I was in Morgantown on Saturday, February 27, for the WVU-Cincinnati men's basketball game. I'm indebted to the smart people who scheduled the women's game with Marquette for that Saturday evening. The timing was perfect -- the men's game tipped at 2 p.m. and finished around 4, allowing time for dinner and a beer before coming back to the Coliseum for the tip of the women's basketball game at 7. With coupons we received as we were exiting the men's game, admission for the women's game was the grand price of one dollar.
I enjoyed the WVU women's game just as much as I enjoyed the men's game.
I never thought I'd say that.
It was the first WVU women's basketball game I've ever attended. It won't be the last.
I admit that I was more relaxed during the women's game, but I enjoyed it just as much. The WVU women play a great game. The event's presentation -- the pep band, the videos, the good available seating, the entire court experience -- was outstanding. The Coliseum was a fun place to be that Saturday evening. I didn't know I liked women's college basketball, but I do, or at least I like WVU women's basketball.
Sarah Miles is an absolutely sensational point guard. Liz Repella and Korinne Campbell are excellent players. So are fellow starters Medina Ali and Asya Bussie, and there are fine players who come off the bench as well. Post-season honors included Repella being named an Academic All-American and selected for the all-Big East first team, Miles on the all-Big East second team and named conference defensive player of the year, Campbell an all-Big East honorable mention, and Bussie all-conference freshman team. But this team is more than a few good players. Mike Carey's roster appears to have a lot of skilled players. And their game that Saturday night was a blast to watch.
The crowd that night was 4,485 fans, the sixth largest crowd to see a women's basketball game in the history of the WVU Coliseum. That's a nice crowd, but why aren't the crowds larger for WVU women's basketball? Why don't more students attend the women's games? The only reason I can think of is that people don't know what they're missing. It may just take time. Maybe twenty years from now, or ten, or next year, the women's games will routinely draw twice that many or even play to a sold-out Coliseum just as the men's team does.
As I write this, the WVU women's record is 28-4, and they finished the regular season 13-3 in the Big East conference. They went 17-0 at home this season. Their 28 wins set a season record. They're ranked seventh in the nation in one poll, ninth in the other. They're the number two seed in the Big East tournament, and after beating DePaul and Rutgers they are set to face UConn tonight in the championship game. They deserve to play before bigger home crowds.
My admittedly limited perception is that women's college basketball has progressed far beyond what it was a few decades ago, and it's easier to appreciate the difference in person than by watching on TV. To my eye, there's a huge contrast. It's the difference between a house cat and a jaguar. The difference between a Gramophone and an iPod. The difference between black and white TV and high-def. The athleticism, speed, strength, and ability of today's college women basketball players seem to me to far surpass that of women college athletes twenty or thirty years ago. The effects of that kind of change on our nation's women, and on our society generally, is beyond estimation and, if we hadn't seen the change with our own eyes, nearly beyond imagination.
I know that to some sports fans, particularly some men, Title IX is not a good thing. Some men blame Title IX for the loss of men's teams. It is undeniable that in some cases men's sports have been cut at the same time when women's sports have been added. But placing the blame on those women's sports or on Title IX seems to me to be blame misplaced. The problem is that overall funding has been insufficient to keep those men's sports in addition to adding a comparable number of women's sports. It's not really a zero-sum game, although it might appear to be. If athletic department funding could be increased sufficiently, I'm reasonably certain that administrators would love to keep all of their men's sports while adding a comparable number of opportunities for women college athletes.
Limiting scholarship opportunities for women participating in non-revenue-producing sports just to continue to fund a far greater number of scholarships for men in non-revenue-producing sports would be simply unfair. That's one of the things that Title IX fixed. It gave women a chance to gain educational opportunities through athletics, just like men. And like it or not, it required an act of Congress to achieve that basic introduction of fairness.
Yes, I'd like to see men's track and golf teams return to WVU. I'd also like to see women's softball and golf added. I'd like to see men's lacrosse and women's field hockey added. I'd like to see men's ice hockey elevated. Unfortunately, I can't afford to pay for any of that. Evidently, neither can the WVU athletic department under its current budget.
I graduated from high school in 1968 (I know, I know, the dark ages), and from WVU in December 1972. There were no women's sports in my high school then. There were no women's sports at WVU then. In March 1970, I wrote an article for the Daily Athenaeum about the beginnings of the WVU women's gymnastics team. Actually they couldn't call themselves a "team," since the University didn't sponsor them. They preferred to call themselves a gymnastics "group."
