How Title IX — and a Future U.S. Attorney — Saved UMass Women’s Lacrosse


When Patti Bossio called her team in for a meeting at the end of the 1990 lacrosse season, Rachael Rollins didn’t know what to expect. The meeting was out of the ordinary, but she and her UMass Amherst teammates dutifully circled around their head coach as she dropped a bomb: The UMass athletic department was cutting the women’s lacrosse team.

“I didn’t even understand what she was saying,” Rollins, who was a freshman at the time, said.

All of a sudden, questions swirled around Rollins’ head. Would she be able to keep the scholarship she needed to stay in school? What would happen to her teammates? Why had she put in endless hours of practice just to have the rug ripped out from under her?

And shouldn’t Title IX have protected her team?

Rollins later learned that UMass Athletics was also cutting women’s volleyball and women’s tennis, and the gears in her head began to turn. None of the three sports being cut were fully funded, but the administration decided to cut entire teams under the guise of budget constraints. The fully funded UMass football team, however, didn’t lose a single scholarship.

Rutgers and Northeastern also announced they were cutting their women’s lacrosse teams the same year.

Rollins and teammate Melissa Cellucci asked for a meeting with the athletic director, but he turned them away. That is, until they brought in a lawyer.

“He had no time for us,” Rollins said. “We ended up getting a lawyer, and miraculously he had time. Under the mere threat of a Title IX lawsuit, we were able to get all three teams reinstated.”

Two years later, the Minutewomen were back on the field, and Rollins had found a passion for law. On Dec. 8, 2021, she was sworn in as the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts.

The case of Rollins and UMass set a precedent, as Title IX, less than 20 years old at the time, was still a fledgling statute that most athletic departments followed as an afterthought, rather than a moral principle. But Rollins and women around her drove Title IX into the spotlight — and saved UMass women’s lacrosse in the process.


“Under the mere threat of a Title IX lawsuit, we were able to get all three teams reinstated.”

— Rachael Rollins


Carole Kleinfelder was used to sub-par treatment. She was used to her team’s kilts sitting crumpled up in a corner of the equipment room while the pristine men’s uniforms hung in neat rows on hangers. She was used to handing out second-hand cleats that had been worn out by the field hockey team during the fall season.

Her team’s cages always had holes in the netting, and one corner of her field was always flooded after it rained. She had to send an assistant coach out at halftime of every night game to put gasoline in a portable generator so the lights wouldn’t turn off before the final whistle blew.

It was all par for the course for the Harvard women’s lacrosse coach.

“All the coaches had the same complaints,” Kleinfelder said. “They couldn’t get assistant coaches to be paid enough. They couldn’t get enough assistant coaches. The fields and the equipment were inadequate, never up to par with what the men were doing. And transportation was less than the men. Meal money was less than the men. And on, and on, and on.”

Kleinfelder began her NCAA coaching career at Brown in 1973, one year after Title IX went into effect. She later took over the top job at Harvard. She had a front-row seat as women’s sports began to gain more traction, but that progress came slowly.

“All the colleges just dragged their feet,” Kleinfelder said. “They really, really fought tooth and nail not to fully implement Title IX.”

When Kleinfelder heard the news that UMass, Rutgers and Northeastern planned to cut their women’s lacrosse programs, Kleinfelder realized she was in a unique position. With her team undefeated entering the NCAA tournament, all eyes were on Kleinfelder and Harvard women’s lacrosse.

She cut ribbons and distributed them to her team along with instructions to tie them on their jerseys, knowing that as her team pursued a national championship, eyes across the country would be trained on them. 

“I think it’s important when you have a platform for use to possibly affect change, you should always use it,” Kleinfelder.

To the players, though, Kleinfelder’s show of support came as somewhat of a surprise. Kleinfelder is a self-described “activist at heart” and made a habit of defending Title IX throughout her decades-long coaching career, but her players at the time were focused more on what was happening on the field than off it.  

“All we were thinking about was playing Temple or playing Maryland, and she was like, ‘This is wrong, and if we wear them, I think we can help raise awareness of what’s happening,’” said Sarah Leary, Harvard’s goaltender during the 1990 season. “And this was the type of stuff Carole talked about with us all the time.”

