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Rape Allegation Focuses New Attention on Women's Participation in All-Male Sports - 2004-02-20

The recent allegation by a female American-style football player that she was raped by a University of Colorado teammate has again focused attention on women's participation on what have traditionally been all-male sports teams. The case of kicker Katie Hnida may raise more questions than it answers.

Women playing so-called "men's sports" in the United States, such as baseball and football, are nothing new. More than 30 years ago, in November of 1973, a New Jersey court ruled that girls should be allowed to play in the national youth baseball league known as Little League Baseball. The concept was extended by a federal law, Title Nine of the Education Amendments of 1972, that is commonly interpreted to mean that when females possess the interest and ability to participate in a sport that is only provided for males, a school has an obligation to either provide a team for females, or allow the females to participate on the male's team.

But the current case of college student Katie Hnida shows it has not always been easy, especially for pioneers.

Hnida made college football history in 2002 when she became the first woman to appear in a National Collegiate Athletic Association, NCAA Division One game. Playing for the University of New Mexico, in the first quarter of the Las Vegas Bowl game, she made an unsuccessful attempt to kick the extra point after her team scored a touchdown.

But the most important part of Hnida's story is how she came to play for New Mexico. After a standout high school kicking career, the honor roll student tried out for and made the University of Colorado football team in 1999. Though she did not play that season, Hnida became the first woman to be an official team member in a post-season bowl game.

Last August, she revealed she had been the target of sexual harassment at Colorado during the 1999 season, saying she had been verbally abused and sexually molested. In a further revelation, the February 23 issue of Sports Illustrated Magazine also quotes Hnida as saying she was raped at one of her teammate's homes in the summer of 2000.

Hnida said she did not tell Colorado coach Gary Barnett because she feared he would throw her off the team, and did not go to the police because she was afraid of the player and did not want a "mess" in the media.

Rick Reilly, who broke the story for Sports Illustrated, says he wishes Hnida would tell the names of the men who assaulted her.

"I would love for her to come forward with names. I asked her every way to come forward with names. But she can't do it -- she's terrified," he said. "I mean, this was a group of 10 to 12 guys who were, she feels, out to get her. And I think she thinks they would still come get her."

Earlier this week, Coach Barnett contended he was not aware of the alleged harassment and that he did not believe his players were guilty. He also criticized Hnida's skills.

"Well Katie was a girl, and not only was she a girl -- she was terrible, okay, and there is no other way to say it. She could not kick the ball through the uprights," he said.

University of Colorado President Elizabeth Hoffman was distressed by Barnett's comments and put the coach on paid administrative leave, Wednesday.

"His remarks about her were extremely inappropriate and insensitive," she said. "Rape is a horrific allegation and it should be taken seriously. We believe it is appropriate to put him on administrative leave at this point in time, pending the outcome of this investigation. At this point everything is allegation. "

Three other women have sued the University of Colorado in federal court, saying they were raped by players or recruits at or after an off-campus party in December 2001. No assault charges have been filed in those cases. The university says it plans to hire a special administrator to oversee its athletic department and scandal-plagued football program.

The Title Nine regulations and other policies have brought millions of girls and young women into sports programs at schools across the United States. Most of them are on all-female teams, but some are playing on mixed teams. Of the 2.3 million Little League baseball players, for example, there are nearly 100,000 girls.

The alleged incidents in Colorado are a reminder to coaches, administrators, parents and players to re-emphasize that the goals of ethics and fair play are as important in these sports programs as winning.