‘Last resort:’ The story behind the Title IX lawsuit against UK

Lisa Niblock, a UK senior, is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed at Lexington’s federal courthouse alleging that UK officials are discriminating against female athletes by refusing to create varsity sports opportunities. Photo by Arden Barnes | Staff

Emily Laytham

In 1972, a federal law known as Title IX was passed mandating equal opportunity for men and women in collegiate sports. Soon after, Suzie Stammer was approached by the University of Kentucky’s athletics department.

Stammer was the university’s club field hockey coach, and she was ready to take her players to the next level. So too, it seemed, was UK; the department elevated field hockey to a varsity sport in the spring of 1974.

In their inaugural 1975 season, the Lady Kats took home the state championship and ended the year with a 10-5-1 record.

After three years of continued success, the Lady Kats placed second in the 1978 state tournament and advanced to the Region 2 championships in Virginia, where they lost in the first round. It was not the last blow the team would face that year: In 1979, the field hockey team was relegated back to club status.

The Lady Kats were not thrilled.

The Title IX lawsuit against UK

Now, 40 years later, two students are accusing the university of refusing to create enough opportunities for women to play varsity sports in a federal lawsuit.

Lisa Niblock is a UK senior and a former All-American high school lacrosse star who was recruited by Division I programs across the country. Meredith Newman is vice president of UK’s club triathlon team.

Both are suing UK.

Their suit alleges UK has violated Title IX and that the university needs to add 183 women athletes to its rosters to meet federal compliance.

The lawsuit names UK, its Board of Trustees, President Eli Capilouto and Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart as defendants.

Niblock, an accounting major, said she would be interested in joining a varsity lacrosse or field hockey team if UK offered either. However, neither sport has risen above club status since the Lady Kats’ last stint as a varsity team in 1978. (Newman declined to speak with the Kernel for this story.)

Niblock isn’t even angry, she said. She’s just baffled.

“The whole situation is so surprising to me,” Niblock said. “UK is such a great school, and it has so much to offer its students academically… The campus is just thriving. The freshman class is such a big class, enrollment-wise. The new student center, the dorms – everything is so attractive to any student. I don’t know why UK wouldn’t want to add women’s sports, because if anything, it’s just going to make the school more of a powerhouse, athletically.”

Niblock said there is no doubt in her mind about it – if UK offered the sports, female students would be playing them. She initially formed her resolve “to make the situation right” after noticing disparities in opportunity.

“I stepped back, and I started thinking about the sports here at UK, and it just dawned on me that I really don’t see that many women’s sports here, and I don’t hear about women’s sports here,” Niblock said.

After checking the numbers, Niblock said her suspicions were confirmed. According to files submitted to the U.S. Department of Education last year, women accounted for 55 percent of UK’s 2017-2018 student population, but only 41 percent of the university’s varsity athletes.

“And yes,” Niblock said, “I’m an accounting major, so [those numbers] stuck out to me a little bit more than usual.”

Niblock began to think about how disparities in opportunity could affect students in hidden ways. She thought about the financial opportunity athletics scholarships bring, and the academic benefits to participating in varsity athletics. She kept thinking, she said, until she decided she needed to see “some sort of change.”

Being a varsity team ‘changed things’

Suzie Stammer said that during her brief time as the coach of 1970’s Lady Kats, her team’s success was buoyed by the luxuries afforded to a varsity team, including “new uniforms, better equipment and transportation.”

“[Before promotion to varsity], we had just been slogging it out, paying for a lot of our own stuff. All of a sudden, we had our travel covered… That changed things,” Stammer said.

Jill Zwagerman, the attorney representing Niblock and Newman, said this suit was a “last resort” for her clients.

“The only choice UK left [Niblock and Newman] was to either shrivel up in the corner or fight,” Zwagerman said. “They chose to fight. And the only mechanism they have to fight is to file this suit.”

In their suit, the two students outline several steps women at UK have reportedly taken in hopes of seeing the Big Blue Nation become more inclusive.

The suit alleges that members of UK’s women’s lacrosse team met with Barnhart in 2004 “to educate him on lacrosse and its rising popularity across the country, with the hope of making lacrosse a varsity sport.” The lawsuit states that female athletes at UK have made “additional efforts” to see lacrosse added as a varsity sport several times since 2018. UK officials reportedly refused, according to the suit.

The lawsuit alleged that field hockey and triathlon members have also approached the university in hopes of promotion to varsity on several occasions in the past year, to the same result.

According to the lawsuit, UK has not added a women’s varsity program in the past 10 years. The lawsuit further asserted that about 183 female students would need to participate in upper division sports at UK “to reach proportional opportunities under current enrollment numbers.”

But university officials contend that all Title IX requirements have been met.

“As a campus community, we care deeply about these issues,” UK spokesperson Jay Blanton said. “With 22 sports, UK has the broadest based athletics program in the Southeastern Conference. Based on our surveys of our students, the current sports offerings fully accommodate the interests and abilities of our undergraduate students.”

The referenced survey is an athletics interest questionnaire that UK students are required to complete before registering for fall semester classes.

According to Stammer – who referred to the questionnaire as “the infamous survey” – UK officials repeatedly informed female athletes interested in creating a varsity team that a survey of interest would have to be conducted first.

Data from those surveys have not been publicized.

Stammer now works as an umpire for field hockey matches across Lexington. It keeps her close to the sport after all these years.

“My passion for field hockey actually comes because it’s a lifelong sport,” Stammer said. “It’s just fabulous.”

Niblock remains active in lacrosse by refereeing games in the area in lieu of competing herself. Her attorneys say the lawsuit against UK will likely continue long after she has graduated, but Niblock said this issue is bigger than an individual.

“I just think of girls up north – where lacrosse is very, very popular – or girls anywhere in the country, really, that play all these different sports,” Niblock said. “I imagine these girls taking visits here, loving the campus, loving the people – there’s no doubt in my mind that they would want to come to UK. And I just don’t know why UK wouldn’t want that.”