Participants in girls and women’s sports today should be forgiven if they take for granted the bounty of athletic scholarships, competitive opportunities, training facilities and playing venues afforded them.
After all, they’ve never known anything else.
Their predecessors from two generations ago or more, however, faced a much leaner landscape. One where athletic scholarships were unheard of or totaled hundreds, not thousands of dollars. A handful of games once comprised a season. Facilities-venues were shared, borrowed or makeshift.
Until 1972 federal Title IX legislation banned discrimination on the basis of sex, educational institutions offered nothing resembling today’s well-funded athletic programs for females. Schools devoted a fraction of the resources, if anything at all, to girls and women’s sports that they earmarked for boys and men’s sports.
Second class citizen treatment prevailed.
Nebraska women’s basketball coach Connie Yori made her mark at Creighton University, where she played and coached at some 11 different “home” sites because the program didn’t have its own dedicated facility.
“We were gypsies in some ways. We just had to figure out places to play,” she says, adding, “That wasn’t that long ago either.”
The gulf between then and are now is vast.
“I mean everything was different,” she says. “The way we traveled – the coaches and student athletes were driving the vans to the games. We as coaches had to regularly clean the facilities we practiced in. That was the norm, there wasn’t anyone else to do it. There’s countless examples. Opportunities to play, scholarship money, modes of travel, recruiting budgets, operations budgets, staff salaries, you name it, it’s escalated. But college men’s athletics has escalated too, so it’s not just the women.
“When I played college basketball there would maybe be 50 to 100 fans in the stands and now I’m coaching games where there’s sell-outs and ticket scalping is going on, and who would have thought that?”
Creighton, Nebraska and UNO have their own women’s hoops and volleyball facilities.
“That’s just kind of what’s happened across the board in women’s athletics in that institutions are more committed to equity, and as well they should be,” says Yori.
Gaps remain. Salaries for women coaches lag behind those for men. And where men routinely coach female athletes, it’s rare that women coach male athletes.
Still, things are far advanced from when women’s athletics got dismissed or marginalized and the very notion of supporting female student-athletes was anathema to all but a few enlightened administrators and athletics officials.
In that proto-feminist era the so-called “weaker sex” was discouraged from athletics. Girls and women were considered too delicate to play certain, read: male, sports. Besides, it wasn’t feminine or ladylike to compete. Schools routinely said they could not justify women’s programs because they’d never pay for themselves. Consequently, the idea of giving females the same chances as males was met with paternalistic, patronizing objections. This despite the fact virtually all men’s programs lose money and only survive thanks to donations and to subsidies from student fees and revenue producing major sports.
Former Creighton softball coach Mary Higgins bought the rationale until realizing the contradiction
“I just remember thinking, ‘Well of course we don’t have women’s athletics, we can’t make any money, no one will come.’ And then it was like the light went on – ‘Well, wait a minute, the baseball team doesn’t make any money, they don’t have any people in the stands, then how come they have it and we don’t?'”
When people like Higgins began questioning tired old assumptions and asking for their fair share of amenities there was push back, including from men’s coaches protecting their turf.
“Well, you start with the fact that people don’t like change, period,” says former University of Nebraska at Omaha chancellor Del Weber.
With institutional support virtually nonexistent at the collegiate level, the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women evolved into the main national governing-sanctioning body. Meanwhile, the NCAA actively ignored, then opposed inroads made by women. When school presidents and NCAA officials saw the hand writing on the wall and, some argue, the profits to be made from championship events, women’s athletics fell under the NCAA’s aegis in the early 1980s.
The real impetus for change may simply have been demographic. As women became the majority population, more entered college. Today, women account for the majority enrollment at Creighton and UNO.
Where the benefits of athletic competition (improved self-esteem, leadership skills development, higher graduation rates, et cetera) were once anecdotal, they eventually became measurable.
As far as defining moments, says Higgins, “the linchpin for our programs to grow was getting scholarships. Once we had scholarships we could go get the players.” That’s when the real gains occurred.
“The AIAW got things launched and then I think we got more sophisticated with the NCAA and a lot more money became available. It was a positive thing for growth but that was a painful transition.”
UNO associate athletic director Connie Claussen began women’s athletics there in 1969 as volunteer softball coach. She soon added volleyball and basketball. “I didn’t ask anyone, I just did it,” she recalls. All three sports shared the same set of uniforms. The teams practiced and played in a quonset hut. The equipment room was the trunk of her car. There was no budget, only donations scrounged from sympathetic boosters. Similar limitations applied at Creighton. Nebraska enjoyed a decided facilities advantage. For a time small schools could hang with big schools as everyone started from scratch and had no scholarships available.
Even after Title IX passed, says Claussen “it took several years for it really to have an effect on most athletic programs,” and then only with some prodding. In the case of UNO the Chancellor’s and Mayor’s Commissions on the Status of Women brought pressure. Even the U.S. Office of Civil Rights got involved at the behest of parents Mary Ellen Drickey and Howard Rudloff.