Linda McGrath, who taught women's physical education at WVU and was married to the WVU soccer coach then, John McGrath, volunteered to coach them. At that time WVU had a men's gymnastics team, and its coach, Bill Bonsall, assisted in instructing the women as well. About 26 women students gathered in the Field House on Mondays after class for practice. Six traveled to Pitt for their first intercollegiate meet on February 7, 1970. They lost 50-42.9, but had two first-place finishes in the four events. As I recall, they assembled or decorated their own uniforms. That spring, interest was also forming around the concept of a women's track team.
Times have changed, and they've changed for the better.
Dr. Barbara Howe, Director of the Center for Women's Studies at WVU from 1998 to 2008, wrote a brief history of WVU which is available on-line at http://www.as.wvu.edu/cwc/WVU-history-bhowe.html. In it, she writes of the early 1970s:
"WVU had to comply with Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, which Congress passed in 1972. This forbade discrimination against students and employees in federally assisted educational programs. As a result, the marching band first admitted women in the fall of 1972. In 1973, WVU abolished curfews and dress codes for women students and approved a proposal for women's intercollegiate athletic teams. Across the country, the growth of women's intercollegiate athletics has been one of the most visible results of Title IX, but the law also opened opportunities for more women to study law, medicine, and engineering."
Can you imagine having a dress code or curfews for WVU women students today? How ridiculous it seems.
As far as I've been able to determine, basketball and tennis became the first University-sponsored women's sports at WVU in 1973-74. The first official season for the women's gymnastics team was in 1974. Track was added in 1978.
Now WVU women compete in ten intercollegiate sports (or eleven, if you count indoor and outdoor track separately). According to the WVU Equity Report dated October 14, 2009, in the 2008-09 school year 298 men and 202 women participated in intercollegiate sports for WVU. About $3.65 million in student aid went to male athletes, and about $2.63 million in student aid went to female athletes, which is in approximate proportion with the respective number of participants. And of course that report doesn't include the number of women playing intramural sports or the number of individual women students who use the great athletic and recreational facilities at WVU.
Granted, that's not a fully equal number, in participants or in funding. Still, multiply those participation numbers by the number of colleges in the NCAA. Imagine the effect on young women across the nation. Imagine what it means for their physical and emotional development. Imagine what they learn about sportsmanship and teamwork and how they apply those skills after college -- just as men do. Comprehend how it creates greater opportunities for women to get an education, to learn and grow and gain confidence. Imagine how many college women and high school girls, because of sports, because of Title IX, now say, "I can do this."
Every American, unless one is just a complete sexist troglodyte, should be proud of that change. It all makes our country a stronger, better place.
The progress has benefited all of us.
One of the things I enjoyed at the WVU-Marquette women's game was watching WVU's Mountaineer, Rebecca Durst. And this has nothing to do with her gender -- this would have happened just as much if the Mountaineer was a man. Time after time, little boys and girls approached Rebecca before and even during the game, and she gave them just what they wanted -- a smile, a cheerful hello, a pose for a photo, a hug or a high five for every one of them. I couldn't help but wonder, will one of those little girls grow up to be like Liz Repella or Sarah Miles and play for WVU? Will any of the boys grow up to be a Mountaineer quarterback? (Or, for that matter, and this will make some readers gasp and check their hearts -- will any of the girls?) They're all growing up in a different time and place than I did, back in those dark ages forty or fifty years ago. Now they have community youth sports to play -- the boys and the girls.
If that's a digression, allow me one more. I love that the WVU women's teams are called the Mountaineers, as they should be, and not the "Lady Mountaineers." It's a point of pride to me as a WVU grad. I live in central Pennsylvania, and the Penn State women's teams are called the Lady Lions. As a consequence (at least I think it's a consequence), most of the high school girls' athletic teams in our area have "Lady" in their nickname -- the "Lady Polar Bears" or "Lady Eagles" or whatever. Central Pennsylvania is a conservative area, and the locals don't seem to have any problem with that. In my opinion, however, it's terribly demeaning. It says the girls' teams are different, separate, not quite as good, not as worthy. I'm so glad that when women's sports began at WVU, some wise individuals made the decision that, just like the men's teams, the women's teams also would be called "the Mountaineers."
The Mountaineers who took the court on that Saturday night against Marquette won me over to WVU women's basketball. I'm sorry I won't have a chance to see them play at the Coliseum again this season. Next year, though, I will. And the entire roster will be back. Look out, Big East. Look out, UConn!
The changes brought by Title IX have been magical, in college sports and in America more broadly.
There's magic in the WVU women's basketball team, too. They turned me into a fan.