Once an Athlete, Always an Advocate
June 26, 2007
With the tremendous changes that have taken place for women's athletics in the Big Ten Conference over the past 25 years, many people have been called on to not only push the level of competition in female sports, but also to fight for equal attention and support that those programs deserve. While many people can be thanked for these strides, some who often go unnoticed are the women that have battled behind the scenes, on the administrative side, to make sure the fight for equality never let up.
One devoted advocate who has been involved in many milestones of the past three decades in women's athletics is Joni Comstock. A coach-turned-administrator, Comstock served two Big Ten universities before making her way to the NCAA where she currently holds the role of senior vice president for championships.
"There were so many outstanding coaches and administrators in the Big Ten that I think you learn a lot from being around them because there were so many role models readily available to you," Comstock said.
Many changes have been made since Comstock first took the field as a student-athlete herself. With the passing of Title IX and a rising number of sports offered to female athletes, opportunities for women in athletics have continually advanced.
Comstock has not only been a part of these changes, but also many others while serving in multiple roles across the country.
She grew up prior to most of the benefits of Title IX, but Comstock's parents were very influential in her beginning interest in athletics.
Cross was also eager to boast about the tremendous energy Comstock brought to the programs.
"It was great to have another advocate for our women's athletics programs, another female colleague and a woman with tremendous credibility in athletics administration leading our program," said Cross. "Joni has been and continues to be a great role model for me."
Comstock's experience makes her a natural mentor for Cross, who had a similar path to her position in college athletics and at Purdue. Much like Comstock, Cross was first a multi-sport coach, serving as a volunteer assistant for both the Purdue basketball and field hockey teams. Over the next 10 years, she advanced to an assistant coaching role before taking on the head coaching position for field hockey. Despite the team's success and her honor as Big Ten Coach of the Year in 1987, the field hockey program was later dropped.
But for Cross, she never saw the door closing on her coaching career. Instead, she used this turn of events to move toward her ultimate goal as an administrator.
"Knowing that my terminal goal was to be an athletics director, this was a fantastic opportunity to begin acquiring those requisite skills and experiences for athletics administration," said Cross.
Cross continued her career at Purdue in the area of development and fundraising before moving into her current role as a senior associate athletics director, a position that also distinguishes her as Purdue's senior woman administrator.
While both women point out the great strides that have been made for women's collegiate competition, they also note that certain areas are still lacking and in need of improvement.
"I would like to see women's athletics become more financially credible," said Cross. "While we have come a long way and are generating revenue, we are not yet self-supporting."
Comstock added that she would like to see more women continue to advance their careers in the profession. As June marks the 35th anniversary of Title IX, the number of female administrators in college athletics has dropped significantly compared to when the law had first passed. But both Comstock and Cross have created perfect examples of why their perspectives are so vital.
The efforts of these former student-athletes have not gone unnoticed. Purdue Athletics Director Morgan Burke has expressed extreme gratitude for their hard work and dedication.
"Joni and Nancy were both intimately involved in Purdue's move toward equity in the 80's and early 90's," said Burke. "Not only did they do their jobs well but they fostered a spirit of fairness while embracing the fact that change is hard. They were both tireless in listening to all sides and working to find common ground. You have to admire these two who never lost faith or sight of the value of intercollegiate athletics for women and for men."
After nearly 25 years of working in a campus environment, which included stints as athletics director of UNC-Asheville (2000-03) and American University (2003-06), Comstock was presented with the opportunity of a lifetime when longtime women's athletics advocate Judy Sweet retired from the NCAA.
"I really anticipated that I would stay [on campus] for the remainder of my career," Comstock explained. "But this was just an extraordinary opportunity for me to really serve intercollegiate athletics and student-athletes at a completely different level, to truly have a national impact on their experience and their lives."
It was in honing her experience in the Big Ten that Comstock knew the opportunities for her career were limitless.
"Without a doubt, the Big Ten as a conference and the institutions within it are leaders in intercollegiate athletics," said Comstock. "In many ways, to see cutting edge ideas, it was a tremendous benefit to me. There is a solid foundation of values within the Big Ten related to the support and development of student-athletes, academics, integrity and, of course, extremely competitive athletic programs. The Big Ten offers all of those things and it is a great place to learn."
It was Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany who helped Comstock open the door to her role on the NCAA Basketball Committee when he nominated her during her final year at Purdue. Since her time on the committee, many things have changed, including increased national exposure with the development of television deals and higher attendance rates.
"I think without a doubt the quality of the teams and student-athletes has grown incredibly," said Comstock. "We're definitely seeing more parity in women's basketball. I don't think it's quite as deep as we'd like it to be, but the parity is really increasing."