It took a woman to bring men’s rugby back to Ithaca College.
Seventeen years ago, the club sport was banned on the upstate New York college campus for the atrocious behavior of its players on and off the field. The team’s “Animal House” reputation stuck so hard it took more than a decade before the private college would even consider reinstating the sport.
The scene changed when a group of male student-athletes recruited Annemarie Farrell, a former women’s rugby coach and sports management professor, to coach their team. She agreed, with conditions: a zero-tolerance policy toward hazing and a ban on post-game partying.
Men’s rugby returned to Ithaca College in 2009 under her leadership; two years later, Farrell took the undefeated Bombers to the national championship for NCAA Division III club teams.
Forty years after the passage of the federal anti-discrimination law known as Title IX opened wide the opportunities for girls in sports, few women coach men’s college teams. But Farrell, 33, is convinced that’s bound to change.
“I’m coaching young men who’ve grown up on the sidelines watching their mothers play sports, and they’ve had the experience of seeing their sisters often being the best athlete in the house,” Farrell said.
“I’m coaching a generation of male athletes who really don’t care about the gender of the person with the whistle.”
In 1972, Congress passed Title IX to create a culture of equal opportunity for girls and boys, women and men in the nation’s educational institutions. It barred those schools getting federal dollars from using gender as a reason for exclusion from academics or athletics, and it would mandate that schools divvy up their resources – including dollars spent on sports – more equitably.
Title IX was around for 20 years before most of Farrell’s players were out of diapers. While compliance issues still exist – Women’s Sports Foundation research shows less money and fewer opportunities for female athletes than male athletes in high schools and colleges – Farrell is convinced that 40 years of the law has transformed how both men and women see sports.
“I can’t think of one negative experience I’ve had with my players because of my gender,” Farrell said.
Building confidence and self-esteem
The transformation caused by Title IX was witnessed by female coaches who have come to embody the success of women’s sports.
Lin Dunn, 61, is the coach of the Women’s National Basketball Association Indiana Fever professional team. She is also one of the winningest basketball coaches in the nation, with more than 500 victories in college and pro ball. She was a child in Alabama when girls were barred by law from team sports. “I remember being told I couldn’t play Little League ball,” Dunn said. “I didn’t understand why, especially since I knew I was better than most of the boys.”
In high school in Tennessee in the 1960s, she could play on the girls’ basketball team, but only under rules that restricted players to half-court action. The rules were designed to assure that the girls didn’t overexert themselves.
In Dunn’s first college coaching job, at Austin Peay State University, her players had to buy their own meals when they played on the road. Instead of staying in hotels, they often laid out sleeping bags on their opponent’s gym floor.
Title IX passed when Dunn was at Austin Peay, but little changed until much later. “I’d take old stuff from the men’s locker room that they weren’t using anymore,” Dunn said. “I would literally pull out the bleachers before every game.”
Dunn is a legend in women’s basketball for the Olympians she’s coached and the powerhouse teams she built at Mississippi, Miami and Purdue. At Purdue she coached the women’s basketball team to seven national tournaments before she was fired in 1996, after publicly complaining that her salary was less than half of what the men’s basketball coach was making.
Dunn loves coaching and the game of basketball. Even more, she loves what basketball does for the women who play it.
“There something about team sports that builds confidence and self-esteem,” Dunn said. “There’s something about teamwork – of everybody having to be together and build together to accomplish something great. Where else are you going to get that?”
‘Anything a boy could do – even better’
Research supports Dunn’s conclusion. A University of Pennsylvania study shows young female athletes have a stronger sense of competence and confidence than many of their peers. It also shows female athletes are more likely than non-athletes to abstain from smoking, avoid drugs and graduate from college.
Betsey Stevenson, an economist at Penn’s Wharton School of Business, conducted the study. She also found girls who played sports in high school later got better jobs with higher salaries and were more likely to work in “male-dominated occupations.”
Stevenson has taken her message to Washington. She appeared earlier this year with Olympic gold medalist figure skater Sara Hughes at a Capitol Hill briefing on legislation by New York Congresswoman Louise Slaughter requiring high schools to publish their Title IX compliance levels.
The message Stevenson delivered: “When we limit girls’ opportunities to play sports, we aren’t just limiting them as children, we are limiting their entire lives.”
Six years after Title IX was enacted in 1972, the percentage of girls in high school playing team sports jumped six-fold, from about 4 percent to 25 percent. Today, two in five high school girls are active in organized sports, according to the National Federation of High School Associations, which tracks participation by gender. There are now 10 times as many female players in intercollegiate sports as there were when Title IX became the law of the land.
The numbers tell only part of the transformative story.
Tamika Catchings, 33, is the reigning MVP of the WBNA. The all-star forward for the Indiana Fever is headed to London this summer with the U.S. women’s basketball team for her third Olympic games.
Catchings learned to play basketball on the blacktop driveway outside her suburban Chicago home. Her teacher was her dad, former NBA player Harvey Catchings. When Tamika was in the third grade, he volunteered to coach for a local parks and recreation league; he put both of his daughters on the otherwise all-boys team. In seventh grade, Tamika told her parents she wanted to play in the NBA, so her dad coached her even harder.
“I loved that my dad wasn’t going to take it easy on me because I was a girl,” Catchings said. “I was the ultimate tomboy growing up. I thought I could do anything a boy could do – even better.”
Catchings reveres Dunn and her college coach, Pat Summitt. Catchings was an all-American when she played for Summitt, the iconic Tennessee Volunteers coach who won more games than any other coach, man or woman, in NCAA college basketball history before stepping down this spring.
But Catchings’ eyes are on a different prize: “I don’t want to be a coach,” she said. “I want to be a general manager.”
‘Possibilities that never existed’
If you can see it, you can be it.
That’s how Indiana Fever General Manager Kelly Krauskopf sees Catchings’ dream.
Krauskopf, born 10 years before Title IX passed, grew up in south Texas playing basketball in her neighborhood. “My brother taught me how to shoot a jump shot,” said Krauskopf, who won a college scholarship to Texas A&M when schools were still in the early stages of compliance.
She and her teammates would pile into an old van for road games. They patched the handles on their worn-out travel bags with duct tape. Told there was no money for new duffel bags, she and her teammates pooled their cash and bought them on sale at JCPenney.
“Our (school) colors were maroon and white, but we bought the blue ones because they were on sale,” said Krauskopf.
By 1996, Krauskopf and women’s basketball had come a long way. NBA Commissioner David Stern invited her to his New York City office and offered her the job as the first director of basketball operations for the new women’s league, the WNBA.
“I remember looking down out of his window, onto Fifth Avenue, and thinking, ‘How did a girl from south Texas get here?’” said Krauskopf.
The answer: “I’m a product of Title IX,” she said. “It opened up possibilities that never existed. I owe my career to Title IX.”
Maureen Hayden is the CNHI state reporter in Indianapolis. Contact her at email@example.com.