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Title IX Turns 50: Female Coaches Take Stock of Softball’s Progress, Remaining Obstacles

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Rachel Lawson was born 12 days before Title IX was signed into law on June 23, 1972. She witnessed the generational progression of the landmark legislation play out within her own house.

Title IX law bars sex-based discrimination in federally-funded education programs and activities. The civic rights law is most commonly associated with its impact on women’s sports.

Lawson, in her 15th year as Kentucky’s head coach, has eight older sisters. Nearly all of them were denied athletic opportunities in high school beyond cheerleading and tennis. Their only chance to play team sports came in adult leagues once they left school.

But by the time Lawson was old enough to play, schools were offering more sports for females to pursue. Her freshman year in high school was the first year softball was added.

“The opportunities my oldest sisters had were completely different from my opportunities. I was the first to do a lot of things that they did not have,” Lawson said. “Now look at me at 50 years old on the anniversary of Title IX and I am the head softball coach at Kentucky.”

As Title IX reaches its 50th anniversary, women’s sports can celebrate how far things have come while still pushing to achieve true equality.

In 1971-72 – the academic year before Title IX was passed – only 15 percent of NCAA athletes were women, according to NCAA Sports Sponsorships and Participation Reports. Now, about 44 percent of NCAA athletes are women.

At the high school level, around 300,000 girls (or 7 percent of all athletes) played sports in 1972. That number has risen to more than 3.4 million (or roughly 43 percent of all athletes) today in high school, per the latest National Federation of State High School Association participation survey.

Softball has mirrored the trend, and has grown exponentially in numbers and popularity over the last five decades. The first season of Division I softball in 1982 included 2,532 players compared to 6,892 in 2021.

College programs are continually setting attendance records, TV ratings have escalated and financial investments into the sport have grown.

Lawson has benefitted from the changes every step of the way in her career.

“I was very aware there was a time when the things I was doing couldn’t be done. I am very lucky relative to my sisters and their generation,” said Lawson, who played at UMass (1991-94) before embarking on her coaching career. “I didn’t quite understand the whole Title IX legislation until I got to college. My college coach (Elaine Sortino) was very good about making sure we understand the history and where we came from and the way everything developed.”

Female coaches around the country feel the same appreciation as Lawson for how Title IX has positively impacted their lives, yet they don’t want to get complacent. 

Female athletes are still not receiving equal participation opportunities as their male counterparts in college, and facilities, travel and overall budgets often fall short as well.

Softball coaches want current and future generations to keep pushing the sport forward while never forgetting about the past.

Here is what Title IX means to some of them (answers from interviews have been lightly edited): 

Carol Hutchins, Michigan

I am a Title IX boomer as I describe myself. I was in 10th grade in 1972 and was a tomboy who never got to play organized team sports. We had girls athletic activities in high school where we would play maybe six basketball games a year where the coach would drive us across town to play the other high school. I was a cheerleader too because it was one thing that was actually structured. Someone asked me what was the most important thing that happened in women’s athletics besides Title IX. Nothing. There is nothing. That is the most important thing. We have nothing without it.

I remember at Michigan State (where Hutchins was a two-sport star in softball and basketball) there was definitely a little civic discourse because the athletic department was like, ‘All right, we will let them have their sports, but we won’t spend money on it.’ We bussed to Omaha to win the national championship my freshman year and then bussed home. We had $5 a day per diem and if we did get $10 we thought, ‘Oh man we can get two McDonald’s meals or maybe three.’ But the law only works if you have enforcement, and in today’s world there is no enforcement and people are out of compliance all over the place. I get phone calls from all different levels – from high school to Division I, II, III and JCs – people call me and don’t know what to do because the baseball team has a nice locker room and a nice field and their softball team doesn’t get the same. One gal called me and said they had a trailer for a locker room with snakes in it. We are in a really hard position because the coaches have to push those buttons to bring it to light and the athletic department just tells you they don’t want to hear about it. We will get you that when we have the money. There are still so many inequities that exist and they need to be exposed like they were last year at the NCAA basketball tournament to get more money budgeted and then at the Women’s College World Series to get us two more days. But it required playing at two in the morning to get that exposure by the media to force them to change. We just don’t value women’s sports at the same level.

