WOMEN SOCCER PLAYERS TOOK AUBURN TO COURT

"I tried every avenue I had," says Susan Bradbury Kiechel. But the administrators at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala.,weren't interested in her request to elevate women's soccer to a varsity sport. She says she got only "ugly" responses from the school's athletic directors.

Last October she contacted the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) at the Education Department in Washington. The OCR is charged with enforcing Title IX of the federal education code, which bars discrimination based on gender. The agency set a hearing date for her case.

"Every six weeks, a letter would coming saying, `Your hearing date is now this or that,' " she says. The extensions were granted, she says, because the university kept missing its deadline to give the OCR needed information.

In the end she did what she had hoped to avoid: She took her school to court.

Over the previous two years, Ms. Kiechel had devoted many hours to building her case that there was ample support at Auburn to warrant varsity soccer for women. An unfunded club team has been playing for seven years. It had top-quality players, including some standouts from Europe. Some 1,400 women on campus expressed interest in having a varsity soccer team, Kiechel says.

She had also researched the university's funding of athletics. At Auburn, she says, 12 percent of an $18-million athletic budget goes to women. The student body, she notes, is almost exactly half female.

"Once we filed, things moved at a very progressive rate," Kiechel recalls. The university settled out of court, agreeing to fund a women's varsity soccer program this fall. The $200,000 being put up by the school will underwrite "a first-rate, first-class team," she says, with recruitment, uniforms, a schedule, and their own field for practice and games.

Kiechel's eligibility to play and that of a number of other women involved in the case has expired. But she hopes her case will encourage women athletes at other schools who want to see their teams given varsity status. She also hopes that the Southeast Conference, to which Auburn belongs, will get a message too - that it has to do more to accommodate women's athletics and can't cling to its longtime stand that football is not to be counted in assessing Title IX compliance.

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