficulty of scheduling each season.
“The western states are just brutal when it comes to finding competitors,” Schultz said.
In fact, the Mountain West Conference, which was formed in 1999, lacked enough teams to host NCAA-qualifying conference championships in men’s gymnastics and wrestling even before BYU’s decision, according to a BYU press release.
While the teams may have lacked nearby competitors, Fehlberg said they did not lack talent and they were consistently top programs.
Gymnasts Guard Young and Cortney Bramwell were top individual finishers in the nation in their final season of BYU men’s gymnastics. After transferring, Holker went on to win a NCAA wrestling championship, and several of his teammates became All-Americans.
“You never know what could have happened if BYU kept their program,” Holker said.
Reflecting on Title IX at BYU
During the past 45 years, Title IX has been a stated reason for many changes to BYU sports programs, but pinpointing its exact role can be difficult.
According to Schultz, constraints such as costs, resources and available opponents also contributed to the wrestling and gymnastics decisions. Ultimately, university administration makes decisions about sports, Fehlberg said.
While Title IX required greater equality in funding and participation for women’s sports, BYU had already begun a tradition of expanding opportunities for women before being required to do so. The first budget for female sports was awarded in 1968, and BYU administrators and coaches Lu Wallace and Elaine Michaelis pushed to improve opportunities for women by participating in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women.
Fehlberg said BYU had signed letters of compliance from the Office of Civil Rights every year.
“They were happy with us,” he said, because BYU voluntarily exceeded annual expectations to improve opportunities.
The positive effects of Title IX can be seen on a daily basis, according to Liz Darger, an associate athletic director and senior woman administrator who serves as the deputy Title IX compliance officer for athletics.
“I work with more than 300 of the greatest female student-athletes in the country,” she said in an email. “I love to watch them learn, grow, work hard, overcome challenges, succeed and receive an amazing education.”
At 45 years, Title IX has made a mark at BYU. Whether it has earned a winning record might depend on who’s keeping score.