There’s a glass case in a hallway at the University of Oregon that looks like it should be in a museum. The case sits in the university’s state-of-the-art basketball arena and holds an exhibit of women’s shoes.
Kelly Graves, the current women’s basketball head coach, proudly points to one of them — white, with wings on the back heels, and chartreuse neon trim.
“It’s the first shoe Nike ever made specifically for one women’s basketball team,” he says. “They made that for us our Final Four year.”
It’s a stylish looking shoe, but it’s also something more — a symbol of the hard-fought movement for gender equity in women’s sports.
The University of Oregon’s (UO) women’s basketball team is good, really good.
Under coach Graves, they’ve won the Pac-12 title three times. In 2019, they made it to the Final Four of the NCAA championships.
But this hasn’t always been the case. Fifty years ago, in 1972, the University of Oregon didn’t even have a women’s basketball team. That same year, Congress passed the law known as Title IX, which bans discrimination based on gender in education, including sports.
Title IX opened up a world that had been dominated by men, and promised to completely change college sports.
One year later, Oregon’s first women’s varsity basketball team was created.
Still, the team did not receive equal treatment. It also took another 20 years before the University of Oregon hired its first full-time female basketball coach.
When Jody Runge arrived in 1993, she seized on the promise of equity in Title IX. But what Runge found was an athletic department with clear disparities between men’s and women’s basketball.
The men’s team got better practice times, a locker room with showers, more promotions to bring in fans. The men’s coach got more pay. These kinds of inequities were a reality at universities all across the country.
Many women in college athletics believed schools were failing to meet their legal obligations under Title IX. Runge tried to hold the athletic department accountable.
She was successful in many ways, but eventually lost not only her job, but her career. And her accomplishments in improving equity at Oregon were ignored for years. Runge paid a high price for her fight.
Graves coaches in a different world than Runge and women who came before her. The women’s team plays in a brand new arena. The locker rooms are spacious and comfortable. Graves has an office that overlooks the practice courts. And some of his star players, including Sabrina Ionescu, Satou Sabally, and Ruthy Hebard have moved on to the rapidly growing WNBA.
Graves also coached Sedona Prince, whose video calling out vast disparities between the mens’ and womens’ weight rooms at the 2021 NCAA basketball playoffs tipped the scales toward change.
But the history of the women who laid the groundwork for women’s sports at Oregon has been largely forgotten in different ways. These are women who fought battles, big and little, to try to make the ideals spelled out in Title IX a reality.
Roll the clock back to the 1964 World Softball Championships in Orlando, Fl.
It was a decade before the passage of Title IX. Becky Sisley helped clinch the title for her team, the Erv Lind Portland Florists. The next year she accepted a teaching and coaching position at the University of Oregon. Because of her multiple sports and multiple academic degrees, Sisley rose steadily through the ranks, becoming the university’s first and only female athletic director at the UO in 1973.
Two years later, she was in charge of making sure the university met its Title IX obligations. Sisley says the law defined what concrete steps schools needed to take.
“You had to have equal uniforms, transportation, meal allowance, athlete ratio, and so forth,” she remembers.
But she ran into resistance.
“I remember getting very upset in a meeting, because a man yelled at me and said, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about,'” she says. “And he didn’t know what he was talking about. One of the athletic administrators. Yelling at me.”
Some roadblocks were harder than others. Getting the equal locker rooms that Graves’s team enjoys took decades. Sisley oversaw the first steps. Under her leadership, the volleyball and basketball teams were granted access to a former men’s changing room in the basement of the main arena.
“Those were men-only halls,” Sisley says. “People were walking around nude all the time. So everything was stressful.”
The locker room wasn’t nice, it was full of urinals. But it was something.
In 1977, the women’s athletic department merged with the men’s. It was both a victory and a loss. On the one hand, Sisley jokes, it was nice for women to quit washing their own uniforms at home and be able to use the laundry services already set up for the men. But her agency was washed away; she lost the opportunity to run her own department. And the merger didn’t put the men’s and women’s teams on equal footing.
Two years later, the women’s softball team held a jog-a-thon to raise funds for a playing field. Sisley left her administrator position in 1979, after increasing the women’s athletic budget eleven-fold, starting athletic scholarships for women, and helping put on the first co-ed track and field meet at the University of Oregon.
“I think of all the struggles when you started Title IX, you know, it just didn’t happen overnight,” Sisley says. “It took battles.”
Peg Rees was born an athlete, but in the late 1950s, years before Title IX. Her parents supported her playing sports, even if the law and wider culture did not.
“If I asked for something at Christmas, I got it,” Rees remembers. “I got a football, I got a basketball, I got a catcher’s mitt.”
