ORONO – University of Maine softball first baseman Kristen Niland considered herself on the same playing field as any other athlete for most of her life, but recently noticed some differences between her program and others at the school. That was when she decided to write a letter to administration detailing perceived issues with Title IX compliance.
Knowing that Title IX, the federal law mandating equality and equity among genders in any federally-funded educational program including athletics, is a touchy subject, she was cautious in doing so. But the response was far from what she anticipated initially.
“It’s nerve-wracking too. But I’ve been fortunate that I’ve had the people here,” she said.
Those people she’s referring to include athletic director Karlton Creech, who welcomed the essay to his desk and invited her to speak with him to discuss the issues mentioned.
“My initial thought was how proud and happy I was for Kristen, that she would have the courage and the voice to say what she believed,” Creech said.
UMaine meets weekly to discuss Title IX and how it can further be in compliance with the law, efforts spearheaded by former Maine softball player and head coach, Lynn Coutts. Coutts is now a senior associate athletic director within UMaine athletics, and has made improving student-athlete experience a top priority.
“I think the worst thing that someone can say to me is but it’s better than it used to be,” Coutts said. “I don’t go by that. I say, ‘but yeah, a lot of things are better than they used to be.'”
Ensuring equality and equity among student-athletes is not just an issue in Maine, but nationally as well. Becky Carlson is the head coach of the three-time defending national champion Quinnipiac women’s rugby squad, and has spent the majority of the last 20 years fighting against gender bias on and off the field. But as she noted, the law is way beyond one’s genetic makeup.
“Title IX isn’t really about, it’s not about men vs. women, or boys vs. Girls. It’s about right vs. wrong,” she said.
Carlson believes educating not just student-athletes, but everyone in general on the importance of Title IX and bringing balance across the board is imperative to changing unwanted narratives.
“I think that once we detached from a feeling of being on the defense when these types of issues are brought to our attentions, and really say, ‘huh, you’re right, that really might not be correct.”
It’s also a mentality Creech thinks the university is in the process of implementing.
“It’s a philosophy that our student-athletes and our teams should have an equitable experience,” he said. “It all goes down that we’re trying to educate men and women, and we’re trying to give them an equal opportunity to seek that education and also to seek competitive excellence in athletics.”
Niland’s experience is rare. Often times, these issues are brushed aside, or even result in disciplinary action. But Carlson agreed with her decision to take it to the higher-ups, and insisted that would be the only way to see tangible change going forward across the board.
“If they’re empowered and have that knowledge, and they can speak out about it, they’re not going to feel like they have to be quiet,” she said. “And they’re going to feel like it’s almost like they’re armed with something to help them have these conversations and start this dialogue.”
And Niland doesn’t plan on stopping here. After she graduates, she is determined to continue to strive towards equality and equity for her peers, and feels she is now in a position where she can make a difference.
“It’s like a pay it forward,” she said. “I had so many people that allowed me to get to this point. So many people gave me things they never had. And now I get to kind of do that on the other end. I think that’s the most exciting thing when you think about your career ending as an athlete, is being able to provide those opportunities for someone else now.”