Felice Duffy’s Title IX work started with fighting for the right to play
Published in 2022 Connecticut Super Lawyers magazine
By Amy White on October 3, 2022
As a teenager in the early 1970s, Felice Duffy was fine with working on a farm, showing her award-winning sheep and operating within the “we’re all equal” worldview she acquired growing up as one of 10 children in Storrs. Even as the town was becoming a hotbed of men’s soccer, Duffy wasn’t interested.
“My siblings played,” she says. “I was happy working with my sheep.”
Until she got to UConn in 1977. “I was coming over McMahon Hill and looked down and saw the men’s soccer field,” Duffy says. “It was dusk, the crowd was thick, you could feel the passion. It was poetry. I said, ‘I want to do that.’”
Except she couldn’t; there was no women’s team. So Duffy decided to make one. “Keep in mind I’m a fairly unsocialized 18-year-old sheep farmer going to UConn’s AD John Toner and asking for something no one wanted to give me,” she says. “I was fearless out of ignorance—it didn’t occur to me that UConn would say no to women.”
She was told she had to show there was sufficient interest in a women’s club team, and they had to be invested for two reigns, or years, to get a varsity team. So Duffy found 87 women.
“The athletic department said, ‘Fine, you have players, but you need to apply to the student government for funding. You’re not part of the athletic department,’” Duffy says. “So we got $2,500 bucks and me as the leader. Then he instructed me I had to tell Coach Morrone he has to share everything with us.”
Morrone, UConn’s storied coach, led men’s soccer to 16 NCAA tournaments during his 1969 to 1996 tenure.
“He ended up being a friend, but at the time he was my nemesis,” Duffy says. “He built this program and didn’t want us strutting in. He gave us a bumpy practice field, V-neck jerseys down to our belly buttons, and a bunch of deflated soccer balls.”
Even so, the women kept at it for the two years. “Except they clarified later, ‘By two full reigns we meant two four-year cycles. So in eight years you can get your team,” Duffy remembers.
“Keep in mind Title IX was enacted in 1972; by 1978, you were supposed to have a compliance plan at each school, but there wasn’t,” she says. “We did have a Title IX coordinator, so I went to her—a young woman of color—who took one look at me and said, ‘I’d love to help you. But can’t you see I’m a token here? I do have documents that might help, on my desk, but I can’t give you those. But I’m going to leave, and there’s the copier.”
Armed with these documents, which showed UConn’s budgets strongly favored male athletics, as well as other docs she received from a fired football coach who met her at midnight on campus—“I can’t make this stuff up,” she adds—Duffy filed a federal complaint under Title IX.
Months later, she received notice the case was closed. “Except I was the complainant, and I didn’t even get interviewed,” Duffy says. “So I drove to the Office of Civil Rights said, ‘How is this closed?’ And the clerk said, ‘You’re right. This was closed without any investigation.”
The office reopened the case and told UConn unless it issued a women’s varsity team it would be denied federal funding. That did the trick. “I met with AD Toner soon after, and I remember this: A golf club was swung very close to my head and a trash can was kicked across the room,” Duffy says.
Since the UConn team’s 1979 inception, it has gone on to be a consistent national contender, while Duffy, who was named All-American her senior year, played internationally before being hired to coach Yale’s women’s soccer. During that time, from 1985 to 1995, the team won the Ivy League Championship, and Duffy became the self-appointed Title IX advocate for her athletes.
“The number of memos I wrote with, ‘This is the most blatant display of sex discrimination I’ve ever seen,’” she says. “Everyone said, ‘You should be a lawyer.’”
At 40, she became one.
“Title IX never left me,” says Duffy, “not even during my decade as a federal prosecutor. Vice President Biden, under the Obama administration, led the movement to bring in Title IX regulations in 2011 and 2014, so while I was doing my job prosecuting drug trafficking and gun violations, I was also doing Title IX work—educating and training about sexual harassment on college campuses.”
In 2015, after 10 years as an assistant U.S. attorney, she founded Duffy Law to primarily focus on Title IX matters. She largely handles campus sexual assault cases for students, athletes and coaches.
Duffy takes athletics cases, too, and recently settled a case with a familiar foe.
In 2020, she filed suit after UConn cut its varsity women’s rowing program. The U.S. District Court agreed this violated Title IX. A settlement was reached in 2021 that guarantees the women’s program until 2026. It also requires UConn to provide several improvements, including a renovated boathouse.
“We’ve come a long way,” Duffy says, “but far too many schools aren’t in compliance because nobody, in my opinion, is willing to change the structure that most athletic institutions sit on, which are founded on male sports.”
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