A League of Fans Special Feature

Terri Lakowski was an outstanding high school athlete who grew increasingly frustrated with the gender inequities she encountered in athletics.

“My teammates and I were tired of feeling like second-class citizens to the boys,” says Lakowski.

That frustration was the impetus for Lakowski studying Title IX while playing basketball and earning her bachelor’s degree at Washington University in St. Louis. Technically, her degree was in Social Thought and Analysis, with a concentration in Women’s Studies, but she was focused on fully understanding Title IX and fighting against discrimination in the world of sports. Her honor’s thesis at Washington University was entitled, “Title IX & High School Athletics: An Introspective Look into Compliance Practices.”

Her Title IX background led to work developing and leading a Title IX education, advocacy and compliance program for the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri (ACLU-EM) office. In that role, she performed educational workshops for more than 1000 individuals. Lakowski went on to earn a Juris Doctorate from American University-Washington College of Law, where she graduated Summa Cum Laude and continued to specialize in Title IX law.

Lakowski then moved on to the Women’s Sports Foundation, where she served as Public Policy Director. In that role she oversaw all of the Foundation’s public policy and advocacy initiatives in the fight against discrimination in sport.

Today, she leads Active Policy Solutions (www.activepolicysolutions.com) and specializes in strategic policy planning, lobbying, coalition building and education and outreach to organizations working on issues in the areas of sport, youth development, health and fitness, Title IX and gender equity, and civil rights.

Recently, Lakowski has been at the forefront of landmark efforts to halt discrimination against disabled athletes.

Ken Reed, League of Fans’ sports policy director, recently interviewed Lakowski.

Reed: How did you become passionate about Title IX and other civil rights issues in sports?

Lakowski: Well, I grew up in St. Louis and was a three-sport athlete. Title IX wasn’t exactly well-implemented in the public school system when I was growing up.
As a young athlete, I gradually became aware of the inequities between boys and girls sports, especially when I got to high school. I noticed how they always put us in the small gym, which they called “the girls gym,” and how it didn’t have air conditioning. And I noticed that the cheerleaders and band never came to support us. Basically, I became increasingly aware that female athletes were generally treated as second-class citizens.

When I got to college and learned a lot more about Title IX, I became incredibly angry because of the fact that this law existed and people were violating it and it didn’t appear that people were doing anything about it. That started me on my trajectory.

Your honor’s thesis at Washington University was entitled, “Title IX & High School Athletics: An Introspective Look into Compliance Practices.” What were your key takeaways from doing that project?

Lakowski: A big thing I learned was that the law isn’t as black and white as you sometimes think when you’re younger. In interviewing a lot of the athletic directors in the St. Louis area, I discovered that one, there wasn’t a very clear understanding of what Title IX was beyond “We need to treat girls equally,” and two, the athletic administrators weren’t aware of, or thinking about, a lot of the things that add up to treating girls equally.

In a lot of cases, I don’t think it was intentional discrimination but a lack of understanding regarding what the law requires. That’s when I realized a lot more education was needed, along with some technical assistance to work with those schools to help them fully understand what their obligations were, and secondly, how to get there.

Reed: What is our country’s biggest challenge when it comes to Title IX and equal opportunity in sports?

Lakowski: Well, the big challenge today isn’t that much different than it was back when I wrote my thesis. We need to clearly educate athletic administrators as to what Title IX compliance looks like.

One of the challenges we’ve had as a country is that Title IX hasn’t really been enforced by the Department of Education. Most of the progress we’ve made has come from kids and parents demanding their legal rights.

One of my concerns today is that I sense a general complacency among young women when it comes to Title IX. There seems to be a lack of desire, or sense of urgency, to push the envelope when it comes to Title IX compliance.

A positive development, especially during the last couple decades, is the number of dads with athletic daughters that have become strong and passionate advocates for Title IX compliance.

Prior to starting your own consulting firm, you served as public policy director for the Women’s Sports Foundation. What was that experience like?

Lakowski: It was a great experience. I’m especially thankful that I was able to get to know Donna Lopiano at the Women’s Sports Foundation. She’s one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met.

Reed: In addition to your outstanding work on the issue of gender discrimination in sports, you’ve done some powerful advocacy work on behalf of disabled athletes. How did that work begin?

Lakowski: The Maryland Disability Law Center was working on a case that involved a cross country team and a disabled athlete whose rights were being denied. They approached the Women’s Sports Foundation seeking technical assistance. We discovered that it was a very similar fight to cases involving athletes being denied their rights based on gender. We gradually became more involved in advocacy work on behalf of disabled athletes.

