Last Saturday I took my mother to the UConn women’s basketball game against SMU at Gampel. Mom and I are both alums, graduating nearly 30 years apart from each other. But a trip back to campus is always a moment for nostalgia and reflection for both of us.
I didn’t play sports at UConn. My athlete days ended when I graduated from high school. But Mom did.
As we were walking past the field house, Mom talked about her time at UConn as a female athlete, a stark contrast to the team we were about to watch compete.
My mother is a Title IX pioneer. A member of the first varsity field hockey team at UConn. An athlete before women were allowed to be.
Mom is a retired phys ed and health teacher. She’s the person who taught me how to throw a ball and swing a bat and dive into a pool. She coached my soccer teams for years, when few of her peers had the experience or the ability to do the same.
To hear her talk about what she experienced as a collegiate athlete and compare it to what the current crop of women’s athletes goes through shows how far we’ve come. But also how far we have to go.
During her first two years, the years before Title IX took effect, women’s sports were not part of the athletic department, but part of the phys ed department. The team’s coach, if they had one, was simply a willing grad assistant. One year, the coach had never even seen a field hockey game — UConn lost a game to E.O. Smith high school that season.
The women’s teams had no institutional support. Field hockey was given locker rooms in the basement of Hawley Armory (which is exactly as bad as you think it is), the school-provided uniforms consisted of just a kilt, which the athletes were required to launder themselves. And transportation? Three beat up station wagons that were not sufficient to transport the entire team.
Remember when Shabazz Napier talked about college athletes going hungry? These women received a smaller meal allowance than the men’s teams, and while a dining hall would remain open to feed the football team returning late to campus, the women’s teams were on their own.
When Title IX finally took effect, things got better. Locker rooms moved into the field house. Unfortunately, the new locker rooms were unconverted men’s facilities. Gang showers for everyone!
Probably my favorite you-almost-got-it-right-but-wow-did-you-miss anecdote involves “rolls.” Back in the day, the university provided its athletes with a roll before practices. It included a pair of shorts, a shirt, a towel annnnnnd a jock strap. It took seeing piles of jock straps outside the women’s locker room every day after practice before the university started to wise up and have different rolls for men and women. Oh, and the women still had to launder their own uniforms.
On Saturday, a brisk, Connecticut February day, Mom and I walked into a sold-out Gampel Pavilion. Lights dim, illuminated cell phones held aloft, a charged atmosphere. Ten thousand people enthusiastic to watch women play sports.
Sitting next to us, there was a father with his two kids, a boy and a girl. The dad didn’t necessarily look like a guy who would be a fervent women’s basketball fan (though, who does, really?), but he was stoked to be there, cheering and flipping out over every great play. But the moment that grabbed my heart was after watching Gabby Williams do some great Gabby Williams thing, he turned to his son and said, “that’s the player you want to be.” He said that to his son. About a woman athlete.
Today, UConn women’s basketball is the gold standard of college athletics. They are Nike-sponsored, outfitted in the newest and best gear available. They share their beautiful state-of-the art practice facility with the men’s team and no one bats an eye. They sell out games at home and on the road (including at schools where, unfortunately, few people will go to watch another game). HBO is about to air a serious, high-quality documentary on the team. Forty years ago, that would have been unfathomable.
The field hockey team has won multiple national championships under the leadership of Nancy Stevens Tha God. UConn does women’s sports better than anyone, and they are to be commended for that.
But the rest of the world is still catching up. You’ve all seen it. Every time ESPN posts anything at all about women’s basketball the Small Penis Brigade descends into the comment section like locusts to make sure everyone knows that women’s basketball isn’t a sport (it is), no one watches it (they do), and women belong in the kitchen (fuck right the hell off).
Boneheaded Boston sports “writers” hypocritically fawn over Tom Brady’s GOAT-level achievements while demeaning the impressive accomplishments of these women, because… I dunno, they’re too good? Other idiots mock and disparage U.S. women’s soccer players, who dared to speak up about making less than their male counterparts, despite bringing in more money and being better at their jobs.
We’ve come a long way. It’s important to remember the women who came before us, and paved the way for all the athletes who followed close behind. Women athletes, particularly the ones at UConn, now receive the kind of institutional support my mother could only dream of. They have a fan base on par with the men. They are featured on national television, in games seen by millions of people around the globe.
We’ve come so far from the inequality that my mother experienced, though she is grateful to have been an athlete at the time when so few women were. And while we are unquestionably still striving to get the same level of respect, remember my mother’s words as she recalled the disparity in the treatment she received:
“At least we got to play.”