Because of Title IX, I got to live my dream and play for a living and get paid to coach for a living. I got paid $3,000 for my first job. I just got my masters degree and my mom wondered why I would do that when there were better opportunities, but I told her it would work out. The same thing happened for my college. I got offered a scholarship to go to the local JC and my mom said why not go there. But I wanted to go to Michigan State for all four years. I didn’t get any money right away, but I eventually got a $300 scholarship. I told my mom, ‘Can you believe they are paying us to do this?’ She said, ‘Honey, they are not paying you very much.’ I started out a little bit more optimistic and not as cynical. But so many women who are barely older than me come up to me and tell me they wish they could have done this or wished they could have had the same opportunities.

It’s been an amazing ride for all of us coaches who get to coach for a living. I have been very fortunate, but we can’t just celebrate and say we are here. I have learned that we have to stay vigilant, because, if we accept that no matter what we do men are going to have it better than us, we will lose ground. Our women deserve an experience that is every bit as important as the football players. That is ultimately what college athletics is about. Men still have more opportunities than women. They have more resources and get paid more money and are treated better. There are still a lot of things we need to fight for. If the conferences and the NCAA would just always do the right thing, we wouldn’t need a law. But I have news for you: we still need it.

Stacey Nuveman-Deniz, San Diego State

When I hear we are at the 50th anniversary of Title IX, it is hard for me to believe and even conceptualize where it started and where we are now. I watched the Women’s College World Series on TV and San Diego State has been hosting AUX pro softball and I coached and played in the NPF and on the PFX Tour – and to me that all stems back to Title IX and making it a mandate that women have the opportunity to compete in sports. My mom came from a fairly athletic family but she didn’t have the opportunity to play sports because they didn’t have any. As a kid, I never believed her when she said that. I thought she just chose not to play and was a girlie-girl cheerleader with a social life. Finally, many years later she pulled out her yearbook to prove it to me. She grew up in an area of Southern California that is fairly progressive and where you wouldn’t think they were behind the times. But she showed me her yearbook with pictures of the football team and basketball team and all the boys sports. And for the girls, they had a picture of females in PE class doing jumping jacks and saying something like “a lot of our girls love their physical education courses.” That was it. There were no team sports or even individual sports for girls available at her high school. My mom is 30 years older than I am and just 30 years prior to my coming around the bend sports were not available to her. To think about where we are now and the platforms the players have, I just can’t even conceptualize.

Even in my own experience as a college athlete, we were like stoked that our final game of the Women’s College World Series would be on ESPN15. One game a year was on TV and that was it. Now we are over here at San Diego State moaning about not being on every week like the SEC, ACC, Big 12 and all the other regularly-televised teams and getting all this publicity. The pomp and circumstance that is now a part of the Women’s College World Series is unbelievable. That all traces back to Title IX.

Stacey Nuveman Playing for UCLA in 1999 (Credit: UCLA Athetics)

A couple of nights ago, I sat in the left field bleachers at an AUX game to soak in the fan experience. I don’t often get to do that, especially at my own field. There was a little club ball or rec team along the fence. They were probably about 6 or 7 years old and they were all doing synchronized cheers. They were adorable and their coach was a female. I find that is sadly more rare than it should be. Youth softball coaching is really dominated by men. She was sitting in the stands behind them and was giving them coaching tips and telling them to watch the second baseman and notice how she moves and how no one stands still. She was coaching them up as they were watching the game and saying stuff that is totally something they could see. It was very big picture stuff and it was freaking awesome. That is the next generation watching the best in the world and getting inspired and learning a little something. That is where it all starts. That girl may someday play at San Diego State or maybe someday play against San Diego State on that field and remember that day and remember when they got to watch AU professional softball. That is all a part of the exposure that is a product of Title IX and the chance to see women.