Reed: Could you talk about the meaning of the “Dear Colleague” letter that the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR) put out last year which was designed to clarify schools’ responsibilities when it comes to equal opportunities for students with disabilities?

The letter that came out last year from the OCR applies to schools around the country. That letter is very strong in what it requires of schools. Now, all schools, across all levels of education, have to abide by the clarified regulations.

I view the “Dear Colleague” letter we got from the OCR as the Title IX for students with disabilities in that it really provides the detailed guidance that we have under Title IX. In particular, it specifies for schools what it looks like to provide equal opportunities in athletics for students with disabilities.

Reed: Talk about the positive developments in the area of equal opportunities in athletics for disabled students that you have seen since the “Dear Colleague” letter was released last year.

Lakowski: The “Dear Colleague” letter really provided necessary guidance to athletic administrators in terms of clarifying the obligations of school districts to provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in athletics.

The disabled sports community has really come together to take an active role in developing and providing tools for schools regarding how to provide increased access for students with disabilities.

At the same time, the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) and the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) have formed a joint task force to develop policies, procedures and resources to help their members comply with the new mandate. In addition, the NCAA has actually taken a proactive approach in developing new policies for colleges and universities.

So, I definitely think that you have leadership from the national organizations on this. Also, there’s been a groundswell of activity at the local level, led by parents who have been fighting for increased access for disabled students, and filing OCR complaints when they haven’t been given it. The landscape really is starting to change at schools.

How are schools dealing with the cost challenge in creating equal opportunities for disabled athletes?

Well, there are two types of adjustments needed. One, providing opportunities for disabled students within existing athletic programs. That’s really about making policy changes. For example, making modifications to a rule like allowing lighting devices on a track in addition to a starting gun so deaf athletes can race. Those types of things don’t really cost much; it’s really more about having that understanding, and policies in place to accommodate disabled athletes.

Secondly, where the significant costs come in, is that there is a requirement — under certain circumstances — in which schools would have to develop adapted programs like wheelchair basketball to accommodate those kids who can’t participate in the mainstream. That is definitely a cost. However, where it can be easier for schools is that the cost for adaptive programs doesn’t necessarily have to be covered by a single school.

With disabled students you don’t have the number of kids affected as you do under Title IX. As such, what we’ve seen work quite well are co-op programs that districts create so that the cost of developing a new wheelchair basketball program is shared among, for example, five schools within a school district. That kind of alliance really helps.

Leadership from national and state high school athletic associations regarding how to reduce and share costs in this area is going to be really important.

Reed: Long-term, do you see this “Dear Colleague” letter from the OCR regarding students with disabilities having the same type of impact as Title IX?

Lakowoski: I hope so, and I definitely think it has that possibility. I hope it doesn’t take as long to evolve as Title IX has … but I think we are going to see the sports landscape change dramatically because of it.

Reed: You’ve done a lot of work in the area of youth sports. Could you elaborate on that some?

Our firm specializes in government affairs and advocacy for youth sports. So, in that capacity, we’ve done a lot of policy work around access to sports opportunities for underserved communities. Youth sports safety has also been a big area, especially with the increasing awareness of the concussion issue, which has been a very big policy area that we’ve been engaged in. Also, childhood obesity is a big area in terms of making sure underserved communities have the programs and resources they need. That could mean federal grants for gym classes and/or comprehensive nutrition programs, for example. We do a lot of advocacy work in these areas, along with others.

Reed: You’ve taught a college course on an off-and-on basis through the years called “Diversity and Social Responsibility in Sport.” What is your purpose in teaching that course?

I want to make students aware of potential career fields outside of the traditional jobs in professional sports. For example, working in youth sports, or focusing on being an advocate on civil rights issues in sports. Basically, I want to focus the lens more on advocacy endeavors.

Reed: How can Americans passionate about the issue of equal opportunity in sports make a difference?

The most important thing that people who are passionate about equal opportunity in sports can do to make a positive impact is to primarily be aware of their rights. Schools haven’t always met their obligations, and a reason for this is that administrators, parents, and athletes haven’t been clear about what they can expect from school districts in terms of inclusion and opportunities.

Educating yourself and the community is critical, not only in terms of what the expectations of schools are, but how communities across the country are implementing the regulations in a positive and economical way. For example, Georgia has created a model program for disabled students by partnering with the American Association of Adapted Sports Programs and creating a district program that can help reduce the economic burden on schools.


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