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Field Hockey Coach Nancy Cole: Feeling The Heat From Filing A Title IX Complaint

"And well, I have to tell you, I was genuinely confused," Priest says. "I mean, everything was exactly the same. Then I finally realized this was it: When there is a level playing field, men in athletics are not used to it. They are used to being on the absolute top rung of the ladder. What they see as 'discrimination' is simply equal opportunity being given to women. What else could it be?"

Or what could explain the converse? How could Nancy Cole, more than a decade into her effort to get a better girls team room, look at the $185,000 renovation plan that Middle Country officials came up with by last August to satisfy the OCR-it calls for a gutting of the existing room, the installation of new flooring, lights, more lockers, shower stalls and new sinks, plus a smarter, more efficient reconfiguration of the original space-and unhappily tell school officials, "That is just not good enough."

Academics have a term for it.

It's called "contested terrain."

In many ways, Cole's case is a classic example of how the nature of Title IX complaints has changed.

Whereas women once fought mostly for the right to play and largely contented themselves with that, more Title IX cases now assert that discrimination is in the details-everything from uniforms to equipment; access to facilities, travel, top-flight coaching and booster-club spending, even which team gets the thrill of playing in prime time on Friday night or outdoors, under the lights.

"Treatment claims are what they're called," says Chawdry of the National Women's Law Center. "Generally, we're seeing much more of them cropping up. And we're seeing more cases, period, at the elementary and high school level. I think what it shows is people are more aware of their rights now. Parents are getting savvier. Kids themselves are standing up for things."

Since Cole filed her complaint, some players' parents offered to organize a public show of support for Cole, too, if that's what she wanted. She declined.

Eight or nine field hockey players-including Shanna Peras and Colleen Barbieri-have been moved enough by Cole's stand or the apparent shift they saw in her treatment at school to write English class assignments and their college application essays on Title IX.

Mary Jo Kane, a University of Minnesota professor who studies sports sociology issues, says demands for equal treatment often play out differently at the high school vs. college level because "resources are often more scarce. And whenever resources are a factor, boys tend to take priority status.

"Despite the fact that there has been an enormous cultural shift brought on by Title IX," Kane says, "the cultural sense is still that boys own sports, it's sort of their birthright. It's taken for granted. Whereas girls and women continue to have to earn that right.

"I think it goes back, too, to what is your baseline of comparison? If it's before Title IX, then yes, there has been an enormous cultural shift. It used to be that the question was, 'Should girls and women play sports?' I don't think we'll ever go back to that question anymore. The question now is what will it look like? It's contested terrain."

Where the contest often gets played out is Title IX.

"For women, it offers enormous hope. For men, it represents an enormous threat," Kane said.

Cole tried to defuse her situation before filing her formal complaint by sending a tongue-in-cheek memo to the Middle Country administration, suggesting that the Centereach girls and boys simply swap team rooms for the next 30 years. She attached a blurb from USA Today about a high school in Sperry, Okla., that satisfied a similar Title IX complaint by agreeing to let the football team use the locker room each fall and clear out in the spring when the district's girls move in.

For some students, seeing Cole's case unfold has been an epiphany.

"You could see the attitude towards her from some of the other coaches. If she had to go to them to ask for something, they'd try to talk to her as little as possible," says field hockey co-captain Barbieri, who will play for national power Maryland next year. "Some boys and coaches at school said Ms. Cole was 'brainwashing' us. But my brother played sports ... the difference [in the way girls and boys athletes are treated] is something that's been bothering me for years. I didn't think it was fair. But before I used to just think, it's going to happen no matter what. Girls are never going to get anything. Now I've seen it only takes one person. Things can change...Even if some people don't like you or try to stop you."

Last November, six months after Cole filed her complaint, the OCR reached its resolution agreement that ordered the Middle Country school district to "ensure that female and male athletes at Centereach High School are provided with equivalent locker room facilities (including team locker rooms) ... the size and number of lockers (with allowances for differences in numbers of athletes)."