When I grew up, my idol was Kareem Abdul-Jabaar and I wore No. 33 because he was 33 and he was the athlete I looked up to because I could watch him with the Lakers. Now, there are girls wearing No. 16 because of Lisa Fernandez and No. 29 because of Natasha Watley or No. 3 because of Jessica Mendoza. Those are the small little things that point to where we are going. The little 6-year-old girls in the bleachers at San Diego State watching AUX are getting inspired, and that to me is what Title IX is all about.

IBut the notion that people will just do the right thing because they should is obviously a fallacy. Title IX still serves its purpose and the mandate piece is still so important and necessary. I hope we realize that what we have now, while it may not be perfect, the world is gaining ground and is better. Are we where we need to be? Heck no. To some extent it’s embarrassing to realize how far we still have yet to travel. But we are on the right track and just have to keep pushing.

Rhonda Revelle, Nebraska

When I think of Title IX, I go back and think of Title IX as 10-year-old Rhonda. I think about the fact that I already loved the sport yet didn’t have the opportunity to play. My dad played men’s fastpitch and I was an only child at the time so I didn’t have siblings playing sports. All my friends were boys at school who all played baseball in the summer and there was nowhere for me to play. They wouldn’t let me play baseball and I couldn’t play softball. There was no opportunity, so what I did was become the batboy – they even called me the batboy – for my dad’s fastpitch team. From age 8 to 12, I was the batboy and I went to all the practices and went into the outfield and shagged balls. And I loved pitching, so I would get pitching lessons from the pitchers. I literally had four years of practice but really no opportunity to play. That word, opportunity, has so many branches for me with Title IX. People ask me if I always knew I wanted to coach. When I came through college, I didn’t even know there were opportunities to be a full-time coach. There were very few and most of them were men. But my college coach, who happened to be female, asked me during my senior year if I ever thought about becoming a graduate assistant. I didn’t know that existed. Then, I was coaching my very first year after college at a D3 school, Nebraska Wesleyan, which is NAIA now. I had the opportunity to get paid, albeit $900, but I was still a paid coach. Then, my first opportunity to get paid to be a full-time coach happened at San Jose State when I was Kathy Strahan’s pitching coach. In order to pay me a full-time salary, I had to teach an activities course in the department of health and human development. Then, I get to come back and coach my alma mater and that was a big deal.

One of my favorite things is when I try to give a  historical perspective to student-athletes and they are almost in disbelief. For instance, when I played at Nebraska, we didn’t have locker rooms and didn’t have an on-field campus and we drove station wagons or vans everywhere. They look at me like there is no way that happened and I love that they think that because it means we have a lot of distance between then and now.

One of my slogans is that, depending on the generation, we all have our pile of dirt to move out of the way and clear a path for somebody. In my generation, I was right on the cusp of Title IX. As an 8-year-old, I was denied the opportunity to play because Title IX was not enacted and enforced. But as a 12-year-old, I had the privilege to participate because it was enacted and enforced. I got to play in one World Series as AIAW and one as an NCAA student-athlete. There was a generation before me that pushed that pile of dirt out of the way for our generation and my generation is trying to do the same. I would like to think a lot of coaches around my same age have helped to start the fight for pay equity and are at least trying to close the gap for whatever else it may be – bat contracts, locker rooms, facilities, the way we travel. Hopefully, the next generation feels empowered to say more and do more because somebody before them pushed enough dirt out of the way so they can blaze a new trail.

Kate Drohan, Northwestern

I think Title IX means opportunity. It means experience for our women that are different than what I had growing up, and it is really gratitude for women like Sharon Drysdale, Gayle Blevins and Joan Joyce and others who had to do a lot of the heavy lifting for our women to experience what they do today. We are very fortunate to have Sharon Drysdale still very much involved in the program, and every chance we get to have her in front of our team to share her story is so impactful.

I never thought I could make a living coaching when I was growing up. I never thought the game could have this much impact on me 20-plus years after I graduated from college, and I am grateful to be able to be around the game and support my family. I came to Northwestern because I felt as though the Big Ten just did a tremendous job supporting women at that level. It was one of the first conferences to really go all in on women’s sports and that was very appealing. We have so much work ahead of us still and those of us in the game now need to keep pushing it forward. 

