“Something Was Wrong and Needed to be Addressed”
"Something was wrong"
Members of the SU women’s club lacrosse and softball teams united for the Boucher vs. Syracuse University legal challenge that paved the way for better representation among Orange sports.
Title IX’s 50th anniversary this June has given Syracuse University a chance to celebrate women’s sports on campus.
SU has hosted jersey retirements in the Carrier Dome, a symposium with Title IX experts and considerable promotional marketing that encourages fans to show up and support SU women’s teams.
But while the historic legislation that prohibited discrimination based on gender continues to garner attention as the June 23 anniversary approaches, there is a more significant date when it comes to parity and the history of SU women’s sports: May 8, 1995.
On that day, seven female athletes on the lacrosse team and one on the softball team filed a federal class-action lawsuit, accusing SU of gender inequality in sports and violating Title IX laws.
The case of Boucher vs. Syracuse University would go on to reshape SU’s sports programs for female athletes into what they are today.
“We just thought, it’s time,” said 1993-97 women’s lacrosse player Maggy Rozycki Hiltner, who was among the athletes that brought the suit.
“Obviously, you want to have equal representation,” she said. “In men’s sports, there are the teams, but also the number [of players]. Men’s sports are these enormous wealthy teams and women’s sports are generally smaller.”
“It just didn’t seem like the school should be not doing this,” Hiltner said.
The Team Without a Home
In the early 1990s, SU women’s lacrosse team was a club squad coached and operated by the players. Co-captains Jennifer Boucher and Kristin Mina Aylward recruited new players through wanted ads in The Daily Orange and practiced in open fields whenever they could.
“We kind of got in trouble because we were practicing on one of the turf fields and someone was on it, so we went to another one,” Aylward said. “I guess that was the guys’ field, and they screamed at us.
“We were like, ‘You know what? We’re just doing the best we can. We’re not trying to hurt anyone. We’re just trying to play a sport we love.’”
Aylward recalled a winter day when SU allowed them to practice in the Carrier Dome under dimmed lighting and “barely any heat.”
“That kind of started us all getting really frustrated that we were sitting here fighting for a program that still should have already been a girls’ team with the boys’ team being the way they were,” Aylward said.
The history of SU men’s lacrosse dates back to 1916 and spans decades as a storied powerhouse in the sport that would earn 10 national titles by 1995.
While the NCAA formally recognized women’s lacrosse in the 1981-82 season and hosted its first national championship in 1982, SU’s team had no varsity designation, scholarships, or formal support from the school by the time Aylward and Hiltner were playing.
“It was kind of magical because we did it with no benefits,” Hiltner said. “Nobody was giving us scholarships. We played because we loved to play.”
David Sues Goliath
With representation by the Seidenberg, Seidenberg and Strunk law firm, the seven SU lacrosse teammates and one softball player united to draft the lawsuit that would ultimately carry the name of lacrosse team captain Jennifer Boucher. They officially alleged that the university did not provide sufficient opportunities for women to participate in varsity sports.
Hiltner remembers going up against the university where she was enrolled as a scary proposition, but for her, there was no question of whether she would put her name on the lawsuit.
“Something was wrong and needed to be addressed,” she said.
When the lawsuit was filed in 1995, just over 50% of Syracuse’s student population was female, yet women made up only 32% of its athletes, the lawsuit stated. In SU’s 1993-94 NCAA submission, only 217 of the 681 varsity athletes were women.
“It was pretty exciting knowing that we were fighting to be able to play our sport and get our rights to do that,” said Alexis Snader Braunfeld, a 1993-97 lacrosse player and lawsuit plaintiff.
That enthusiasm eventually waned as the lawsuit’s progress trudged along for nearly three years.
On April 3, 1998, the Federal District Court addressed the lawsuit and ruled in favor of SU, however, the plaintiffs appealed the ruling.
