By Matt Fischer and Brad Taylor
Dr. Helen Smiley was all too familiar with the state of women’s intercollegiate athletics in the 1960s. Smiley, who served as Western Illinois University’s Athletic Director over a span of three decades, recalls the medical and social philosophy surrounding female athletes when she was the University of Iowa’s first Women’s Athletics Director.
“There was a belief that women did not have the strength, lung capacity and endurance to play sports the way men did,” said Smiley, who was honored by The Summit League in 1995 by having the Women’s All-Sports Award named after her. “For instance, women’s basketball started as six-on-six because it was thought females were not able to run a full court. Players participated on offense or defense but not both.”
Fortunately, ideologies have changed and women’s athletics have seen unimaginable growth from those days over 40 years ago. More than 1,500 female student-athletes compete annually at Summit League schools. Summit League women student-athletes have celebrated 182 NCAA appearances. These opportunities and achievements may not have been possible without a landmark initiative - the passing of the Title IX amendment into law.
To understand the stunning advances made by women in sports, it is helpful to know where Title IX began. President Richard Nixon signed Title IX on June 23, 1972, marking a historic turning point in American education. The law stated that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity.”
Although the word “sports” is not specifically mentioned in Title IX, the legislation is best known for expanding opportunities for female athletes. Before Title IX, there were less than 32,000 collegiate female athletes. Today, more than 190,000 females compete in NCAA athletics. Title IX called for equal opportunity to play and that meant schools had to offer scholarships and provide the same access to equipment, coaching and facilities.
Smiley was the Associate Athletic Director at the University of North Dakota when Title IX passed in 1972 and witnessed its immediate impact on intercollegiate athletics.
“There were schools that cut their athletic budget down the middle and gave half of it to women’s programs,” said Smiley. “Coaches started to get paid salaries and were finally able to recruit high school athletes. Conferences started to form and competitions expanded past state borders into regional territories.”
The Summit League (then known as the Mid-Continent Conference) was founded a decade after Title IX was passed. One year later, in 1983, a women’s-only league called the North Star Conference began. Following the conclusion of the 1991-92 academic year, The Summit League added women’s athletics by absorbing the North Star Conference.
Since the merger of The Summit League and North Star Conference, member schools have experienced incredible success in women’s athletics. The list of achievements includes two first round victories in the NCAA Basketball Tournament and a third place finish at the Women’s College World Series. More recently, the league has seen an NCAA Softball Super Regional appearance and two victories in the NCAA Soccer College Cup within the past five years.
Individual female student-athletes have made their names in The Summit League with standout performances in their athletic fields. Two have earned the NCAA Elite 89 Award given to the participant with the highest grade-point average at each NCAA Championship. Furthermore, the league has produced a two-time NCAA champion, six Olympians (including one Gold Medalist), three professional basketball players and a total of 59 All-American selections.
E.C. Hill, who starred at Northern Illinois from 1992-94 is The Summit League’s lone first-team basketball All-America selection. Named the 1993-94 Mid-Continent Conference Player of the Year, Hill led NIU to consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances in 1993 and 1994 and still ranks second in league history for career points per game (19.85).
Hill, currently in her second season as an assistant coach at the University of Arizona, spoke about Title IX’s impact on the lives of all females active in sports.
“Title IX was much needed and has assisted a lot of women in the sports profession,” said Hill, who played professionally in the ABL and WNBA. “It has helped hard-working and positive women achieve their dreams. Besides allowing me to play college basketball, Title IX has been incredibly influential during my coaching career.”
The popularity of women’s athletics in The Summit League is most evident at the annual Basketball Championships. The 2012 Women’s Basketball Championship marked the first time in league history that all seven women’s tournament games appeared on national cable television. This year’s tournament marks the fifth consecutive year that ESPNU will broadcast the women’s title game.
Myndee Kay Larsen, The Summit League’s Senior Associate Commissioner, directs the Basketball Championships and serves on three different NCAA Committees. A basketball standout at Southern Utah from 1993-98, Larsen was a CoSIDA First Team Academic All-American in 1998 and still holds a pair of NCAA records (consecutive field goals made and season field goal percentage).
Larsen is highly influential in the continued success of women’s athletics today and believes there is further room to grow.
“Title IX has propelled all women’s sports onto the national stage,” said Larsen, the only Southern Utah basketball player with a retired number. “Without the NCAA Championships, women’s athletics would not receive national exposure. The legislation has helped grow the Women’s NCAA Championships to a point where female student-athletes are household names.”
“Title IX is always advancing,” Larsen continued. “Women’s sports began so far behind men’s and there is still room for female athletes to catch-up. Looking at physicality alone, the bodies of current women athletes are so much different because they have played sports from an early age. The quality of female athletes will continue to improve.”
Smiley, Hill and Larsen each were named to The Summit League’s “Top 30 Distinguished Contributors” list compiled during the league’s 30th Anniversary Season in 2011-12. Their impact and that of future generations of female student-athletes can be traced to the continuing influence of Title IX.
The Summit League is proud of the increased opportunities for women in sports and the exposure of women’s athletics. Through its numerous programs, The Summit League will continue to honor its past, present and future female student-athletes.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This feature was originally published in the 2013 Summit League Basketball Championships program (March 9-12).