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Ian Swanson, Herald Staff Writer

A Minneapolis attorney who represented two women hockey players in a Title IX lawsuit against St. Cloud State University says UND could be sued for noncompliance with gender equity laws if it does not institute a varsity women's hockey team. I am not aware, based on what  I've seen and heard, that UND would have any defense for a TITLE IX ACTION, said Chris Messerly, an attorney with the Minneapolis Firm ROBINS, KAPLAN, MILLER & CIRESI.

Messerly said he has reviewed UND's required federal gender equity report and talked to female UND students who would like to play hockey at the school. He has also read the minutes and reports of committees that have studied gender equity at UND and the feasibility of a UND women's hockey team. I have not seen in any of those that UND would have a legal defense to a Title IX claim, Messerly said. I haven't seen anything that indicated anything other than that these young women are being discriminated against solely because they are women.

St. Cloud Case

In May 1998, Messerly filed papers on behalf of two St. Cloud State University students against that university. The suit contended that SCSU violated the women's rights by intentionally denying women student athletes an equal opportunity to play varsity intercollegiate ice hockey at St. Cloud, which had a women's club team at the time. The lawsuit never went to trial because SCSU instituted a Division I program the following fall. A spokeswoman for the school said that decision was based on SCSU's receiving a Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission grant that made adding women's hockey more economically feasible for the university.

Title IX of the Education Amendments Act was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1972. It states that no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

Thomas' View

UND athletic director Roger Thomas said UND is complying with Title IX. He said the school has made great strides by adding women's sports and increasing the number of women participants, and that the school will continue with its efforts to increase financial aid for women athletes. Thomas said he's also aware that the threat of a lawsuit is out there.

We've had good discussions with the people in Grand Forks about this, he said. All I can say is that I hope people have enough understanding and patience that, being new to the job, we want to ... make this a good and effective program so that people are happy about it.

Thomas has been UND's athletic director for less than a year. UND President Charles Kupchella started his job in July 1999.

Messerly said his firm, which worked pro bono on the SCSU suit, does not formally represent any young women interested in playing hockey at UND at this moment. But he has been in contact with local women's hockey advocates. These young women are just hoping that (UND) does the right thing, but I've told them that if they need help, they'll get it at no fee, said Messerly, who coaches boys and girls hockey teams in the Twin Cities and played college hockey in Maine.

Quite frankly, I don't think anyone wants a Title IX lawsuit; they just want a program.

The Arena Question

Former UND goalie Ralph Engelstad's gift of a $50 million ice arena for men's hockey makes it more urgent that UND develop a women's varsity hockey program to ensure that it is Title IX compliant, Messerly argued. As defined by Title IX, equal opportunity for men and women in intercollegiate athletics includes practice and competitive facilities. Though the new arena is a gift to UND paid for by private funds, UND still needs to open it up for men and women athletes under Title IX law. It seems to be painfully obvious that they're missing something that's required, Messerly said. If they have that commitment to men, why wouldn't they have that commitment to women who want to play? And there are women who want to play at UND.

Thomas said he doesn't think the new facility will change the complexion of UND's compliance under Title IX. He said it's more important that UND show that it is increasing the number of women participants in its programs. University of Minnesota President Mark Yudof, who visited UND last week, said having a women's team helps a school comply with Title IX law.

However, Yudof, a lawyer, said it wasn't certain that having a men's team play in the new Engelstad Arena while a women's team played in the old Engelstad Arena would throw UND out of compliance with Title IX. On the other hand, he said, if both teams play at the same arena, you don't have a problem. Messerly said the situation at UND is similar to the one at St. Cloud in 1998.

Nationwide, this is exactly what women experience, he said. Delay after delay after delay. The new arena shows that UND is committed to hockey, and there's no question that they have one of the best men's programs in the nation, Messerly said. That makes it all the more compelling that they ought to have a women's program.

Source: Grand Forks Herald, May 7, 2000