Beth Torina, LSU

When I think about Title IX, I think about the people that laid the groundwork for us. At LSU specifically, I think about Yvette Girouard and what she did for softball in the state of Louisiana and growing the programs at Louisiana-Lafayette and LSU. I think her mom even sewed their uniforms at one time and she really built things from the ground up to what it is now. She had a hand in building the beautiful Tiger Park and made this path for us to go out and play and have the success we’ve been able to have. The other one who stands out is D-D Breaux and what she did for the gymnastics program here at LSU. From having no season ticket holders to having sellout crowds of 13,000. The stories of how she slept in a tent or stood outside of a grocery store to get people to buy season tickets and stayed there until she reached a certain number. She was willing to do anything to make a buzz and provide for the women on the team, and now you can’t get a ticket because every meet is sold out. The things they did to build these programs that we are now reaping the benefits from are incredible. I think about those women and a lot of women that aren’t a lot older than I am and didn’t have the opportunity to play sports and had to play with the boys or had to play in a non-organized place.

I had a really awesome high school coach (Dianne Davidson) that dealt with a lot of it and really pushed the envelope for our high school to provide the same things that were happening on the baseball side. She was a driving force in our local community and I watched her do that to give us more opportunities. She was a fastpitch player and played with Joan Joyce. I was really fortunate I met her and she changed my life. Knowing what she did to push the envelope for us is a really impactful thing in my life.

It is awesome for my daughters to see great role models all the time, not just having a mom who coaches but also women playing the sport. I don’t think they see the same barriers. They just see opportunities of where they can go and do great things. It’s fun giving them that dream and watching them dream to do big things. My daughter, Tatum, said she wanted to be the first female president. Then she said, ‘No mom. Not the first female president. Just the president.’” She thinks it’s cool that women can be in leadership roles like coaches and the president. 

My players today understand the history and they are respectful of the past and what they have in front of them. I think they are in a generation that is not afraid to speak out and use their voice to continue to advocate for any way they can help to help the movement just keep going forward. Now we are seeing things continue to grow. Of course, we still need to see more growth and opportunities for women to make money professionally with their incredible talents. 

Kelly Kovach Schoenly, Ohio State

I played for Hutch and she used to tell us stories about Title IX. She was the named player in the lawsuit at Michigan State, so she would teach us then and still now to fight for what is fair and even.

Title IX is so interesting because you fight for fairness and equality, but there are so many loopholes and you hear so many excuses for why it might not be the same for men and women. So I’ve learned, through the mentorship of Hutch, to stop counting and just fight for everything you think your players deserve and more. And that has been my approach with my team. I don’t want them to look around and say they have this or that. We just keep trying to move the sport and women’s athletics to the best place possible.

My players do get on the bandwagon when things hit social media, like with the NCAA tournament for men’s and women’s basketball, and they fight for other athletes. We talk about it and we encourage them to use their voice in whatever way they are comfortable.

Kelly Kovach pitching at Michigan in 1994 (Credit: Robert Kalmbach/UM Athletics)

But it’s not just Title IX. We want their voices heard loud and clear about what they are passionate about. The point is to use your voice. Learn how to articulate your argument. Research. Be educated.

To think without Title IX and my experience in college I don’t think there would be any chance I would be in this career living my best life ever. Thinking about it that way, it gave me the most wonderful opportunity to coach women in athletics and pursue a career path to mold lives and compete at this incredible institution as the leader. It’s surreal to think what path I may have taken. And to think, all these years later, and all the progress we’ve made, now my daughter (who plays tennis at Ohio State) gets an even more incredible experience that will set her up for her best life.

But growth does not mean equal and fair. Women’s athletics has grown because there is an appetite for it in society, not necessarily exclusively because of Title IX. Let’s be clear – we are not there. It’s not fair and even, but we are providing opportunities that are changing lives and it has grown so much.

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