This 1972 federal legislation granted a world of opportunity for American girls.
The thing that mattered most to Nini Rich, her freshman year at Judge Memorial Catholic High School, was the final school bell signaling it was time to run out to the track and meet with her friends — Maureen, Barb and Terry. The year was 1972 and the inseparable foursome wasn’t there to hang out on bleachers and watch the boys practice. Every day after school they met in the locker room, put on their own uniforms, tied on their cleats — all bought and paid for not by the school (as were the boy’s uniforms), but with their own money — and started training.
Nini and her friends knew they were the first group of girls that their coach, Connie Coroles, had trained for competition instead of for intermurals. But, as with most kids their age, the why didn’t matter as much as the what. They didn’t ask why they were the first girls at their school to be given the opportunity to play competitive sports. They were just happy to do it. Years later, as grown women, they came to realize the effect that Title IX had had on their lives.
Congress passed Title IX in 1972 as part of a series of education amendments. Broadly, Title IX outlawed sex-based discrimination in educational programs and activities and granted “equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society based on their individual talents and capacities.” Prior to the passage of the amendment, females were often excluded from educational programs. Many universities once held quotas for the number of women admitted and would regularly require higher test scores from those women who were accepted.
“I didn’t understand Title IX for quite some time,” said Maureen Toomey during a recent reunion at the Catalyst office with Nini Rich and Terry Crandall seated at the round table and Maureen Toomey and Barbara Farris joining by phone. Reflecting on their experience with high school athletics, the women agree that it was mostly the continued debate around the failed Equal Rights Amendment, in the late ’70s, that brought their own youthful experience into focus. (See interview with Karen Shepherd, this issue.) The Equal Rights Amendment would have continued the work started by Title IX by declaring equal legal rights under the law for all Americans regardless of sex. Feds have yet to pass the ERA.
Prior to Title IX, women and girls had very few opportunities to engage in competitive sports. In 1972, the number of high school girls participating in school athletics programs was less than 500,000. By 2012 more than three million high school girls were involved in sports at school.
Those numbers certainly show positive change but there is still much to improve if we want to do our best by young women. A decade ago, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services came out with new physical activity guidelines for adults and children. These guidelines recommend that, to build healthy minds and bodies, children ages 6 to 17 should devote at least 60 minutes per day to moderate or vigorous physical outdoor activity. Most children, boys and girls, fall well below this mark. By age 15, only 17% of children meet this benchmark.
For girls, the numbers can look even worse. Young girls, overall, spend less time than boys being physically active. Numbers also show that girls start giving up on sports and physical activity earlier than boys. Such an early decline in activity could have life-long effects. Studies have shown that girls involved in high school athletics also have increased graduation rates (by as much as 41%). And graduating from high school is often indicative of continued success as an adult.
Officially, Judge Memorial opened varsity athletics programs to young women in 1972. But as Nini Rich and her girlfriends recall, the attitude at the school was often less than welcoming. “I have a clear memory of the basketball boys harassing us,” says Barb who recalls that many of the boys’ teams feared girls’ sports would take money out of their budget.
When it came to sports, the girls definitely started at the bottom of the heap. In addition to having to purchase their own uniforms and gear they were given the last pick of practice times, usually early mornings or Sundays. Even the grade school boys’ teams got better court and field times.
“We were supposed to defend our right to be there,” says Barb. “We had to justify it by showing that we could really do it, we could really be competitive athletes.”
But there was good along with the bad. Sitting around the Catalyst office table talking with her life-long friends, Teri is happy to remember those teachers who did believe in them. “There were a couple of supportive men coaches,” she says, to the agreement of the group. “Gil Cordova [the football coach] was supportive. And Dave Disorbio; he was the weight conditioning coach and athletic director.”
“People who truly value fitness and competition were supportive of us,” adds Nini. “And the young women who took part in these new programs were very athletically inclined. We were really motivated.”
There were eight, maybe nine, young women the first year that Judge made room for girls in their athletics department and by all accounts the most important part of the entire endeavor was Coach Connie Coroles, a woman it seems of superhuman energy, ability and perseverance. Coroles, recall the four friends, coached basketball, softball, volleyball and track. She also taught, during regular school hours, health and physical education.
“She was our saving grace,” says Teri.
Among Nini, Teri, Barb and Maureen, the friend group dabbled in a number of different sports but it was track and field that really brought them together. They still remember the workouts. “They weren’t always pleasant,” says Nini. “Coach Coroles really took our training seriously.”
Their coach also worked hard to find opportunities for her girls to compete. The Catholic schools didn’t complete against local public school teams, so Coach Coroles had to get creative. One of the group’s favorite memories is of traveling up to Pocatello for a big competition.
“Part of the thrill of running was being in the race and running the back 200,” says Maureen. “I can still remember how you couldn’t hear anything but your breathing and the sound of the track under your feet. It was this silent world until you hit finish line and suddenly you could hear everybody. That’s an amazing feeling. So I loved running. It gave me confidence for everything else about high school.”
That powerful connection between physical activity and personal empowerment, such as Maureen experienced nearly 50 years ago, is just as important for young girls today, long after the passage of Title IX. Girls On the Run is one program, outside of the public school system, that helps guide girls through this important realization.
In 1996, Molly Barker started The Girls On the Run program in Charlotte, North Carolina. The three-month-long program, for girls ages eight to 12, trains the pre-teens for a culminating 5k run while also making time for life skills conversations with coaches about things like decision-making, personal confidence and goal-setting. In Utah, the program reaches about 1,600 girls through 120 different groups around the state and is always looking to train coaches who can help lead new after-school groups.
Forty-five years after Title IX opened the doors to high school sports, Nini Rich wonders if enough young women realize what a great opportunity they have in front of them. Competing on the track taught Barb, Terry, Maureen and Nini courage and fortitude, the joy of hard work and perseverance. It also gave them each other. “Find something you care about,” says Nini. “Get on a team. I had group of friends that was purely social. There was always someone in and someone out. But my track friends were always there for me.”
Katherine Pioli is CATALYST Magazine’s assistant editor. She also teaches physical education at City Art, a Salt Lake City chartered school.