CULLMAN — In the 40 years since Title IX was passed, the landscape for women’s sports has changed dramatically. Over those past four decades, this 37-word law has gone through phases as generations have gotten older.
There’s the generation that already passed the age to participate as prep or college athletes but helped the movement forward by coaching the new women’s teams.
This first generation includes Virginia Parker and Ray Heitmueller, two of Cullman High’s first women’s sports coaches, who both assisted in forging a path for women’s athletics in the county.
The second group is those who were just starting in high school when Title IX took hold. They didn’t have quite as much resistance because the law was already in place, although any form of true equality was still far from reach.
No one from the present-day generation was even alive when the law passed. It’s a given that girls can participate in sports. Any thought to the contrary might never cross their minds.
Current Wallace State softball coach Jayne Clem falls into the second group of girls who were just beginning their high school careers when Title IX entered the discussion.
Before girls had organized sports, Clem competed with boys who lived in her neighborhood in a wide range of sports like basketball, volleyball, softball, tennis and bowling.
“I played with the neighborhood boys,” she said. “Because I could play, it didn’t bother them, I guess. Then I played in the women’s basketball league when I was 14 or 15 in Athens. There was probably a handful of us.”
Growing up as an athlete, Clem met resistance from the community.
“If you played sports, you were nothing,” she said. “I got it all the time. It didn’t bother me because I knew what I wanted to do, and I wasn’t one of those who had to be included in everything. I was a person of my own.”
Clem, who attended Athens High from 1974-77, said making things more even between men’s and women’s athletics was a slow process.
“When I was in high school, we didn’t have anything,” she said. “We went in vehicles that our parents drove. There wasn’t anyone at basketball games. We’d play all early games. We had all the bad practice times. It was nothing like it is today. My high school coach was limited in what was available.”
Similarly, former Hanceville girls basketball coach Carol Lewey was in college at Tennessee Tech right before Title IX’s passage. She grew up in Tennessee and had different reactions to her athletic abilities.
“I played basketball and softball on school teams from the seventh grade through college in Tennessee, so girls not being able to participate in athletics was a shock to me when I came here,” she said.
However, college proved to be more difficult when it came to equality. The year after Lewey graduated from Tennessee Tech was when the school finally gave out its first scholarships to female basketball players.
It was tough for the teams Lewey coached before Title IX. They had to pay for everything on their own, which resulted in a lot of fundraisers. They paid for their own uniforms and took their own cars to away games.
Lewey didn’t start coaching in Cullman County until 1975, when she took over at Vinemont.
“We moved here in ‘72, and I didn’t start coaching until ‘75, so I don’t know when the girls athletics started in Cullman County,” Lewey said. “I know whenever they started here, they had uniforms. I just feel like Title IX opened a lot of opportunities for some girls who had not been able to play athletics before.”
With the passing of time
These experiences were markedly different for Cullman High graduate Ginger Holt, who was a prep athlete from 1985-88, competing in basketball, volleyball and track and field.
By the time she was playing sports, the situation had noticeably evened out more. Girls teams didn’t have as much trouble getting spectators in the seats. In fact, some of the fans preferred to watch only them.
“People wanted to come see us play Hartselle and Athens and our rivals, and we would really fill the gym,” she said. “People would leave after our games and not stay for the guys games.”
In the Bearcats’ gym, Holt was able to leave a more lasting legacy. As an All-American, she was the first athlete Cullman honored on their Wall of Fame.
“There were enough people that thought enough of me and what I did that they would make that leap that we haven't before and put an athlete on the wall,” she said. “They've gone back and put up people who had graduated long before me but had never been honored that way.”
Holt doesn’t see that recognition as a testament to what she did in high school so much as what the people of this community knew they would see from her in the future.
“It's humbling as a young college student to realize that so many people believe in you and think you've done great things, but also this realization or belief that they had that you're going to go on and do even greater things, and we're going to be proud to say we have your picture on our wall,” she said.
After her time as a Bearcat, Holt went on to play basketball at UAB. She graduated in 1991 with an undergraduate degree and then stayed in Birmingham for medical school. Currently, she’s an attending orthopedic surgeon at Vanderbilt Medical Center.
So, the community was right after all. Holt was destined to keep moving up in the world, even after leaving Cullman.
Her parents still reside in the city, and Holt said her mother, Jean, loves it when people approach her and ask if she’s “Ginger’s mom.” Holt feels a lot of gratitude for her parents’ efforts in helping her get where she is today.