On Jan. 6, 1999, the U.S. Second Circuit Appeals Court in New York partially reversed the case by mandating that SU create more women’s varsity teams, bringing the case to a close.
SU defense attorney Edward Conan said the players’ claims were inadequate as the university formally recognized women’s varsity soccer by fall 1996 and women’s lacrosse by spring 1997 before the Appeals Court ruling more than two years later.
“The university has a history and continuing practice of expansion which puts us in compliance with Title IX,” Conan was quoted in The Daily Orange.
Faith Seidenberg, the lawyer for the players, countered Conan’s claims in the same article suggesting that SU promised women varsity sports for 14 years but didn’t spark any real action until the lawsuit was filed.
“Before the suit, the softball team didn’t even have money for uniforms, a locker room or field to play on,” Seidenberg told The Daily Orange. “This class action was to look at the treatment of these women athletes compared to men athletes and set up an examination.”
Erin Buzuvis, law professor and Academic Affairs associate dean at Western New England University, said the SU players’ efforts helped set precedents and legal guidance for plaintiffs challenging a lack of athletic opportunities rather than the elimination of an existing program.
Buzuvis added that designating the class-action lawsuit’s plaintiffs “individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated” created an advantage for current and future athletes, not just the eight SU players.
“Defining the class in the way that Syracuse did … also benefiting from the positive opinion from the Second Circuit about how you can have multiple sports teams [lacrosse and softball] represented in the same overall class,” Buzuvis said.
Collegiate Lacrosse Changed Forever
While not an outright legal victory, the players received the outcome they wanted: SU established more varsity women’s teams that in turn, created more parity between men’s and women’s collegiate sports.
The women’s lacrosse team played its first game as a varsity squad on March 14, 1998, against Maryland. The Orange would lose that game but opened its home season in the Carrier Dome three days later with a dominating 19-0 win over Siena College.
Softball was added in the 1999-2000 season and women’s ice hockey in 2008. With the additional women’s sports, SU announced in January 1997 the elimination of men’s wrestling and gymnastics in an effort to ensure the university would not violate Title IX, according to The Daily Orange. SU gymnastics’ last season was 1996-97 and wrestling officially ended in 2001.
Those involved in the Boucher case were caught off guard by SU cutting men’s programs because their intentions with the lawsuit were not to punish other athletes.
“I just felt horrible,” Aylward said. “I didn’t want my friends to lose their programs. That was just really disheartening to see.”
Although she was the team’s co-captain with Boucher and supportive of the effort to make SU sports more equitable, Aylward said she intentionally did not join the lawsuit because of her friendships with gymnasts and wrestlers.
“I just was a little worried about getting my name involved, as I knew it was going to impact a lot of my friends,” Aylward said. “It was hard for me to say to them, ‘Listen, guys, we do want Title IX. We do want a [varsity] lacrosse team and I am hearing that it’s going to affect you guys.’ And a lot of my guy friends had to leave.”
Hiltner recalled the fear and animosity she and others named in the lawsuit felt once the plan to eliminate the men’s teams was known. She said teammates would drive each other to places to avoid a possible confrontation riding on the campus buses.
Tracey Salisbury, assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies at California State University-Bakersfield, said that the Boucher case’s legacy should be about the bravery of the women who risked their college and athletic careers in pursuit of equality.
“The fact that women continue to stand up because they understand it’s larger than their individual case — that it’s all athletes — remains a powerful act and is the key to eventually achieving success,” Salisbury said.
As the court case proceeded, the players went on to graduate from SU, start their careers and families and watch from a distance how women’s sports at SU have evolved in the past two decades.
Hiltner said she is proud of the changes she and her teammates were responsible for, especially because Syracuse had been “kicking the can” when it came to adding more women’s teams.
“The right thing happened,” Hiltner said. “Now we have these amazingly successful women’s sports.
“I truly believe that helped nudge it on its way.”
is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications program and the Entertainment Lead Producer for The NewsHouse
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