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Title IX: Growth of women's sports

While Kendall Hanley breaks barriers as a female hockey official, Sarah Fuller continues to be a pillar for equity in women's sports.

kendall hanley
Kendall Hanley drops the puck between Team Canada's Brianne Jenner and USA Hockey's Brianna Decker at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, on Dec. 17, 2017.
Contributed / Kendall Hanley
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ROCHESTER — While Kendall Hanley now calls the hockey capital of the U.S. home, growing up as a hockey-obsessed kid in non-hockey country meant a delayed entry into the sport that became her life.

In her hometown of Raleigh, N.C., Hanley started playing street hockey with other neighborhood kids – the kind with trash cans and tennis balls. Soccer, softball and volleyball filled up her days until, at age 12, Hanley was allowed to play ice hockey.


This is part two of a three-part series for the 50th anniversary of Title IX. It appeared in the Saturday, June 18, Post Bulletin print edition.


She took the sport seriously enough to warrant a move to Williston Northampton School, a prestigious prep high school in western Massachusetts. Then, Hanley moved onto college hockey, playing at Elmira College and State University of New York Oswego, both in New York.

With a degree in zoology on paper, her hockey career looked to be over. But there was something tugging at her.

Hanley loves hockey, and it wasn’t something she wanted to give up.

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On a spring day in 2009 in Dallas, Texas, she played in a pickup hockey game. There, while talking with another player on the bench, the path for the rest of her life unfolded.

The woman she started a conversation with was a hockey official.

The part Hanley was dreading most about the end of her playing days was the locker room and camaraderie with teammates.

“I was just sitting there, trying to figure out what I was going to do because that was all going away,” she said, “I come talk to her and I was like, ‘This sounds exactly like what I'm gonna be missing.’ And it was a new challenge.”

kendall hanley
Hanley, right, poses with other officials at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
Contributed / Kendall Hanley

Just like that, Hanley’s life took a 180-degree turn. She began officiating at lower levels and worked her way up. Hanley officiated at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and has officiated games at various levels of hockey, including the American Hockey League (AHL) and International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF).

Now, the Minneapolis resident is the manager of officiating in the North American Hockey League (NAHL) and the director of officials of the North American Prospects Hockey League (NAPHL). Her work now is all about helping the younger generations come up after her.

Hanley isn’t alone in her love for the sport. Minnesota Hockey, an affiliate of USA Hockey, reports that Minnesota leads the country with 14,223 female players. Among that group is nearly 4,000 high schoolers and 185 adapted floor hockey players.

Growth of sports

Women’s hockey isn’t the only sport increasing its popularity. The growth of professional women’s basketball and soccer as well as new professional women’s leagues continue to slam against the glass ceiling that used to hang – and in many respects, still hangs – above women’s sports.

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This growth didn’t happen overnight. In the words of Sarah Fuller, who narrated an espnW video ahead of referee Sarah Thomas officiating the 2021 Super Bowl: “This is how it works. Pioneers achieve. And these days, anywhere girls look, they see what can be. They see progress. They see history. Barriers broken and ceilings shattered. And they see what once was only imagined become real.”

Fifty years ago, President Richard Nixon signed Title IX into law with the Education Amendments of 1972. Though it put the ability for women to participate in collegiate athletics in words, other barriers have long slowed the growth of women’s sports – namely, institutions unwilling to change.

Take women’s college basketball. The 2022 tournament – the 40th NCAA women’s basketball tournament – was the first to ever have the March Madness branding that the men’s tournament has used since 1939.

“It’s equality,” Carol Stiff, a former ESPN executive and Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer, told Sportico , a sports business content company. “It just looks prestigious and larger.”

Exclusive
A pair of girls from Southeast Minnesota ran at the forefront of women's athletics in the groundbreaking years after the passage of Title IX.

On May 18, 2022, the U.S. soccer’s men’s and women’s national teams agreed to historic collective bargaining agreements, which, among other significant provisions, ensures that players on both squads will receive equal pay and equally split prize money won at events like the World Cup.

Soccer Hall of Famer Abby Wambach tweeted following the announcement by the U.S. Soccer Federation and the national teams: “The love and joy for these women, and everyone it took that made this historic day possible, is endless. Made even this optimist hopeful that what we are doing matters.”

It does.

Because of investments like these, young girls see that equality and equity is possible. They see the landscape of sports shifting and expanding to include the very things Title IX made possible 50 years ago.

