By Jeffrey Martin
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 education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.
F ifty years ago, thirty-seven words culminated into a single sentence that forever changed higher education—a law we know today as Title IX. Before President Richard Nixon signed the legislation on June 23, 1972, it was legal for institutions to deny women access to not only athletic-related initiatives, but schools themselves. The Title VII Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination against employment, but it failed to address education, which created the need for a law that ensured incorruptible access to it. The result is a vital piece of legislation that has led to more equity in education albeit with more work still needing to be done. Without Title IX, American International College would have a much smaller and more homogenized student-athlete community that would not have reached the level of success the College continues to achieve today.
AIC’S history of female collegiate sports begins with Judy Groff, who created the College’s softball and volleyball programs. An indomitable leader who set a high bar for what success looked like for student-athletes, her storied career with the College began in 1969 with the inaugural season of AIC’s softball team. Fewer than 30,000 women participated in collegiate sports pre-Title IX, making up about 15% of all NCAA athletes (women now represent 44% of all NCAA athletes). So for a woman like Groff, playing sports as a kid in her home state of Pennsylvania was something of a miracle. According to Groff: “I was very fortunate because [when I was growing up] we were probably the only county in Pennsylvania that had women’s sports competitions. We were treated equal to the men . . . I didn’t know there was [gender- based] discrimination until I came to the northeast, and that was a real battle up here.” In high school, she played field hockey and tennis, but she never picked up a softball until she started coaching.
Despite Title IX eventually clearing the way for all women’s collegiate sports, it took a little extra effort to get each team off the ground. Groff made all the difference between AIC having a women’s softball team and AIC fielding a great women’s softball team.
“I made it happen,” Groff proudly says when it comes to making the World Series back-to-back in 1996 and 1997: “It’s as simple as that. Nobody gave me money. I’m probably the only coach at AIC that never asked for money for my trip. I raised every penny.”
Groff led AIC’s softball team for forty-three years, the most of any college softball coach of any division and finished with 974 wins—good enough for fifth on NCAA’s all-time Division II wins list. She spent numerous seasons coaching other teams simultaneously, like the women’s volleyball team. The Olympics had adopted the sport into its schedule in 1964 and Groff said demand had been building for a volleyball team to launch. It was the first women’s team to be created post-Title IX in 1974. Through 1988, Groff coached both softball and volleyball, and guided the latter to 272 wins. She would schedule both teams’ games to make it possible for her to attend every one. Groff would ultimately hang up her coaching duties when she retired in 2011. The softball team plays every home game at Judy Groff Field, which was named in her honor in 2006.
Soccer had its own humble beginnings for the women’s team—their roster consisted of just three athletes at the start of the inaugural 1985 season: junior Mary Brownlee, and freshmen Kerry McClelland and Debbie Rouette, who were all captains and none of whom were seniors. The team lost all six games of their inaugural season, but came back with a vengeful 5-12 record a year later. Rouette was named the team MVP for her goalkeeping efforts (she posted five shutouts). By 1987, the team had narrowly missed the Northeast-10 playoffs with a 9-4-6 record, setting several records along the way including number of wins in a season and number of goals in a season.
A theme of tenacity comes to light when looking over all the achievements of AIC’s women’s teams over the last fifty years. Even when an entire roster only consists of three people, the College’s female student-athletes are giving their all with every single outing, as well as the staff who unequivocally push and support them. This extends to the highest level of Athletics as Jessica Chapin, the director of the department, is the first woman to take on the role for the College. A former student-athlete herself, she leans on her own experiences to remind herself of what matters most: “[By asking ourselves], ‘Does this speak to our core values and what we’re trying to instill in our student-athletes every day,’ I try to keep that perspective in the back of my mind since that’s why I have the job that I do and love what I do every day.”
Fifty years later, Title IX still stands as the cornerstone that leveled the playing field in higher education. It cleared the way for women like Groff, Chapin, and everyone in between to champion other women to not only be themselves, but to push their peers and work together as a team. In a video interview with Northeast-10, Chapin says she “grew up having the opportunity that a lot of women before me didn’t,” which wouldn’t have been possible without Title IX. She added that she hopes to see this legislation bring serious change by equity giving way to equality and opportunity. On the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the law, President Biden proposed adding protections for LGBTQ students as well. His amendment has yet to be signed into law, but it would bring the collegiate student-athlete community one step closer to reaching Chapin’s vision of collegiate sports. •