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Tennis, the Prairie, and Gender Equity

October 10, 2012 By Dana Yost, Guest Commentary

Editor's Note: Midwest author and former Marshall Independent editor Dana Yost has a new book hitting shelves soon. A Higher Level chronicles Southwest State University’s (SSU) national powerhouse women’s tennis team through the 1980s and early 1990s, led by legendary coach Hugh Curtler. The book, however, explores much more than a famed tennis program, highlighting life on the upper Midwest prairie, a new college’s steady rise and the difficulty balancing collegian athletics with academics. The following excerpt details Title IX’s start, and is particularly relevant to Minnesota 2020’s policy work around equal access in education and sports.

In some states, in some eras, girls and women did play competitive sports in school. Dating to the 1920s, Iowa, Oklahoma and New Jersey permitted six-on-six high school girls basketball. In Iowa, girls basketball became the stuff of lore and television documentaries—one Iowa girls player was drafted by the National Basketball Association in the late 1960s—before six-on-six was eliminated in the mid-1990s and the whole state went to playing traditional five-on-five basketball.

In Minnesota, there were high school girls’ basketball teams in the 1930s and 1940s. It is important to note a distinction, however: State high school leaders permitted these teams to play, but were not required to.

…Ultimately, and literally, it took an act of Congress to require schools to offer females equal opportunities to play sports. On June 23, 1972, when a federal law called Title IX, Education Amendments 1972—commonly known as simply Title IX—took effect.

The law had some immediate impact before it actually took effect: SSU played its first intercollegiate volleyball season in the fall of 1971. The University of Minnesota had its first women’s basketball season in 1971-72, and its first women’s tennis season in 1974-75.

In high school sports, the first time Minnesota conducted state girls’ basketball tournaments, it had two in the same school year—one in the fall of 1974, the other in the spring of 1975. The next school year, 1975-1976, state girls’ basketball tournaments were all played in the late winter. The first Minnesota girls’ state tennis tournament was in 1974.

In the four decades after Title IX took effect, participation in girls’ high school sports soared, Sports Illustrated reported in its May 7, 2012, issue, citing a study by the Women’s Sports Federation. In 1972, there were 294,015 girls competing in high school sports in the United States. In 2011, there were 3.2 million.

…While the law required equity in opportunity for male and female athletes, and while some programs for females started as soon as the law took hold, there were no guarantees that women’s teams would get access to as the same quality facilities or coaches as male teams. There was still sizeable resistance to the idea that females should take part in competitive sports at all. It took pioneering work to form conferences, raise funds, and build respect.

The NCAA did not recognize women’s athletic champions until the 1981-82 school year, a full decade after Title IX became law. In fact, the NCAA filed a lawsuit in 1976 trying to have Title IX overturned. With the NCAA opposing their very existence, women’s college teams and sports were sanctioned by other organizations, such as the Association for Intercollegiate Athletes for Women (AIAW) [founded in 1971] and the National Association for Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).

… The AIAW had done the heavy lifting in the 1970s to start building sports gender equity—with people like Jeri Madden and Carmen DeKoster at Southwest State among its active supporters—but once the NCAA saw potential revenue, it swung its heavy club. “The NCAA realized Title IX wasn’t going away and voted to begin offering championships in women’s sports,” Sports Illustrated reported. [By 1983, the AIAW had dissolved.] 

…Amid this backdrop [Southwest State coach and philosophy professor Hugh] Curtler and his tennis team began their rise to prominence.

…Curtler said he noticed some signs of gender bias, but for the most part, his players seemed not to fret about it. For one thing, they were concerned mainly about what they were doing on the court—too busy and having too much fun to get drawn into debates over whether women should really be playing competitive sports. For another, they did not see themselves in such a political light: they were just a good team doing good things, something any committed program—men’s or women’s—ought to focus on.

“I knew at Southwest the program was just starting, but I didn't know the politics. In fact, to me, women were supposed to have teams. My high school teams were always better than the boys’ teams. My junior year the girls volleyball, basketball, tennis, and softball teams all went to the state tournament. The boys never had that success. I just thought that SSU was a newer school and just getting things started,” said Sharon DeRemer.

…Former women’s basketball coach Carmen DeKoster said the success of the tennis program, coming when it did—not just as women’s college sports were developing but with Southwest State University itself in its infancy—was “very important.”

“Any recognition our programs received was important, especially at the regional and/or national level,” DeKoster said. “Remember, most towns in Minnesota hadn't heard of Southwest State University, let alone states surrounding Minnesota and beyond. So any time our sports could compete, whether it be men’s or women’s sports, either in-state or out of state, it brought a positive light on our university… tennis was a big contributor to that image.”

…Curtler said he didn’t consider the tennis team to be pioneering even though its success certainly raised the profile of women’s athletics at SSU. He said the pioneers were people like former women’s athletic director Jeri Madden, and the women’s athletic directors at St. Cloud State University and Mankato State University who worked to form the Northern Sun Conference, [an all-women’s conference, consisting of mostly Minnesota teams].

…Curtler said he didn’t dwell on the gender-bias issue, but when he did consider the issue, “I certainly felt like we never got our fair share.
“Generally speaking, I felt we got leftovers, such as the lack of scholarships. I had zero recruiting budget. I’d probably get in trouble for this, but I had to make my recruiting calls out of my own philosophy department office. …I only went to a recruit’s home once—and that came out of my [philosophy] departmental travel budget.”

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