The Vote That Started It All: The 1981 Approval of Women's Championships
Sept. 26, 2006
A woman never likes to divulge her age, however, 25 years of women's athletics in the Big Ten Conference is worthy of celebration. When compared to the century old men's program, collegiate women's athletics is still relatively fresh and determined to make its presence known. While women have been competing in intercollegiate athletics on a national basis since the early 1940's, it was only recently that conference schools voted to affiliate their women's programs within the Big Ten. It was 1981 when President Reagan first took office, Space Shuttle Columbia was launched into space and Michigan won a decisive 23-6 victory over Washington in the Rose Bowl. But perhaps the biggest mark in history came on September 30, when the Big Ten responded to its institutions' wishes by establishing championships for nine women's sports.
Now in 2006, we are witnessing a new era of women's sports. An era in which a new, visible set of heroes have emerged; strong, disciplined and confident women who girls can relate and look up to. The student-athletes we watch now are the same women little girls are mimicking all across the country developing and honing their skills. Perhaps even more mind-boggling is that in its 25 years, women's athletics has finally become generational. Young girls today have more opportunities than not only their mothers and grandmothers, but even their older sisters as well. Due in part by the national appeal of collegiate athletics and the unprecedented agreements with television networks, women's events are now reaching a broader audience.
As the women's athletic director at Iowa from 1973-2000, Dr. Christine Grant was heavily involved in the Women's Program Group that met to discuss recommendations for integrating women into the conference 25 years ago.
"I think it is a very exciting time for women's sports," said Grant. "There are so many good competitions and once the public gets a taste for it, they will come back."
The important and historic decision didn't come out of thin air. Six years before the initial vote, a Big Ten committee consisting of three women administrators, two male athletic directors and a faculty representative was formed to study women's varsity intercollegiate athletics. In 1980, the Joint Group recommended to the university presidents, also known as the Council of Ten, that universities which want to incorporate their women's intercollegiate athletic programs into the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives be permitted to join the conference with the understanding that appropriate methods would be established to provide adequate women's representatives. Two months after the recommendation from the Joint Group, the Council of Ten adopted a resolution to establish a task force which would prepare their women's intercollegiate programs for the conference if they so desire. It didn't take schools long to respond.
By mid-August, nine conference universities voted to affiliate their women's athletic programs with the Big Ten, by provisions set forth in the Task Force Committee Report. In that same month, the Women's Program Group, composed of the primary woman athletics administrators at each conference school, met for the first time officially in Chicago in conjunction with the Transition Committee. By September, the athletic directors knew they had enough support to approve championship formats for nine women's sports.
The Big Ten began its transition just as the NCAA was facing the task of incorporating women's athletics from the AIAW.
"The switch from the AIAW to the NCAA was a hard one for women's athletics; however, the current leadership of the NCAA in Myles Brand is one of the strongest supporters of Title IX," said Grant. "He has shown tremendous leadership in this area and continues to do so. The inequities that may exist on the national level are being addressed and that is tremendously exciting."
In addition to the NCAA's vision, Grant also speaks highly of the Big Ten's view toward equality.
"I believe the Big Ten has always put on quality championships for our women's teams because the basic philosophy for men and women are the same," she said. "Since we put on quality championships for men we will put on quality championships for women."
In addition to championships, the Big Ten continued to make significant strides for equality in women's athletics. In 1992, the Big Ten was the first conference to voluntarily adopt participation goals for female student-athletes. The objective was Phase I of the Big Ten's Gender Equity Action Plan (GEAP) and made conference members commit to a 60/40 percent male-female participation ratio over a five-year period (1992-97).
As stated by the Big Ten Conference official handbook, "The Big Ten Conference believes that a Conference Gender Equity Action Policy is required to address the historical imbalance in the level of male and female student-athlete participation in intercollegiate athletics. This GEAP is designed to implement this commitment through the member institutions by encouraging initiative, creativity, and leadership in the pursuit of the specified participation levels."
After attaining the prescribed participation levels the next step was a communications outreach phase that resulted in the "Dream Big" campaign targeted at young girls in grades K-8. Additional phases aimed at increasing fan attendance and sportsmanship continues today.
Former Big Ten commissioner Wayne Duke was around in those formable years (1973-89) and explains the conference's commitment to athletics.
"The Big Ten has been the leader in every facet of athletics; the vote of 1981 was another prime example of just that. Another aspect of the leadership the Big Ten Conference provided college athletics was the hiring of the first minority and first female assistant commissioner in Dr. C.D. Henry and Phyllis Howlett, respectfully."
Perhaps the biggest advancement has been the recent 10-year agreement with ABC/ESPN to increase national exposure for both women's basketball and volleyball events as well as the creation of the Big Ten Network to launch nationwide on cable and satellite in conjunction with conference partner Fox. The network will be devoted to the conference's athletic and academic programs starting in the 2007-08 school year and will significantly enhance coverage of Big Ten women's athletics to a national audience.
Here lies the biggest paradox women's athletics has had to hurdle through out its short life; a true chicken/egg syndrome, in which awareness is curtailed because of seemingly lack of interest.
"I have spoken to sports editors for the last 30 years and it is always the same story," Grant said. "They say the public isn't interested so we aren't covering it. I say how can the public ever be interested if you never write about women's sports...if you never show women's sports."
Dr. Grant acknowledges what current Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has done recently for women's athletics, specifically with the enhancement of television coverage and the advent of the Big Ten Network.
"Media coverage for women's sports has been slow in coming but Jim has done is an enormous leap forward for women," Grant said. "He has really set a standard for the rest of the country because there will be access for our women's programs to be on television on a very regular basis."
Duke mirrors Grant's feelings on his successor.
"I think women's athletics has grown in a phenomenal way within the Big Ten and I anticipate it will continue to do so. More specifically, I think participation and competition within women's athletics will continue to grow due to the support of the innovative television network that is evolving."
Sprouting from that initial vote 25 years ago, one can see just how far women's athletics has come. Like a proud parent, we are witnessing an exciting change within women's sports. Just imagine where we will be in the next 25 years. Will we be debating whether high school girls should be allowed in the WNBA or discussing the logistics of placing a professional softball team in either Florida or California? Who knows, however, what we do know is that in the last 25 years, thousands of women have represented their school in 19 sports (13 sanctioned and six non-sanctioned) with seven conference teams and 96 Big Ten student-athletes being crowned NCAA champions.
So if your one of those people who pride themselves in bleeding school colors or if you simply can't wait until Saturday for your football teams' latest showdown, start bragging about your alma mater's women's soccer program that has won the Big Ten Tournament that past two years or buy tickets to a field hockey game.
In any case, we'll see you out there.