After the first game Harvard played with ribbons tied on their jerseys — the national semifinal game against Temple, which Harvard won 13-7 — reporters in the postgame interviews were chomping at the bit to know what the ribbons symbolized. Kleinfelder’s plan to draw attention to gender inequality in college lacrosse had worked.

Not long after the Crimson won the 1990 national championship with an 8-7 win over Maryland, Rutgers reversed its decision to cut its women’s lacrosse program.

“What I am most impressed with is that on the precipice of one of the biggest accomplishments of her coaching career, she took the time to draw attention to UMass, Rutgers and Northeastern,” Leary said of Kleinfelder.








To this day, tears fill Rollins’ eyes when she watches the U.S. women’s national soccer team play. Watching Megan Rapinoe — and before her, Abby Wambach — fight for equal pay on the soccer field reminds Rollins of her fight to preserve her ability to play the sport she loves.

“Title IX in my day and age was about equity in sports and making sure that women’s athletics had the same funding as men’s athletics, or the same opportunity,” Rollins said. “We still have work to do, but I’m very, very proud of where we are.”

On May 18, the U.S. Soccer Federation announced it would eliminate the gender pay gap by paying members of the U.S men’s national team and U.S. women’s national team equally.

Dan Lebowitz, the executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society, said that though Title IX created the opportunity for progress in gender equity in athletics, underlying patterns of gender inequity prevent women’s athletics from advancing to the same status as men’s.

“It’s always explained that women aren’t marketable,” he said. “We create narratives in our world around economic viability, and sometimes they’re not true. Sometimes they go back to gender inequity and how we’ve institutionalized gender inequity.”

In her fight to reinstate women’s lacrosse at UMass, Rollins discovered the power of the law, she said. She realized that written words have the power to make people change their actions, even before going in front of a judge.

Playing lacrosse and fighting for her right to do so put Rollins on a path to law school, and later to a position as the Suffolk County District Attorney, a district that includes her hometown of Boston. On Dec. 8, 2021, Rollins became the first Black woman to be confirmed as the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts. She attributes much of her current success to lessons of leadership, character and discipline that she learned while playing lacrosse.

Lebowitz said that Rollins’ experience of finding empowerment through playing sports is a common phenomenon for women in positions of power.

“Sports are really an impactful environment for women not only to come of age, but to realize the power of their ability and the transcendence that sport allows to reach that ability without apology,” Lebowitz said. 




PHOTO COURTESY OF HARVARD ATHLETIC COMMUNICATIONS

Carole Kleinfelder of Harvard helped raise awareness for Title IX transgressions during her team's national championship run in 1990.


But without lacrosse, Rollins feared she might lose a piece of that empowerment.

“The feeling you get right before a game starts where you have butterflies — you’re getting pumped up, quiet, whatever those feelings are that you have — I was really worried that I was never going to feel that way after I graduated college,” Rollins said.

“And then I became a lawyer, and I started trying cases, and I felt that same sort of competitive spirit and work ethic sort of percolate up again when I was in the courtroom.”

In her campaign to become the DA of Suffolk County, Rollins was an underdog, fighting for a spot against five other candidates. It was a familiar position for her, as after the reinstatement of UMass women’s lacrosse, the Minutewomen weren’t expected to win a game. They could barely even field a team. They went 0-8. But the next year, they won a handful of games, and Rollins could feel that the program was moving in the right direction.

“Who are you when things are really hard? Do you show up every day and put a smile on your face and still give that hundred percent effort?” Rollins said. “That’s what those losing seasons taught me.”

Rollins won the primary with 42 percent of the vote, and she won the general election with 80 percent of the vote to become the DA of Suffolk County despite running the race as a relative unknown.

Rollins enrolled at UMass with no intent to study law. She had no prior experience in the field, after all. But in saving her team from being unjustly axed, she discovered her life’s work.

“I promise that, although lacrosse doesn’t teach you law, what it teaches you is teamwork, and people, and strategy, and character, and discipline,” Rollins said. “And those are all things that I use every single day.”

TITLE IX TURNS 50

On June 23, 1972, Title IX was signed into law, prohibiting gender discrimination in educational programs and activities that receive federal funding. Title IX gave women the right to equal opportunity in sports. Fifty years later, the legislation’s profound impact on lacrosse continues.

Throughout the month of June, we’ll tell the stories of those who fought for equality and ushered in an era of unprecedented growth in women’s lacrosse.

USALAXMAGAZINE.COM/TITLE-IX


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