This March Madness thing now has two lunatic faces--one male and one female. It wasn't always so. Just a generation ago, the only women you saw around college gyms in the spring were waving pompons or cheering for their boyfriends. Through no fault of its own, women's basketball was cause for snickers and sighs and general condescension from the athletic establishment.
Many places, it still is.
But in Palo Alto, California, Stanford's women's team plays to sellout crowds and it has hung two NCAA National Championship banners from the rafters in the past four years. And no one's joking anymore up the road in Boulder, where Ceal Barry's talented Buffs have risen to glory and renown while putting their male counterparts to shame: Beleaguered Joe Harrington's bunch finished last again this year in the Big Eight. Meanwhile, Barry's fifth-ranked club, 25-4 in the regular season and no longer designated the "Lady" Buffs, are stepping along smartly in the Big Dance--a year wiser and more experienced, more hopeful than ever of winning it all.
But fame and recognition on the hardwood are a late, and provisional, chapter in the troubled saga of women's intercollegiate sports. Next Tuesday night PBS stations will air an extraordinary Frontline documentary called In the Game (KRMA, Channel 6, 9-10 p.m.). It chronicles the Stanford team's first championship season of 1989-1990, when coach Tara VanDerveer, hired away from Ohio State in the mid-Eighties, finally got a faltering program to the top.
More significantly, the film also details the long battle of American female athletes against discrimination and flagrant collegiate underfunding. In 1947, Jackie Robinson was a long-overdue arrival in the major leagues; in 1994, women remain second-class citizens on the majority of campuses--despite Title IX of the U.S. Civil Rights Act, the 21-year-old law banning gender discrimination at federally funded schools. The PBS film doesn't mention it, but the New York-based Women's Sports Foundation reports that virtually all colleges and universities evade Title IX, and federal enforcement is almost nonexistent.
You can look it up: The National Collegiate Athletic Association's own 1992 Gender-Equity Study found that 70 percent of athletic scholarship money, 77 percent of operating budgets and 83 percent of recruiting funds (Hey! Listen up, Coach Nolte) still goes to men's programs. The common excuse? Women's programs don't make money.
The issue remains hot right here in Colorado. Two years ago, after Colorado State University cut its women's softball and men's baseball programs for budgetary reasons, 13 members of the softball team won a gender-bias suit against the school. Last November the U.S. Supreme Court declined, without comment, to hear the case, letting the lower court ruling stand. But CSU and state officials copped a plea, claiming colleges and universities everywhere remained without guidance in meeting Title IX requirements. Other Colorado schools admit their sports programs are also in violation.
I've seen only a rough cut of the Frontline piece, but of the dozens of telling moments in producer Becky Jean Smith's documentary, two remained with me days later. Early in the hour, we catch a glimpse, via faded tintypes, of the Stanford team that played the first college women's basketball game ever--against the University of California-Berkeley in 1896. The steady gaze of these heavily clothed, grave young Victorian women is inescapable: It speaks of pride and self-confidence and faith in the future. Stanford won the game, narrator Alfre Woodard tells us, by a score of 2-1. Three years later, a faculty committee banned women's intercollegiate sports, deeming them "unhealthy." That was a decision born of another era and a different set of attitudes, to be sure. But women at Stanford, known as one of the nation's most enlightened universities, weren't allowed to shoot hoops again until 1972.
The second scene takes place in the Cardinal locker room in 1990, late in the season. Still smarting from their first loss of the year a week earlier, the team is now 21-1 after knocking off Southern Cal, 86-60. VanDerveer, as adept with a cliche as any other coach, is stoking up her players for the postseason tournaments when she springs a surprise. Her opposite number, USC coach Marianne Stanley, suddenly materializes in the room to urge Stanford on. The winner of three national titles at Old Dominion, Stanley clearly awes the Cardinal players--but not as much as the we're-all-in-this-together spirit may awe PBS viewers.
Can you imagine Bobby Knight dropping by the North Carolina dressing room after getting thrashed by the Tar Heels? Of course not. But sisterhood remains powerful on an uneven playing field where, before Title IX, there were no women's athletic scholarships and little funding, and women's intercollegiate sports attracted less than 1 percent of national media coverage.
VanDerveer's success at Stanford is a model in several aspects. Before the school's forward-thinking new athletic director, Andy Geiger, made a public commitment to women's sports and lured VanDerveer to Palo Alto, the team had gone 14-42 in the previous two years. But she was by no means free to ignore Stanford's lofty academic standards: She built her championship club with the help of two high school valedictorians and four straight-A students. The team's foundation and its star, although documentarian Smith soft-pedals the notion, was Jennifer Azzi, a sharpshooting guard from Tennessee--one of the few hotbeds of women's basketball. Azzi was joined, we learn, by the moody Katy Steding, a diamond in the rough; Sonja Henning, an academic standout headed for law school; and Trisha Stevens, a 6-3 center with a beautiful shot but a pair of knees so damaged that it's painful just to watch her practice.
"Their gritty, dramatic journey to the championship became, in the end, an amazing fairy tale," Smith says. "More importantly, it also came to symbolize the potential of all women athletes, when given an opportunity, to get in the game."
Viewers will see that not only on the court, but in the shining faces of the little girls begging autographs after the horn sounded. Smith does not put too fine a point on it, but role models abound on the hardwood in Palo Alto. The Cardinal won a second consecutive national title in 1991, and this year they finished the year ranked number 11. Last season, Colorado upset them in the Sweet Sixteen round. A rematch will come Thursday night in Palo Alto.
Are women's sports healthier than in 1971? Sure. Are they equitable? Not by a shot from half-court. Among the vivid ironies sprinkled through In the Game:
Just as Stanford arrives in Knoxville for the 1990 Final Four, the University of Oklahoma announces it's dropping its women's basketball program. Asked for her reaction, VanDerveer calls it "a major slap in the face and a major step backwards," but Oklahoma men's coach Billy Tubbs dismisses women's hoop as "money down the drain." Faced with lawsuits, Oklahoma reinstates the women a week later.
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In 1991, Stanford repeats as NCAA champs, but VanDerveer, who was earning a salary half that of the Stanford men's coach, gets an equal pay contract only after threatening a discrimination suit. (CU's Barry, by the way, also earns equal pay.)
For most of the 1990 Stanford team, as for female basketball players everywhere, the game ends after senior year. Of her All-America star, Jennifer Azzi, VanDerveer says: "If she was a male athlete, she'd be a top NBA draft pick making a million dollars a year. She's a Magic Johnson, a Larry Bird, an Isiah. It's a shame. The way she'll have to channel that now is playing the Olympics."
But that didn't happen either: Jennifer was one of the last players cut from the 1992 U.S. team. She's playing in Europe, while teammate Katy Steding went on to a women's team in Japan--until that nation banned American players, in 1993. That underscores what may be the unkindest cut of all for the best collegiate female athletes. Long before they reach their peaks, their opportunities to play in America have vanished.
In the women's dressing room, March Madness rarely survives until April.