‘Title Trailblazer IX’: WSU Runner’s Won Suit Changed the Course of State Women’s College Athletics

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Karen Troianello still has the message she received from her friend, former Washington State University tennis player Julie Ramstead, in 1987.

We won. Lots of joy.

As the country observes and celebrates the 50e anniversary of Title IX, let’s not forget the landmark legal decision that changed the course of Washington State women’s college athletics in a much more profound way.

Although it grew out of the same movement for women’s equality in the 1970s that energized Title IX, “Blair vs. Washington State University,” filed in 1979 on behalf of track athlete Karen Blair (now Today Karen Troianello) and 38 other female athletes at WSU, as well as 11 female athletic coaches on campus, were not litigated based on Title IX law enacted seven years earlier.

“We looked at Title IX — or our lawyers did — and they just felt it wasn’t strong enough at the time,” Troianello said. “Title IX came in 1972, and we filed in 1979. During that time, it was still being debated.”

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The women in their lawsuit alleged “unlawful sex discrimination” and said they were denied equal education by WSU because of the inferior quality of women’s sports programs compared to men’s. During the two-month trial, which ultimately took place in 1982 at the Whitman County Courthouse in Colfax, athletes and coaches detailed substandard facilities, meager budgets, substandard equipment and lackluster transportation options that female athletes of that era worked under.

Blair said in his 38-page examination for discovery, “It’s hard to feel like I’m top-notch when it’s been so clearly demonstrated that I’m not considered very important by Washington State University, but men who do the same things are very important.

“This type of treatment cost me more than money. It cost me the respect of other Washington State University students and generally makes it difficult for me to perform as well academically or athletically.

Rather than Title IX, the plaintiffs based their case on the state’s Equal Rights Amendment, approved by Washington voters in 1972, as well as the state’s Anti-Discrimination Act. Lawyers at the new Northwest Women’s Law Center — now known as Legal Voice — in Seattle felt the ERA gave them a much stronger legal footing than Title IX. The WSU administration had largely ignored Title IX-inspired surveys and studies that detailed the disparity in athletics. Civil rights complaints had gone unheeded.

“The main reason we didn’t use Title IX was that it was still new enough to be challenged in federal courts on the grounds that Title IX did not apply to athletics; that it was really about college courses and so on,” said Mary Ellen Hudgins, the director of litigation at the Northwest Women’s Law Center who led their three-lawyer team.

“We thought, well, that’s not good. We could end up with a Pyrrhic victory. The board of the organization made the right decision, I think. We had better laws – laws that had been tested and upheld by the Supreme Court here in Washington State. We had a state ERA. And we also had a state equivalent of Title IX which prohibits discrimination in many areas, but including education.

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Now retired, Hudgins reflects on what turned into a seven-year legal battle early in her career – she had just turned 30 – and laughs: “If I had known what I was getting into embarked, I don’t know if I had the courage to do it. But I was really glad that I did. It was really an incredible experience.

Working on what she calls “a real low-cost operation,” Hudgins and her legal team made frequent visits to Pullman and lived in the school’s affirmative action officer’s basement during the court case.

“It was heated by a wood stove,” she recalls. “One of the lawyers was the real athlete on our team – she cut the wood for the stove. People were bringing us food. We had a Selectric typewriter to do our work.

Judge Philip H. Faris delivered his decision before a crowded courthouse in March 1982. It was a mixed blessing for the women. Faris said the discrimination at WSU has continued “for an unreasonable amount of time.” He ordered that the money be allocated equally to male and female athletics based on the proportion of female undergraduates. But significantly, he excluded football from the calculation to determine sports participation and scholarships, a decision that Hudgins said “gutted it all out”.

She added, however, that it was vital that the judge find that the university was discriminated against, which they used as the basis of their appeal to the state Supreme Court. Troianello, during his Olympia appearance, recalled in disbelief that one of the judges asked, “So do the girls want to play football?”

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Nevertheless, led by another team of lawyers, the appeal was successful. In August 1987, the state Supreme Court ruled that football should be included in financial calculations. And now, 35 years later, the repercussions of that decision, alongside Title IX, are still rippling through women’s athletics across the state.

Troianello, editor of the Yakima Herald-Republic, was recently honored at a WSU basketball game as a “Title IX Trailblazer” and notes that the improvement in all aspects of women’s sports is staggering. She often becomes emotional when she sees the opportunities girls have today in athletics – opportunities that were missing when she graduated from Bellingham High School in the mid-1970s.

“It seems so simple to say that people should have equal access to all the things that we can give you in schools,” she said.

Troianello was working at Yakima, her fourth newspaper job since earning a communications degree from WSU in 1980, when she received the message from Ramstead that they had won an outright victory on appeal. Her maiden name of “Blair” had been attached to the case because she was alphabetically first among the plaintiffs, a coincidence that put her at the forefront for decades.

Troianello’s paycheck from the original lawsuit was $271.85 for unfair uniforms, money for meals, and other discriminatory treatment. An additional $97.31 was added for interest, bringing the total to $369.16 – half of which was donated to the Cougar track team.

“I didn’t want anyone to say I did it for the money,” she said.

It was a matter of principle, not primary, for all of the 50 women in costume, and everyone who helped advance their case. But the Northwest Women’s Law Center was thrilled to receive what Hudgins recalls was about $300,000 or $400,000 in legal fees.

“It was great because it was a very young organization and not financially stable at the time,” Hudgins said.

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Hudgins said he was often asked why they sued WSU and not the University of Washington, which had its own athletic inequalities at the time. She has a simple answer.

“The University of Washington would have buried us alive,” she said. “They would have hired a big company from downtown Seattle, and it would have been a disaster. WSU made the decision not to hire high-level attorneys. They chose to hire a local lawyer (Wallis Friel), a good lawyer, a good personal injury lawyer who was too close to the case. His father (Jack Friel) had coached the Cougars basketball team for years. WSU’s basketball court is named after his father.

“He had no specific training in labor law or employment discrimination. He was a nice guy. But I think we were lucky. Because if we had been up against a well-funded, sophisticated legal team, even from Spokane, it would have been much more difficult.

Over the years, the women now have the opportunity to look back and appreciate what they have achieved – although Troianello and Hudgins are quick to note that they were just two of many who contributed to effort.

“You know, we were underfunded — with no funding most of the time — and really in over our heads,” Hudgins said. “But I think it was a good example of having a really good record. Good law, good facts can overcome what otherwise seems like a really tough situation. I’m not an athlete, I don’t I never was, I certainly won’t be at this stage, but it was an access to education that was not accessible to girls.

Troianello’s days as a track athlete (an “in-between” day, in her words) are long behind her. But she relishes her days running for the Cougars, even if it was in used uniforms, stuck in state cars for away meets while the men were on charter buses.

“I wasn’t great. But it was such a big moment in my life,” she said. “I loved it. I loved being an athlete. I never led the charge, but I certainly believed in it. I think over time, and people realized that their daughters wanted play sports, and now had a better opportunity to do so, they appreciated someone stepping up. And many of us did.

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