“What sticks out in my mind is that in our old gym they had hours set aside for when the women could come in,” says Higgins. “You think about that now and it just sounds ludicrous but that’s just what it was. The women could come in I believe Sunday and Wednesday nights because God forbid they sweat or show any effort.”
Peru State College basketball coach Maurtice Ivy excelled at the high school, collegiate and pro levels but when she was learning the game as a youth in the 1970s there was no exposure to girls or women’s hoops.
“I didn’t really see women playing, and so the person I watched play and I kind of emulated my game after was Dr. J.”
As an Omaha youth Ivy and other inner city girls developed their skills as Hawkettes, the state’s first select basketball team run by the late Forrest Roper. Richard Nared’s Midwest Striders track program impacted generations of girls, including Ivy and her younger sister Mallery, who set several state records. The sisters’ father was among the first local coaches to offer girls the opportunity to play football.
Fastpitch whiz Ron Osborn organized a statewide club softball association as a forum for girls to play in and as a showcase to convince schools they should start their own softball teams.
Today, girls club teams are everywhere.
Grassroots pioneers worked independently of Title IX to bring about change. Ivy thinks of them and graduates like herself as “soldiers” in the women’s athletics movement.
But there’s no mistaking Title IX, whose enforcement has been upheld in countless legal findings, is the bedrock equal opportunity protection upon which girls and women’s athletics rests. By compelling schools receiving federal assistance to uphold gender equity it’s propelled the explosion of women going to college and the exponential growth of girls and women’s athletics. It’s meant a dramatic increase in the infrastructures supporting female student-athletes and a proportionate increase in the number of participants.
“You went from nothing to everything,” is how former UNO and Creighton athletic director and now UNO associate athletic director Don Leahy describes its impact.
“To me, it standardized and normalized athletics,” says Higgins. “Now it’s just expected.”
Institutions found not complying with Title IX are forced to take corrective action under penalty of court-ordered monetary damages.
Nebraska’s been a battleground for some notable Title IX actions, including a 1995 lawsuit brought by Naomi Friston against the Minden Public School District for scheduling girls games at off times compared to boys’ games. Creighton University graduate Kristen Galles, who successfully represented the Friston case, is now one of the nation’s leading Title IX and gender equity attorneys.
Some school districts, colleges, universities and states were more progressive than others early on. For example, where Iowa embraced girls high school athletics decades before Title IX neighboring Nebraska dragged its feet.
Yori, an Iowa girls athletics legend, says, “I feel like I grew up in almost the perfect place during my era to be a female athlete because Iowa was ahead of its time in regards to the support of girls athletics.” She says the late Iowa Girls Athletics Association president, E. Wayne Cooley, “found ways to place girl athletes on a pedestal.”
Not so much in Nebraska.
“When I crossed the river from Iowa to Nebraska during the early 1980s,” Yori says, “I saw a really different climate for girls athletics here. There was definitely a difference in the commitment level. I mean, there just weren’t opportunities. It’s been great to see how much progress we’ve made in Nebraska and now the two states are on level playing fields in my mind.”
At the collegiate level some Nebraska institutions did take the lead, including John F. Kennedy College in Wahoo and Midland University in Fremont, both of which built dominant women’s athletic programs in the ’70s. Recently retired Midland basketball coach Joanne Bracker was an inaugural member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
Under Claussen UNO won the 1975 AIAW Women’s College World Series, one of several national titles won by UNO women’s teams. Claussen and CU’s Higgins helped grow college softball, serving on AIAW and NCAA committees and leading their respective schools in hosting more than a dozen CWS championships, which Higgins says was “huge” in legitimizing women’s sports here and beyond.
The late Omaha Softball Association guru Carl Kelly and College World Series Inc. chairman Jack Diesing Sr., along with corporate donors, helped sponsor the women’s tournament.
The start of the 1980s saw NU women’s sports emerge. The volleyball program began its run of excellence under Terry Pettit. Gary Pepin’s track program shined with superstar Merlene Ottey. Angela Beck’s basketball program reached new heights with Maurtice Ivy. NU softball began making noise.
By the early ’90s, a full complement of women’s sports was in place wherever you looked, whether big public schools like NU, smaller private schools like CU or then-Division II UNO.
None of it would have happened without activists pressing the cause of female student athletes. Along the way Title IX and its supporters met resistance, including court challenges.
“I think there’s a lot of women and men who made a huge difference for the young women of this generation,” says Yori. “Connie Claussen and Mary Higgins were very much advocates for change. There were a lot of battles fought – in offices, in meeting rooms, and even legally in courtrooms. There were people that got fired for voicing their opinions and became the sacrificial lambs because of that. There were a lot of people who didn’t want change and didn’t want to give women the opportunity they are now being given.
“You know, we still need to fight for it, but there’s not such a gap as there was.”
