By Laura Owens
The Cullman Times
CULLMAN — Title IX, the act that calls for equal opportunity between women and men regarding all educational programs, doesn’t mention athletics anywhere in the 37-word law.
However, it didn’t come as a surprise when Title IX was quickly applied to the athletic departments in Cullman County.
“I never looked at it any other way other than it applied to sports,” said Ray Heitmueller, a former girls basketball coach at Cullman, Fairview and St. Bernard. “I don’t mean to sound chauvinistic in that area, but it was the opportunity for these ladies to participate in whatever aspect the school could afford to allow them to do. Certainly, it wouldn’t be fair to allow the boys to have 10 sports and the girls to have none.”
It’s been 40 years since the passing of Title IX, and girls athletics in Cullman has come leaps and bounds since.
Before girls had organized school sports, they had to play on intramural teams or perhaps by themselves just for fun.
Former Cullman High volleyball and gymnastics coach Virginia Parker didn’t wait until Title IX to start helping girls play sports.
When she taught at Holly Pond in 1951, she decided to get a group of girls together to play other schools in sports like volleyball and softball. When Parker asked for the principal’s approval, there was only one condition: it couldn’t be school against school in the games. They had to mix the schools into different teams instead.
“We went through the different things that you do in physical education during the process of the year, and then we totaled up our points and gave ribbons,” she said. “We just had a ball. That was our first competition for girls, and they loved it.”
Parker left Cullman County for a few years but returned in 1961 to teach at Cullman High. It was in 1975, three years after Title IX passed, that she was told to coach the two aforementioned sports.
Heitmueller said Parker carried the torch in Cullman when Title IX was still new.
But what did it mean to carry the torch at that time in history?
“I’m a firm believer in what I believe in, and I believed that girls should have sports, but it had to come through the principal and through the superintendent in order for us to have a program for girls, so I pushed the issue,” she said.
“It goes back to us playing each other. We weren’t playing school-by-school, and there was no schedule. There was no money involved. When Title IX came out, then women would be paid as the men would be paid.”
Heitmueller said he wasn’t really sure how to approach practice when he became Cullman High’s first girls basketball coach.
“It was a show and tell,” he said. “You had to show them and tell them. You can’t just tell them because they didn’t know. They’d never done it before. We drew diagrams, we walked through it, we talked about it and progressed from there.”
Heitmueller’s coaching career began with the boys basketball program at West Point. He eventually left to pursue his master’s degree, and in that time, Title IX passed. After graduating from Huntsville A&M, he felt leading the girls basketball team would be the best way to get back into coaching.
“The first girls basketball game I saw, I coached it, which was in the early stages,” he said.
Even three years after the law had passed, Parker’s teams still didn’t receive money for uniforms or travel. Another problem they encountered involved the way the school split the practice facilities.
The football team had free reign of the gym when it rained, often leaving the volleyball squad with no place to practice.
“There was a problem,” Parker said. “If I’m going to coach volleyball, I need a place to practice because we’re going to play teams in Florence that are really good.”
All Parker wanted was what the law called for: equality. But that wasn’t going to happen immediately.
The girls played for themselves. The parents couldn’t always get off work, and there were hardly any fans to watch their games. So they played simply because they enjoyed it.
“We weren’t important,” Parker said. “We felt like we were, but it hadn’t caught on because girls sports were just beginning. We played and had a good time.”
However, Heitmueller remembers those times differently.
“I saw the interest rise in girls athletics at Cullman,” he said. “The community has always supported girls athletics with a lot of pride, and they’ve seen a lot of success over the years.”
For Heitmueller, the difference in coaching girls and boys was small. The main difference he noticed dealt with how the two handled emotions. But what didn’t change was the competitive spirit.
“The girls that I’ve been associated with are extremely competitive, and I think girls basketball is the best game out there because it’s all skills and finesse,” he said. “It’s not just playing above the rim with slamming and dunking.”
As a coach, though, he didn’t see them as women. He simply saw them as athletes.
“Of course I knew they were girls, but the demands that I placed on them were the same demands I would place on a boys team,” he said. “You show up, you be on time, you participate, you give it your very best, and if you can’t, don’t bother to come.”
Parker’s sentiments were similar. There wasn’t a separation between being a female and an athlete.
“To me, an athlete is either born with a natural ability or they work their tails off to be good,” she said. “They’re willing to work hard and give up everything else to be a good athlete. They think about it, they play, they practice. I had girls that gave it all they had.”
Despite all the hardships that came from being one of Cullman’s first female coaches, Parker said she enjoyed every minute of it. To this day, she believes she made a difference in her athletes’ lives.
“I had a purpose, and I think they appreciated that I stood up for what we believe in as women,” she said.
Things have certainly progressed from the first team Parker assembled in 1951. However, she doesn’t see too much else changing in the future. In Parker’s eyes, women are about as equal as they’re going to be. This is as close as it’s going to get.
“You have women climbing the corporate ladder, and do you think they pay her as much as they pay a man in that same position?” she said. “It just doesn’t happen.”
Heitmueller has taken a more positive outlook on the future of Title IX’s impacts.
“It’s continued to improve,” he said. “It’s just expected that girls are going to have the opportunity to participate in any sport they desire. I don’t see it doing anything but getting better.”
‰ Laura Owens can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 258 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.