It was strategic. Rees knew if she showed up on the playground with her own gear, she’d get to play. But pickup games were her only opportunity to be on a team. When Rees was in high school, as the 1960s turned to the 1970s, her suburban Portland district didn’t let girls play team sports.
“When they told me I couldn’t do something because I was a girl, it was just such a random thing,” Rees said. “I personally never believed it. It made me doubt all kinds of rules.”
Rees swam. She played tennis. She joined the track team to throw javelin, discus and the shot put. Her junior year, Title IX became law, but that made no immediate difference at her high school.
The first time Rees had the chance to join a real team was her freshman year at Oregon. And she went all in, playing softball, volleyball, and basketball. Rees played on the first women’s varsity basketball team at the university.
She joined the Title IX student committee helping to make the law become reality. After college she taught high school and started coaching.
“I just love the dynamic of being a part of a team and belonging to a group,” she says.
After seven years, she returned to the University of Oregon to coach, then teach. After coaching, she led the P.E. department for decades. Now retired, she announces play-by-play commentary for UO home softball games.
Bev Smith learned her early agility on ice. The lake in her hometown, Salmon Arm, Canada, froze in the winter and she and her siblings would spend hours trying to steal the puck from their dad. But that fun ended when the boys grew up enough to join teams. There was not a hockey team for Smith, or any girl.
She says she found herself out on the ponds, with no one else around but cows. She hated to give up her stick, but her mom insisted.
“My mom said, ‘You’re not going to play hockey. You’re going to find something that is more ladylike to play,'” Smith remembers. “She kind of respected authority at that time.”
Luckily, basketball was ladylike enough. Smith joined the Jewels, a local girls team. Her junior year of high school, she watched a former Jewel play in the Olympics. It was 1976, the first year the Olympics included women’s basketball. Watching sparked something inside Smith.
“You know, wow. If she can do that, you know, why can’t I?” she says.
Smith made the Canadian national team while still in high school, then in 1978 won a full-ride scholarship to the University of Oregon. She was one of the first female athletes at Oregon to get this financial award – thanks to Title IX.
Because of her natural skills and her dedicated drive, Smith began to change the way both male and female fans at Oregon perceived the women’s game. During her four years, Smith was a two time All-American. She still holds the university record for steals and remains in the top five for scores, rebounds, assists and blocks. She drew new fans to the game, bigger crowds for women’s basketball than Oregon had ever seen.
When Smith graduated in 1982, the university retired her number, 24, as a way to honor her and her legacy.
Then the university forgot and gave her number out again.
“Your most decorated basketball alumni’s retired number is not remembered,” Peg Rees says. “Somebody dropped the ball.”
Rees says that error is a result of years of not taking the value of women’s sports seriously.
After her four years at Oregon, Smith went overseas to be able to play pro basketball. She returned to Oregon to coach women’s basketball for eight seasons, right after Runge. She also continued to play for Canada, competing in two Olympic Games. Smith now runs a successful youth sports program in Eugene.
Last month, at the 2022 University of Oregon athletic Hall of Fame ceremony, Becky Sisley, Peg Rees, Bev Smith and Jody Runge found themselves in the same room together. Sisley and Smith had previously been voted into the Hall of Fame. On this night, former coach Runge was finally receiving the same honor.
Runge, in addition to taking her team to the NCAA playoffs every season for eight years, took the fight for equity further than ever before at Oregon. She won significant changes, including better uniforms, the first multi-year contract for a female coach, and university support to market and promote the women’s team. She left after a very public clash with the athletic administration, and her story was buried.
A few days after the ceremony, Runge explained her complicated feelings about the event. She said she enjoyed seeing old friends and felt appreciated at the ceremony. But one thing rankled her — the way the emcee that night asked her about her fight for equity.
“The first question he asked me was how proud I am,” Runge said. “It’s not about being proud. It cost me a career. For people to say that I should be proud of that is really insulting, because it’s not something I’m proud of. It’s just something I had to do.”
Emily Harris is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon. She has reported for NPR and public broadcasting nationally, internationally and locally, and is currently leading City Cast Portland. She was named most improved player on her parks & rec basketball team in 1980-something, and later ran track, played volleyball, and rowed. She is eternally grateful to the women who, in 1976, wrote Title IX on their chests and backs, went into a university administrator’s office with a news photographer and stripped, protesting the lack of hot showers for women in the boathouse.
Ida Hardin is a freelance audio producer based in Eugene, Oregon. Her work has aired on NPR and member stations across the country. Ida grew up playing team sports, including, thanks to Title IX, tackle football — a memory that continues to invoke happiness for her.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
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