“They put all the hard work and effort to take me to practice and do all the things they did to make sure I was able to focus on sports and school to be successful,” she said.
Her parents always encouraged her to pursue her talents and didn’t buy into the stigma that girls couldn’t be as athletic as boys. Holt claims both of her parents have always been forward-thinkers and never held her back from what she wanted to do.
“My father never said you can’t or you won’t,” she said. “If you can do it, you can do it. I was sent out with my brothers to keep up with them and do whatever they did. If there was going to be any challenge, my dad was like, ‘Forget that. We’re doing it.’”
Holt was 2 years old when Title IX passed, so though she doesn’t remember the event itself, she still witnessed its unfolding and saw its effect take place.
“Although it was passed, it was like a lot of things, like Obamacare, where they get passed but they don’t get enacted until later,” she said. “I do remember discussions about Title IX. When I was in high school, we were just starting many sports.”
Kim Freeland Owens, a 1999 Cullman High graduate, said she never caught any grief for being an athlete.
Well, there was one exception.
“In middle school I played football one year, and yes, you could tell that I wasn’t just another teammate, that it really was pointed out that I was girl,” she said. “My teammates were good, but other teams wouldn’t have the best sportsmanship, but I just played to the best of my ability and let that speak for itself.”
Recognizing the difference
Owens merges into the third group of people affected by Title IX, where it took her longer to learn aboutthe law’s existence. She heard about it from Auburn’s women’s sports athletic director when she attended the university from 1999-2003.
“I didn’t necessarily feel the effects of Title IX because athletics was always a big part of my life, and there was availability for me to be able to play,” she said. “I didn’t know that much about it until I learned a lot from Barbara Kemp, and it made me appreciate the opportunities that it’s given to female athletes since its inception.”
Callie Miller, a recent Wallace State volleyball player and graduate, learned about Title IX in high school but was unaware of how it applied to sports until later.
“Really it’s this year with it being the anniversary that I’ve really started hearing about it with women’s sports,” she said. “I had never really thought about it. I thought of it moreso towards voting and education jobs and just women as a whole.”
There’s no clear answer whether it’s good or bad that younger women these days are unaware of the impact Title IX had on older generations.
“I definitely think we should remember the past, and we should know a little bit about the heritage and tradition in that it’s an honor for us to be treated equally because it wasn’t always that case,” said Miller, who was recently a National Junior College Athletic Association Pinnace Award for Academic Excellence recipient for finishing the 2011-12 academic year with a 4.0 GPA.
“But then again, I love the fact that now it’s not even a question. Girls grow up doing what they want to do, whether it’s athletics or education or whatever their interest, they’re able to do that they aren’t held back at all. They can pursue whatever they want to do.”
Holt’s appreciation of the law has long since surpassed athletics. According to her, being an orthopedic surgeon is still a very male-dominated profession. She believes through her experiences as an athlete, she’s been better able to handle this real-world situation.
“I don’t think I would probably have the career that I have in a male-dominated field, to have the teamwork, the confidence and the overall drive,” Holt said. “Athletics is so important to setting goals and at breaking down your means to reach a goal, and when you get very good at that in sports, that really carries over to life.”
Being equal versus being the same
Despite such strides forward in the athletic world for females, Clem noted one thing that hasn’t caught up with the times yet.
“There’s still a lot of disparity as women are coaching,” she said. “The referees don’t take to a woman like they do to a man. I think it will progress when it gets to be more girls that played that coach. Now it’s more like men that coached men’s sports are having to coach women’s sports, but when the kids that I coach now become coaches, it’ll be more equal.”
Total equality is a nice thought, but sometimes things being fair doesn’t necessarily always mean they’re the same.
“There does come a point when college football rakes in millions upon millions of dollars, it’s unfair to say we’re going to treat all the athletes equal,” Holt said. “I do think it’s fair that they earn more.
“The most important thing is those of us who played sports to back and support our own sports. We have come through sports, we’re successful now, and we need to give back to our own sports and make sure that they flourish and do well.”
Another important thing Owens brought up was that women and men don’t always need to be treated the same because they aren’t the same. There’s nothing wrong with realizing that there is a difference.
“We're not the same as men,” she said. “That's not how God made us, so we just need to make sure we gain respect as women, that we're not trying to be the same as men. We're trying to be what the good Lord intended us to be.”
‰ Laura Owens can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 258 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.