Colby College faced a similar gender discrimination complaint in 2003

Wendy Slicer was one of five female Colby student athletes who sued the college in 2003 for alleged Title IX violations. Known then as Wendy Bonner, she was a three-sport standout at Colby, playing field hockey, basketball and softball. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Eighteen years before six female coaches filed a gender discrimination complaint against Colby College, the school faced a strikingly similar complaint.

In 2003, five student athletes sued Colby in U.S. District Court alleging violations of Title IX, the federal law prohibiting gender discrimination in education.

At the heart of that complaint was Colby’s practice of having one person serve as head coach of two women’s sports. Back then, Jennifer Holsten was head coach of the women’s soccer and women’s ice hockey teams, while Heidi Godomsky was head coach of the field hockey and women’s lacrosse teams. With their coaches’ attention divided between two teams, the athletes felt their teams were not given a fair chance to compete.

“We were at a competitive disadvantage,” said Heather DeVito, one of the plaintiffs, who played ice hockey at Colby and graduated in 2005. “We’d go into hockey season and our coach was still at soccer.” The other students who sued were Wendy Bonner (now Slicer), Kristin Putnam, Adrienne LeClair and Rebecca Avrutin.

Slicer was a three-sport standout at Colby, playing field hockey, basketball and softball. Slicer said she became frustrated after having an interim field hockey coach, Brenda Beckwith, who focused just on one sport while Godomsky was out on leave for two seasons.

“I loved Brenda Beckwith. She was our interim coach, but I responded well to her,” said Slicer, who graduated from Colby in 2005.

Slicer said coaches who split their time between two teams were unable to devote enough time to recruiting, and inevitably both teams suffered. Slicer spoke with other female student athletes, and they decided to file their lawsuit. Their research showed the problem went beyond sharing coaches.

“I said, ‘I can’t believe I’m at a school that prides itself on being one of the first schools in the United States to admit women, and this is going on,’” Slicer said. “We went through everything. Equipment, facilities, money allocated to end-of-season parties. The football team had a banquet with families invited. Our field hockey team had a pizza party, just the team.

“(The lawsuit) was embarrassing for (Colby) and there were a lot of people who were insulted by it. It was the right thing to do at the time.”

The athletes’ lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Bangor in June 2003, was settled out of court in February 2004. In the settlement documents, Colby agreed that by the beginning of the 2004-05 academic year the college would remodel the women’s locker room and that by the fall of 2005 the women’s soccer, ice hockey, field hockey and lacrosse teams would have head coaches dedicated solely to each sport.

Colby also agreed to establish a system for accounting for revenues and expenditures for men’s and women’s sports, and publish a commitment to equal opportunities in sports as part of the student handbook. Colby also acknowledged its obligation to hire coaches and retain coaches of equivalent quality for women’s and men’s teams.

Samuel Schiller, a Tennessee lawyer who represented the students, was pleased with the outcome.

“By working together, the plaintiffs and the college have done that. Everyone has come out of this a winner,” Schiller said at the time.

To DeVito, the out-of-court settlement was bittersweet. Holsten chose to coach the women’s soccer team and leave the ice hockey program.

“Am I glad we won?” DeVito said. “Yes, but it was a little bit of a bummer because we lost our coach.”

Nobody in Colby’s current administration was in power in 2003, when this suit was filed. Still, neither DeVito nor Slicer was surprised the issue reared its head again at Colby last year, in the form of the complaint made by the coaches to the Maine Human Rights Commission.

“It seemed like the same old, same old,” DeVito said.

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