KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Some of the giants of women’s basketball say if not for Title IX, doors would not have been open for them to blaze trails to Hall of Fame careers on and off the court, but sound complacency alarms when it comes to the future of the law.
Coach Marsha Sharp takes it a step farther when talking about the significance of Title IX.
“I think the Title IX legislation, you could say is the most impactful piece of information in the 20th century,” said Sharp, who guided Sheryl Swoopes and Texas Tech to the 1993 national championship. “And I know the Civil Rights piece was really huge, but you impacted half our population.
“With Title IX, you gave opportunities across the board to women. And it was really an amazing time to watch the growth in sports.”
A 2003 inductee, Sharp joined 2008 Hall of Famer Debbie Ryan and a pair of recent inductees — Debbie Antonelli and Carol Stiff — spoke with The Associated Press about the 50th anniversary of the landmark legislation. Stiff, a basketball player/coach turned TV executive, called Title IX priceless.
“I don’t know where we would be today without Title IX,” Stiff said.
The icons of the game also agree more work remains even after 50 years.
“There’s a lot of battles, but we’re not fighting them,” said Ryan, who coached Virginia to three straight Final Fours. “And that’s one of the problems. I think because of the money that’s come into the game, it becomes harder for a coach to kind of put themselves out there. And I think even though they know who’s going to win, they just don’t do it as much.”
At least one of Ryan’s former players has been outspoken. Dawn Staley, now the highest-paid coach in the Southeastern Conference, is front and center helping fight for equity while leading South Carolina to two national championships.
For Sharp and Ryan, they worked their way through the nascent days of Title IX to the heights of women’s basketball.
Sharp played at Wayland Baptist, a Texas college giving scholarships as early as the 1950s that a local company flew to games. So while most women’s programs could only dream of flying to road games, it was nothing new for Sharp when she became coach at Texas Tech in 1982. Sharp’s Red Raiders played a national schedule with flights to Tennessee and Stanford.
At Virginia, Ryan had to stay awake to drive the van home from road games. Virginia started with one scholarship for basketball with the first player leaving after a year to care for her sick father. In 1978, Dori Gamble shared that scholarship with Hall of Famer Val Ackerman, currently commissioner of the Big East and the first president of the WNBA.
Using Title IX meant picking battles to get more athletic gear, equipment and facilities for female athletes.
One of Ryan’s biggest battles was for athletic bras.
Virginia cited a price of $32 apiece to avoid buying them for all women’s sports until Ryan pushed back with studies about women’s health along with a petition backed by all coaches, including football coach George Welsh. After she won, Pat Summitt, Kay Yow, Jody Conradt and Tara VanDerveer all called for guidance to help wage their own fights.
And probably surprising to many, the fight for athletic bras continues.
“Still today women athletes are not provided in their regular gear athletic bras,” Ryan said. “They’re not provided it at all, which is ridiculous. And it’s crazy that they’re not provided enough funding to be able to buy them.”
Antonelli, who played basketball for Yow at North Carolina State, started the first TV broadcasts of women’s games at Ohio State as director of marketing in the 1990s that boosted her own 30-plus year career as a broadcaster. She sees plenty of room for women’s sports to grow — as long as the money for diversity, equity and inclusion is used appropriately.
“It should go to women’s sports,” Antonelli said. “There’s more opportunities for girls to play now than they’ve ever played then there’s ever been now. They’re not all playing my sport, but they are playing. And that’s important because we know what value sport brings, what it teaches.”
Stiff said growing the TV audience is one of the next steps for women’s sports, and time slots are important to that growth.
“If you build it, they will come,” said Stiff, who spent more than 30 years at ESPN and got the Tennessee-UConn rivalry started, broadcasting the schools’ first meeting in 1995. “And you can point to the NCAA women’s semifinals that got moved from ESPN2 to ESPN. Why was that? It out-rated the NBA in that window for two years. Two years. We out-rated the NBA regular season, Friday night games. So we move it over, and look at the ratings.”
A 2021 Hall of Fame inductee, Stiff currently is involved with the Demand IX campaign with the Women’s Sports Foundation in an effort to educate people and and get help to protect and support Title IX.
Sharp said education remains vital to Title IX because the law is almost a victim of its own success. The coach said just go into any university or high school and ask students about Title IX, and many won’t know what it means.
“Is that a good thing? Sharp said. “In some ways, yes, because they haven’t had to fight those battles. It means that they have felt equity probably in their lives. But on the other hand, if you get too far away from it, then there are going to be some opportunities for people not to stay on course with what is the right thing to do.”