Higgins says the trailblazers of modern women’s athletics were “people who just had a burning passion to make this happen. It consumed me, I know it consumed my colleagues. It’s like, ‘We’ll do whatever it takes. We’ll figure it out, we’ll find a way.”
Parents played roles, too, as coaches, administrators, boosters.
“I do think dads and their concern for their daughters had a major impact, and that was absolutely the case at Creighton,” says Higgins. “It wasn’t Title IX telling Creighton they had to do it. Title IX was happening at the same time but our then-assistant athletic director, the late Dan Offenburger, kind of led the charge. He coached our very first softball team. He didn’t have time to do it, we didn’t have any money, we didn’t even have a shoestring. But he got it going because it was the right thing to do. Plus, he had three daughters and he was motivated to create opportunities for them.
“I’m sure there are stories like that all over.”
As near as UNO, where Don Leahy says he supported women’s athletics not only because “I thought it had to be done” but because “I had a daughter who played sports.” There were also a wife and mother to answer to at home.
Leahy says the coaches he worked with at UNO and Creighton “fought diligently for their programs but at the same time they maintained a common sense that made it possible for this thing to develop. We talked and we gradually worked through these things and I think that made a big difference.”
“This stuff did not come easy,” says Del Weber, who approved the early road map for women’s athletics at UNO laid out by Leahy and Claussen and the gender equity program that they and former athletic director Bob Danenhauer devised.
Ramping up meant serious dollars. Leahy says when it became clear accommodating women’s athletics was a new reality “the first thing that came up was – how are we going to pay for this?”
Current Creighton athletic director Bruce Rasmussen, who coached CU’s women’s basketball team, recalls, “We didn’t have enough resources to properly compete just with our men’s programs and now we had the burden of essentially doubling our athletic department. It was, ‘How do we balance what we can do with what we should do?’ And there was a lot of stress across the country. Women’s athletics completely changed the dynamics of universities and how were they going to support a full athletic department. So there was a lot of tension and trauma going on.”
“And funding it is not just a matter of we’re going to give them x number of dollars,” says Rasmussen, “but it’s facilities, it’s staffing, it’s scholarships, recruiting, traveling, equipment…”
At Creighton as anywhere, says Rasmussen, “we’re asked to provide not only an athletic program but also to be fiscally responsible as a department and as a program. So when it comes to asking for more money, especially when you’re running at a deficit, there’s certainly friction. I think factions of the faculty felt every dollar that went to athletics was a dollar out of their pocket.”
By the ’90s, girls and women’s sports were a given. By the 2000s, they’re as much a part of the culture as boys and men’s sports. Some professional women’s sports leagues flourish. Icons have even emerged: Pat Summit, Lisa Leslie, Florence Griffith-Joyner, the Williams sisters, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Brittney Griner.
“To turn that around was a seismic shift,” says Higgins.
“In a short time things really have come a long way,” says Claussen, who hastens to add, “But it took a long time to get” the opportunity.
Once spare media coverage has increased to the point that it’s commonplace if still a trickle of what males get.
“Hopefully we’ll continue getting more and more and that’s where the NCAA plays a big part in getting those television contracts,” says Claussen. “All that’s going to help increase the interest.”
The sustainability of athletic programs is an increasingly difficult proposition for schools struggling to keep pace with peers in a competitive arena of ever rising costs.
“At some point women’s athletics has to generate enough money to pay for itself because until it does we’re not going to get where we need to be,” says Rasmussen. “In men’s basketball we wouldn’t have the budget or spend the money on salaries we do if weren’t generating that, and we’ve got to move to the point where on the women’s side we’re generating realistic revenues. And the key to that is having generations of females who played sports, understand the value of sports and are willing to make a commitment to those sports.
“We don’t exist as an athletic department without people making a commitment to us.”
Creighton’s state-of-the-art athletic center and arena for volleyball and women’s basketball resulted from multi-million dollar gifts by donors Wayne and Eileen Ryan and David Sokol. Rasmussen says having coached women’s sports helps him effectively make the case for them when he asks for support.
In 1985 Claussen inaugurated the UNO Women’s Walk, now the Claussen-Leahy Run/Walk, which has raised $4 million-plus for women’s athletics.
NU’s men’s and women programs have some of the best facilities in the U.S. thanks to mega donations.
The strong sisterhood of girls and women’s sports that exists today is built on decades of sacrifice and perseverance. Ivy wants her athletes to know the history. It’s why she says she tells them about “who paved some of the way and the different struggles people had to endure so that we can have.” Yori does the same with her players because she wants them to know “where we come from as a sport.”
“There were groundbreakers and pioneers before us who made a huge impact on the opportunities young people have today,” Yori says. “Women of previous generations were not given opportunities and so it’s neat to see when they are given opportunities how much they can take advantage of that.”
“Why was it ever different?” asked Leahy. Why indeed.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.