“Many of us have our memories of being sort of shut out of gyms and playgrounds and whatever. But back then, we didn’t really grumble about it. Like an awful lot of things that happened to young women at the time, that was just the way it was. We hadn’t gotten to the point where we started complaining that maybe we should have more opportunities.”
–Former Immaculata coach Cathy Rush
March Madness is everywhere. Turn on the television and you’ll likely see teams vying for a sport title. And while the majority of media time is spent on men’s athletics, women are there too. Let’s not forget, however, that it was not long ago that women and sports were considered an unlikely pair.
Oh, women loved sports, women played sports, but we received the crumbs if we received anything at all. When I was in high school—and admittedly my school was tiny—the only sport offerings for girls were volleyball, cheerleading, dance line, and track. This was in the 1970’s and I was unaware that Title IX had been passed in 1972.
In a way, I faced fewer obstacles than women before me, and yet my options in high school were tenuous and not taken seriously. I had one young man ask me why I wasn’t a cheerleader. I told him it wasn’t my interest. He shrugged. “I think you should do it. You’ve got the breasts for it.” Huh. So much for being thought of as an athlete.
My friend Claudia (her video cancer interview is now up on my “Menopause, what are they saying now?” site)is running twenty three plus miles a week. She built her running distances slowly as she healed from her cancer and the resulting treatments and surgeries. Recently she told me how strange it feels to be considered a female athlete because she, too, faced exclusion as a younger woman. “Me? An athlete?” she says. Yes Claudia, you. I see you as a warrior athlete. You didn’t run away from your cancer, you ran at it, and it fled.
Last night my husband and I watched the movie, The Mighty Macs. It is based on a true story and is within the genre of film where underdogs find their heart and defy the odds. In 1971 Cathy Rush was hired—for a whopping $450 dollars for the season—to coach the struggling Immaculata University’s women’s basketball team. There was no funding, no support staff, and no gymnasium. (It had burnt down.)
I don’t know how true the movie is to the real story, but the film evoked memories of the times. Many people didn’t understand why Cathy Rush would take the job since she was married. She should be staying home and starting a family. The head nun was a bit shocked when Coach Rush said she would turn the women into athletes. The good Mother only wanted to keep the girl’s hormones in check, not develop athletes. (Statistically females who go into sports have much higher self-esteem and much lower teenage pregnancy rates.)
I read online that the first known women’s basketball game was played in 1892. The first NCAA women’s basketball tournament was played in 1982–one hundred years!– compared to the first men’s NCAA tournament in 1939. There were other less-funded tournaments for women’s basketball. In 1972, the first year Title IX was in place, Immaculata won the tournament under the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics. It was, and is, a huge deal. As you watch March Madness sports I’d like you to take a moment and remember how far women have come in athletics, but that the playing field remains far from level.
Here are facts I pulled off of Fact Monster (http://www.factmonster.com/ipka/A0768342.html):
• The first women’s intercollegiate basketball game took place between Stanford and the University of California on April 4, 1896. Stanford won.
• The Harlem Globetrotters are the only coed professional basketball team. In 1985 the team picked Olympian Lynette Woodward as its first female member.
• The Women’s Basketball Association, a professional basketball league, was founded in 1977. The WBA started with eight teams—Dayton, New Jersey, New York, Houston, Milwaukee, Chicago, Iowa, and Minnesota—and lasted three seasons.
• In 1977, Lucy Harris became the first woman to be drafted by an NBA team (New Orleans Jazz) and then in 1979, Ann Meyers signed an NBA contract for $50,000 for one year with the Indiana Pacers. Neither ever appeared in a game.
• Nancy Lieberman, the outstanding basketball player from Old Dominion College in Virginia, played for Springfield, Mass. of the U.S. Basketball League in 1986, becoming the first woman in history to play in a men’s professional league.
• The U.S. Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, began inducting members in 1959 but it was not until 1992 that the first women were inducted. They were Nera White, a 10-time Most Valuable Player in Amateur Athletic Union tournaments in the 1950s and 1960s, and Lucia Harris-Stewart, a member of the first U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team in 1976. Through 2001, ten women have been inducted into the Hall of Fame as players. Also, Judy Conradt, Billie Moore, Pat Summitt, and Margaret Wade have been inducted as coaches. In addition, Senda Berenson Abbott, a.k.a. “The Mother of Women’s Basketball,”and Bertha Teague were inducted as contributors, making it 16 women in all.
• The American Basketball League (ABL) began in 1996 and was very popular with fans but unfortunately lost money and could not afford to stay in existence. The league decided to shut down in December, 1998.
• The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) began in 1997 and has been extremely successful. The Houston Comets, led by superstars Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes, won the league championship four times from 1997-2000.
• Currently there are 14 WNBA teams—Charlotte Sting, Chicago Sky, Connecticut Sun, Detroit Shock, Houston Comets, Indiana Fever, Los Angeles Sparks, Minnesota Lynx, New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury, Seattle Storm, San Antonio Silver Stars, Sacramento Monarchs, and Washington Mystics.
• In 2007, the WNBA Sixth Woman Award was given out for the first time. Plenette Pierson, now in her sixth season, was the 2007 Sixth Woman Award recipient.