From Casual Athletes to NCAA Champs: How Many Will Follow?

Twins Ashley and Courtney Koester were training for a marathon in the fall of their sophomore year at Northwestern University when a stranger approached them and asked if they were interested in playing lacrosse for the school's new varsity team.

"We politely declined because we didn't think it was for us," Ashley, now 23, says. "I'd never seen a lacrosse game or a lacrosse stick or anything because we're from Indiana and it really doesn't exist there."

But the stranger, Northwestern women's lacrosse coach Kelly Amonte Hiller, was persistent. She had been given the daunting task of starting a lacrosse program from scratch and saw a latent talent in Ashley and Courtney. In November 2002, she gave them lacrosse sticks to take home over the Thanksgiving break -- just to try.

"When we took the sticks home, it really reinforced how fun the game was and what a challenge it would be to learn this sport," Ashley says.

The twins are now part of the 2005 NCAA national women's lacrosse championship team, which made history in May when it defeated defending champion, The University of Virginia, 13-10, to become the first squad outside of the East to win the sport's NCAA crown.

"I wouldn't give it up for the world," says Courtney of her lacrosse experience. She originally walked on to the basketball team as a freshman, but quit because she felt it was consuming all her time. "I'm just so lucky that one, Kelly stopped me on the street and two convinced me to play because I was so close to turning it down."

NCAA Senior Vice President for Championships and Education Services Judy Sweet holds the Koesters up as two of the shining successes of Title IX, and a perfect reason a recent clarification of Title IX issued by the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights in March should be amended, if not rescinded.

The guidelines advise schools that they can use an e-mail survey to gauge the athletic interest of the student body. If results show that members of the underrepresented gender (usually women) are not interested in certain sports, schools do not have to provide athletic opportunities in that sport but will still be in compliance with Title IX, the 1972 law that bans discrimination in education -- including sports programs at schools and universities -- based on gender. To read about use of surveys in high schools, Click Here.

"Those of us on campuses know full well that students don't respond to e-mail surveys," says Sweet. "The greatest weakness is that this approach indicates a lack of response is going to be interpreted as a lack of interest."

Even if the Koesters had responded to the survey as freshmen, they would not have said they were interested in lacrosse.

"I'd have given it a zero interest, none at all," Ashley said. "I'd never seen [lacrosse]; it was something I had never been around before."

Which, according to Sweet and others, is precisely one of the main functions of Title IX.

"Because of the historical biases, females have not been encouraged to develop interest in sports in the same way males have and certainly not prior to Title IX," Sweet said via e-mail. "The dramatic increase in the numbers of girls and women participating in sports in the last 33 years shows what happened when females are encouraged and supported rather than discouraged and denied."

The current statistical techniques to measure collegiate athletic participation were established in 1981; that year, NCAA records show there were 74,239 varsity female athletes and 169,800 men. Those numbers climbed in 2003-2004 to 162,752 college female athletes participating in both championships and non-championship sports, and 217,309 male athletes, according to the NCAA.

It is a vast improvement, though women's participation levels have not yet equaled the men. The fear is that under the new clarification guidelines, they never will. To read more about the clarification, Click Here.

Julie Foudy, co-captain of the U.S. women's soccer team, worries about the benefits to women's character that might be lost as a result of the new clarification.

"Everyone knows the physical positives that come with sports," Foudy says. "But as a woman, you also understand the self-confidence and leadership benefits, the ability to work in a group and compete that really translates when you go out into the real world and have to get a job. You talk to businesspeople and they say the first person they hire is a female athlete."

The Koesters graduated last Friday and will make their separate ways for the first time in their lives. Courtney is off to the West Coast to work in mutual funds; Ashley is preparing to start veterinary school at Purdue. Both sisters said they will use the lessons from their lacrosse experience in the next stage of life.

"It gives us confidence," Ashley said. "I think it's just one example if you really put your mind to something and if you have a group of people around you who put their mind to that same thing, you can do whatever you set out to do."

These intangible benefits and the unpredictable future success stories like the Koesters are what Sweet, Foudy and others are fighting for when they fight against the clarification.

But advocates of the clarification point to concrete examples of men who have missed out of opportunties. will look at pro-clarification arguments next week.