One day in 1987 state representative Ken Jacobsen of Seattle was watching his two daughters play soccer. "I had never thought much about girls in sports," Jacobsen says, "but then I saw my oldest daughter break up an attack on the goal, and I started to look at her differently. It was like an epiphany on the soccer field."
After learning that Washington's youth programs produced some of the best soccer players in the country but that no college in the state offered varsity women's soccer, Jacobsen organized a legislative subcommittee to examine the issue. It was an important step in Washington's transformation into a model of gender equity in sports.
In 1979 a group of female athletes and coaches at Washington State University filed a lawsuit against the school, alleging sex discrimination in sports. Three years later the school was ordered by the state superior court to provide women athletes with equity in participation and financial aid, based on WSU's undergraduate population. Football, however, was excluded from the ratio. The university appealed the decision. In 1987 the state's supreme court upheld the lower court ruling, but added that football must be included. In other words, WSU lost on two counts.
After his conversion on the soccer field that same year, Jacobsen, the chair of the state's house higher education committee, sponsored three bills that provided additional scholarships for women, required four-year public institutions to develop a sex-equity plan and established a conference to discuss women's sports issues. In 1989 the bills were signed into law.
The centerpiece of the legislation is a plan that waives tuition and fees at a state university for a certain number of student-athletes, allowing the university to take money that the athletic department would have spent on scholarships and use it to broaden athletic programs for women. Last year these funds amounted to approximately $700,000 for the University of Washington and $380,000 for Washington State.
Women college athletes in the state of Washington have fared better than those in the rest of the country because there is now a statewide commitment to gender equity. "Washington loves to think that it's the most enlightened state in America," says Chris Gobrecht, the women's basketball coach at UW. "People here have this sense of the ideal."
Washington State has the Pac-10's smallest athletic budget, $10 million for 1992, which is about half of UW's budget. Still, women account for 47% of the school's student-athletes—the national average is only 31%—and receive a similar proportion of Washington State's athletic scholarships. At WSU there are nine women's sports and seven men's sports. Seven of the women's sports have female coaches.
At UW, 40% of the athletes are women. There are 11 women's sports and 10 men's sports. Five of the women's sports have female coaches. And last year Washington named Barbara Hedges its athletic director. She is one of only two women ADs at a university with a Division I-A football program.
While these steps do not guarantee equal success for women and men on the playing field, that too has followed in a few cases. At Washington, Gobrecht's basketball team has out-drawn the men's team in home attendance for the past three years. And at Washington State, the women's basketball team advanced to the NCAA tournament in 1990. Last fall the WSU volleyball team made its first trip to the NCAA tournament as well.