Mark Wiedmer: Title IX anniversary deserves celebration

Mark Wiedmer: Title IX anniversary deserves celebration

June 24th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Former Tennessee women's college basketball coach Pat Summitt

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

When Pat Summitt retired in April after 38 seasons as the University of Tennessee women's basketball coach, the Lady Vols legend was making $1.4 million a year.

Given that Summitt left the game with both more wins (1,098 to 927) and more NCAA titles (8 to 4) than Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski -- her somewhat equal male counterpart -- Coach K's annual salary of more than $5 million might seem a gross injustice.

Especially on the weekend we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark legislation written by former Indiana senator Birch Bayh.

Said Bayh at that time: "[This is] an effort to provide the women of America ... an equal chance to attend the schools of their choice, to develop the skills they want, and to apply those skills with the knowledge that they will have a fair chance to secure the jobs of their choice with equal pay for equal work."

But perspective also is in order here, and we'll begin with Summitt, who said of her first season in 1974: "All Dr. [Helen] Watson offered me was $250 a month -- I mean, I was bouncing checks all over the place -- and the opportunity to teach and get my master's degree."

That, dear readers, is why we're celebrating Title IX today.

It officially became law on June 23, 1972, six days after the Watergate break-in, which is relevant only to the extent that when President Richard Nixon signed the legislation into law he focused on the desegregation portion of the bill regarding busing rather than the educational opportunities for women.

Forty years later, it could be strongly argued that Title IX's positive impact on the nation has far outweighed the negative impact of Watergate.

"It's unfortunate that the federal government had to force this on our nation," said Grace Keith, who was coaching the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga women as the law took effect. "And there's still more that needs to be done. But it's already accomplished so much more than I ever dreamed it would."

Sharon Fanning-Otis played for Keith during the 1974-75 school year, went away to work with Summitt for a year at UT and complete her master's, then returned to coach the Lady Mocs the following season.

"I remember a time when we had to buy our own shorts and shoes but the school would furnish our jerseys," said Fanning-Otis, who retired this spring at Mississippi State and moved directly into fundraising.

"Before Title IX, we played the [collegiate] state basketball tournament at UT's Physical Education Building and we had to play three games in one day. Could more be done? Certainly. But to see the incredible improvement in facilities, to see the opportunities for women now beyond coaching, just to look at salaries is incredible."

As a second example of those salaries, Fanning-Otis earned $12,000 her first year as UTC's coach. Though at the bottom of the SEC this past season, she made $240,000 her final year at MSU.

It's not just money or the scholarships and roster spots that are supposed to at least mirror the overall student body. In other words, if 50 percent of your student body is women, the goal is for 50 percent of your athletes to be women, and for the scholarships to come as close as possible.

Fanning recalled a time when she was forced to move a volleyball match that was in progress to the UTC auxiliary gym because the men's basketball team had a practice scheduled for 7 p.m. in Maclellan Gym and the coach wasn't willing to wait until the volleyball match ended.

Though she won't name the person, she also remembers an administrator at one of her three stops -- UTC, Kentucky and Mississippi State -- telling her, "If God had meant for women to be in athletics, he would have put Astroturf in the kitchen."

Yet she also added, "We need to focus on the positive, on all the young women who've received a college education because of Title IX. It's just provided so many opportunities for women that wouldn't have been there otherwise."

UTC athletic director Rick Hart has a unique perspective on those opportunities. His head coaches for both men and women currently include one woman -- women's golf coach Colette Murray.

Hamstrung by a ridiculously tight budget, Hart noted, "We've certainly interviewed women when jobs have come open. But when you're in a position to to hire someone from an under-represented group, it's very competitive."

Wow! At least at some schools it takes less money to hire men than women. Talk about progress.

Some men will argue that the guidelines have crippled collegiate wrestling and hurt baseball at lower Division I schools. Unfortunately, nothing's perfect.

But this may be the best example of how far we've come. Said Fanning-Otis of the change in SEC-level programs over the past 40 years: "We've now got 11 or 12 people doing what one person did in 1976."

As any woman stuck in the workplace before Title IX can tell you, that injustice had needed fixing since the beginning of time.