It took a woman to bring men’s rugby back to Ithaca College.
Seventeen years ago, the club sport was banned on the upstate New York college campus for the atrocious behavior of its players on and off the field. The team’s “Animal House” reputation stuck so hard it took more than a decade before the private college would even consider reinstating the sport.
The scene changed when a group of male student-athletes recruited Annemarie Farrell, a former women’s rugby coach and sports management professor, to coach their team. She agreed, with conditions: a zero-tolerance policy toward hazing and a ban on post-game partying.
Men’s rugby returned to Ithaca College in 2009 under her leadership; two years later, Farrell took the undefeated Bombers to the national championship for NCAA Division III club teams.
Forty years after the passage of the federal anti-discrimination law known as Title IX opened wide the opportunities for girls in sports, few women coach men’s college teams. But Farrell, 33, is convinced that’s bound to change.
“I’m coaching young men who’ve grown up on the sidelines watching their mothers play sports, and they’ve had the experience of seeing their sisters often being the best athlete in the house,” Farrell said. “I’m coaching a generation of male athletes who really don’t care about the gender of the person with the whistle.”
In 1972, Congress passed Title IX to create a culture of equal opportunity for girls and boys, women and men in the nation’s educational institutions. It barred those schools getting federal dollars from using gender as a reason for exclusion from academics or athletics, and it would mandate that schools divvy up their resources — including dollars spent on sports — more equitably.
Title IX was around for 20 years before most of Farrell’s players were out of diapers. While compliance issues still exist — Women’s Sports Foundation research shows less money and fewer opportunities for female athletes than male athletes in high schools and colleges — Farrell is convinced that 40 years of the law have transformed how both men and women see sports.
“I can’t think of one negative experience I’ve had with my players because of my gender,” Farrell said.
Building confidence and self-esteem
The transformation caused by Title IX was witnessed by female coaches who have come to embody the success of women’s sports.
Lin Dunn, 61, is the coach of the Women’s National Basketball Association Indiana Fever professional team. She is also one of the winningest basketball coaches in the nation, with more than 500 victories in college and pro ball. She was a child in Alabama when girls were barred by law from team sports. “I remember being told I couldn’t play Little League ball,” Dunn said. “I didn’t understand why, especially since I knew I was better than most of the boys.”
In high school in Tennessee in the 1960s, she could play on the girls’ basketball team, but only under rules that restricted players to half-court action. The rules were designed to assure that the girls didn’t overexert themselves.
In Dunn’s first college coaching job, at Austin Peay State University, her players had to buy their own meals when they played on the road. Instead of staying in hotels, they often laid out sleeping bags on their opponent’s gym floor.
Title IX passed when Dunn was at Austin Peay, but little changed until much later. “I’d take old stuff from the men’s locker room that they weren’t using anymore,” Dunn said. “I would literally pull out the bleachers before every game.”
Dunn is a legend in women’s basketball for the Olympians she’s coached and the powerhouse teams she built at Mississippi, Miami and Purdue. At Purdue she coached the women’s basketball team to seven national tournaments before she was fired in 1996, after publicly complaining that her salary was less than half of what the men’s basketball coach was making.
Dunn loves coaching and the game of basketball. Even more, she loves what basketball does for the women who play it.
“There’s something about team sports that builds confidence and self-esteem,” Dunn said. “There’s something about teamwork — of everybody having to be together and build together to accomplish something great. Where else are you going to get that?”
‘Anything a boy could do — even better’
Research supports Dunn’s conclusion. A University of Pennsylvania study shows young female athletes have a stronger sense of competence and confidence than many of their peers. It also shows female athletes are more likely than non-athletes to abstain from smoking, avoid drugs and graduate from college.
Betsey Stevenson, an economist at Penn’s Wharton School of Business, conducted the study. She also found girls who played sports in high school later got better jobs with higher salaries and were more likely to work in “male-dominated occupations.”
Stevenson has taken her message to Washington. She appeared earlier this year with Olympic gold medalist figure skater Sara Hughes at a Capitol Hill briefing on legislation by New York Congresswoman Louise Slaughter requiring high schools to publish their Title IX compliance levels.
The message Stevenson delivered: “When we limit girls’ opportunities to play sports, we aren’t just limiting them as children, we are limiting their entire lives.”
Maureen Hayden is the CNHI state reporter in Indianapolis. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Monday: Time hasn’t ended legal furor over Title IX.
It took a woman to bring men’s rugby back to Ithaca College.
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