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Let’s Get to the Point

Opinion | November 23, 2015

The Women’s Varsity Fencing Team at Tufts has a somewhat facetious motto: “If we can’t beat them on the piste, we’ll beat them in the parking lot.” One morning in October, this motto became partly true. We were forced out of our practice space in Jackson Gym to make space for a men’s varsity team. So we moved to the parking lot to continue our practice.

This was not the first time in the history of the team, nor even the first time this year, that we were kicked out of our practice space

There are two things, two bare minimum requirements, that I think a university should provide for a varsity team. They are:

1. Access to a physical space to exist and practice as a team.

2. Ability to compete with other teams.

This year, Tufts has failed on both counts. First, we were kicked out of our practice space on multiple occasions to make space for a men’s varsity team–not for them to practice or compete, but to prepare and pump-up for home games. Second, the Tufts administration failed to sign us up for half of our competitions this year. We only have four meets in our schedule. This will likely hurt our chances to qualify as many members of our team as possible for Regional Championships, a major and recurring seasonal goal. This year, we have not been given consistent space to exist as a group, and we are unable to consistently compete as a team.

Many people are surprised to hear that Tufts has a varsity fencing team for women, but not for men (which speaks to the norms we have regarding women’s opportunities in sports). Our team exists because of a piece of federal civil rights law called Title IX. Title IX is a section of the Education Amendments of 1972 that prohibits exclusion or discrimination from educational programs or activities on the basis of sex. At Tufts, we are most familiar with the school’s violation of Title IX with regards to sexual assault. But the law encompasses more than issues of sexual assault and harassment. It also enforces policies of nondiscrimination in everything from financial aid, to admissions, to athletics. Educational institutions that comply with Title IX, including Tufts, are able to receive federal funding. If found to be in violation of Title IX, an educational institution can potentially lose financial assistance.

Tufts is required by Title IX to have equal opportunity for participation in athletics. That is why our varsity fencing team exists. Tufts created an equal number of men’s varsity and women’s varsity teams to satisfy the “equal opportunity” criterion. If Tufts did not provide equal opportunities, it would lose the funding it receives from the federal government.

In the past, Tufts has been found to be in violation of Title IX with regards to sexual assault. I believe Tufts has been, and is currently, violating Title IX with regards to athletics. According to section 106.41 of Title IX, an educational institution must provide its men and women athletes with equal access to “equipment and supplies,” “scheduling of games and practices,” “provision of locker rooms, practice and competitive facilities,” and “publicity,” among other things. In my four years at this university, all four of these equal access requirements have been violated once, if not multiple times.

This is an important issue, even if you couldn’t care less about sports, even if you’re not an athlete. It is important because college sports and athletics are one of the last remaining areas where it is acceptable to divide people according to sex and where the concept of sex is muddled with gender. Tufts may have introduced some gender-neutral bathrooms, but when it comes to athletics, female equals woman, male equals man, and the two groups are divided accordingly. It is also the one activity, in my four years at Tufts, where I have acutely felt discrimination and inequality because of my perceived and prescribed sex and gender.

Let me also say that I don’t think Title IX is a perfect piece of legislation. Only in the past couple years has the law included nondiscrimination clauses for transgender and non-binary identities. The law as it pertains to athletics has not yet been changed to account for other identities. Since the athletics part of the law is written in a sex and (cis)gender binary, it reinforces certain social norms. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is just beginning to create policies regarding trans student athletes in the last year. Nonetheless, I am thankful that the legislation exists because it is one step in the right direction—it is the reason that my teammates and I can participate in college sports at the varsity level, even nominally.

Despite Title IX’s requirements, Tufts has consistently violated our rights to equal opportunity and access in athletics over the past four years. To quote one of my teammates, “It feels like the administration doesn’t value us or respect us the same as other varsity teams.” When I joined the team my freshman year, I had no idea that I would have to take on more than just the role of athlete. My teammates and I have become administrators, accountants, coaches, bureaucrats, event staff, and drivers. We’ve attended meets without any coaches present. Tufts does not provide funding for buses, so we have to drive ourselves to meets. I have no issue with this if our meet is an hour or two away. But on longer commutes, around 3-4 hours, student drivers are so exhausted (after waking up at 5am to drive, competing for eight hours, driving back late) to the point where it becomes dangerous. We’ve had student drivers who are so tired that they’ve needed to pull over and take a nap before continuing. Even after expressing concerns about driving safety, the University has refused to provide funding for our transportation. This forces our team to make the choice between our own security, and being able to compete. We should not have to make this decision. This year, due to the Tufts’ penny-pinching, the school considered having us drive to and from Vassar on the same day. This would have entailed waking up at 4am, driving for three and a half hours, competing, and returning to campus around midnight. After all our student drivers rejected this option, the school said we could use our budget to stay in a motel overnight (this was cheaper than hiring a bus to take us there-and-back in the same day). It is my understanding that varsity warm-up uniforms are replaced every four years. Our team has not had its uniform replaced in six, if not seven, years. We have no cohesive uniform to wear to meets because most of the jackets and pants are broken, torn, or missing.

Let me go back to an anecdote from freshman year. This was the only year we were able to organize a meet at Tufts, against NYU. No one set up the space for our competition. When I arrived to compete in Jackson Gym, no Tufts administrator was present. There were no tables or chairs. No water was provided for athletes. We had only the waxed, wooden floor of the gym. Fencing is not supposed to take place on wood—it’s equivalent to playing football on concrete, or basketball on a turf field. In the end, my teammates and I had to run the entire meet ourselves. It was just us, a bunch of college kids, scrambling around to set up tables, directing the NYU athletes to a location five minutes away to get water from a Theater Department fountain. A Tufts administrator showed up about halfway through the meet, stayed for fifteen minutes, and spoke to no one before disappearing again. Only a handful of Tufts students showed up to watch—the event was barely advertised.

It is easy to dismiss these complaints: I’m just a whiny, privileged student at an elite university involved in a niche sport; a high-maintenance girl grumbling about how our vans aren’t roomy enough, and our practice space isn’t nice enough, and our uniforms aren’t stylish enough. But that is how women are reduced and shut up. That is how this team has stayed silent in the past; it is why I remained silent in the past. We’re taught as women to concede space: When the athletics department took our space to give to men, we didn’t say anything—it’s okay, they apologized. Athletics didn’t sign us up for meets—it’s okay, we changed coaches this year, and it must have been a difficult transition for them.

But let me ask you this, Tufts: is there any other varsity team this year that is missing half of their games in their schedule? Would our fencing team ever kick out this particular men’s varsity team from their practice space?

You can trivialize these complaints as much as you would like. You can say it isn’t as important as other issues of inequality on this campus. But the fact remains that Tufts has been violating federal civil rights law—again. It is my right to have equal opportunity at this university as an athlete. Just because we are a women’s team playing an obscure sport, and a Title IX team, does not mean you can ignore us.

My teammates and I wake up at 6:30 a.m. four days a week to practice. We fence for two hours on Fridays. We work hard. We commit our time to the sport. We are proud to represent this school. I’m not asking for more funding. I’m not asking for more space. I’m asking that you give us space to exist. I am asking that you do not prioritize a men’s team’s needs over those of a women’s team’s. I am asking that you give us the chance to compete. I’m asking for respect—for our team, for our sport, and for us as athletes. It’s time for Tufts to make a commitment to us.