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'You can do anything'

Sarah Fuller was one of many recent players who – maybe unintentionally – became a role model and pillar for equity in women’s sports. The soccer player made history on Nov. 28, 2020, when she kicked off the second half of the Vanderbilt University football game, becoming the first woman to play in an Southeastern Conference and Power 5 football game. Two weeks later, Fuller became the first woman to score in a Power 5 game after nailing a field goal against the University of Tennessee.

Fuller traded the soccer field for the gridiron and grabbed everyone’s attention that Thanksgiving weekend, and held the attention of young girls who saw in Fuller who they could become.

“The fact that I can represent the little girls out there who want to do this or who thought about playing football, or any sport really. It encourages them to be able to step out and do something big like this,” Fuller said on ESPN following her first game. “I just want to tell all the girls out there that you can do anything you set your mind to.”

Now, Fuller is making history again in Minnesota, this time as part of the new Minnesota Aurora FC team. This is the inaugural season of the United Soccer League W League, which was officially announced June 8, 2021, after USL club owners showed interest in investing in women’s soccer in 2019.

sarah fuller
Fuller at Aurora FC's first practice at TCO Stadium in Eagan, Minn., May 9, 2022.
Contributed / Brenna Keeler

Fuller told reporters after the team’s first practice on May 9, 2022, that the work the USL did to prepare and invest in women’s soccer is vital to the growth of the game.

“This is incredible. I think this team here and what they’re doing, the stadium and everything they’ve built is unmatched, even compared to some of the NWSL teams. I think that speaks volumes,” she said. “We’re setting the standard for women’s sports and women’s soccer, and I just think that’s so important.”

Nicole Lukic, the Aurora head coach, also said the new league has an opportunity in front of it to change soccer.

“I'm hopeful it'll change the women's amateur landscape,” she said. “It feels like they have a lot of resources and are injecting a lot of energy into the league.”

Many sports are at a time when investment is not only necessary but called for by players, coaches and fans alike. The WNBA has led women’s professional sports in many facets, but especially in the call to support women’s sports. Nicole LaVoi, the director of the Tucker Center at the University of Minnesota, believes the league “provided a blueprint for what’s working for women’s sport,” and the WNBA – both executives and players – has the ability to continue to push for equity in sports.

“I think the collective bargaining agreement that the WNBA came to with its players is also a good indicator that the league does actually value and support their female athletes,” LaVoi said.

Change in Minnesota

Change and growth isn’t exclusive to big metropolitan areas or professional sports. In September, the Minnesota Department of the American Legion greenlighted a summer fast-pitch softball league, much like the popular baseball program.

American Legion softball will begin in the summer of 2022 with 25 teams listed to play. The inaugural state tournament is on July 30 and 31, 2022, in Mankato, Minn.

In May 2022, the Minnesota Vikings announced a partnership with Minneapolis Public Schools to launch a new girls flag football program. In a press release announcing the partnership, the Vikings said they hope “to expand the initiative to schools across the state in future years” and that financially supporting programs will help schools introduce additional programs.

“The Vikings are committed to creating enriching and inclusive athletic opportunities across Minnesota,” the statement continued. “The future expansion of girls' high school football to a varsity sport in Minnesota is a long-term goal that would align with that commitment.”

Despite the growth and steps toward equity that women’s sports have experienced in recent years, there are still inequities that need to be addressed.

According to a report compiled by the Women’s Sports Foundation, which was founded by Billie Jean King in 1974, there are 3.4 million participation opportunities for high school girls, more than 1 million fewer opportunities compared to high school boys. Only 14% of all college athletes are female Black, indigenous and people of color, compared to the 30% of all athletes that are white women.

In the 2020-2021 academic year, 41% of women’s NCAA teams had a female head coach. In 1971, 90% of female teams were coached by women. Only 7% of head coaches of women’s sports are Black, indigenous and people of color. White women make up the other 34% of women’s sports head coaches.

The Post Bulletin is running a three-part series on Title IX at 50. In part three, we’ll dive into the lack of female coaches in women’s sports, race and gender under Title IX, and national conversations around the application of Title IX, like transgender athlete participation. 

Abby Sharpe joined the Post Bulletin in February 2022 after graduating from Arizona State University with a sports journalism degree. While at ASU, she created short- and long-form stories for audio and digital. Readers can reach Abby at 507-285-7723 or asharpe@postbulletin.com.
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