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Benching the patriarchy: 50 years of Title IX and how 4 women fought for change

Fifty years ago, Title IX banned discrimination based on sex in educational institutions. College sports had to change. This is the story of how four women fought to make that happen.

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The University of Oregon Hall of Fame induction ceremony was held on campus in Eugene, Ore., in May.
The University of Oregon Hall of Fame induction ceremony was held on campus in Eugene, Ore., in May. Celeste Noche for NPR

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.

Basketball 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.

Satou Sabally of the Oregon Ducks drives to the basket against the Baylor Lady Bears during the first quarter in the semifinals of the 2019 NCAA Women's Final Four on April 5, 2019.
Satou Sabally of the Oregon Ducks drives to the basket against the Baylor Lady Bears during the first quarter in the semifinals of the 2019 NCAA Women's Final Four on April 5, 2019. Mike Ehrmann | Getty Images

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.

Jody Runge arrived at University of Oregon in 1993 and coached the women's basketball team until 2001.
Jody Runge arrived at University of Oregon in 1993 and coached the women's basketball team until 2001. Celeste Noche for NPR

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.

Runge holds a framed newspaper article about returning to UO for the closing of McArthur court.
Runge holds a framed newspaper article about returning to UO for the closing of McArthur court. Celeste Noche for NPR

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.

The administrator

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.

Becky Sisley was a former University of Oregon teacher and coach. She was the first women's athletic director in 1973.
Becky Sisley was a former University of Oregon teacher and coach. She was the first women's athletic director in 1973. Celeste Noche for NPR

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.

Sisley shows her PAC-12 championship ring.
Sisley shows her PAC-12 championship ring. Celeste Noche for NPR

"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."

The athlete

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."

Peg Rees led the physical education department at the University of Oregon for decades. Now retired, she announces play-by-play commentary for UO home softball games.
Peg Rees led the physical education department at the University of Oregon for decades. Now retired, she announces play-by-play commentary for UO home softball games. Celeste Noche for NPR

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.

Rees's tattoo commemorates her time at UO before and after their logo change.
Rees's tattoo commemorates her time at UO before and after their logo change. Celeste Noche for

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.

The All-American

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.

Bev Smith won a full-ride scholarship to play basketball at the University of Oregon in 1978. She still holds the university record for steals and remains in the top five for scores, rebounds, assists and blocks.
Bev Smith won a full-ride scholarship to play basketball at the University of Oregon in 1978. She still holds the university record for steals and remains in the top five for scores, rebounds, assists and blocks. Celeste Noche for NPR

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.

Smith now runs the non-profit Kidsports in Eugene, Ore.
Smith now runs the non-profit Kidsports in Eugene, Ore. Celeste Noche for NPR

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.

The team

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.

Jody Runge is inducted into the University of Oregon Hall of Fame on May 7.
Jody Runge is inducted into the University of Oregon Hall of Fame on May 7. Celeste Noche for NPR

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.

Transcript :

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Fifty years ago today, Congress approved the law known as Title IX, banning sex discrimination in education. This opened the world of competitive college sports to female athletes. But even with the law in place, the fight for equity in sports was fierce. Reporter Emily Harris brings us this story.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: On the wall of Jody Runge's home in Portland, Ore., I notice a framed newspaper clipping almost hidden in a corner. It's about closing an old basketball arena.

JODY RUNGE: I don't mind talking about it, but it's still a scab that gets picked off, I think.

HARRIS: Jody's story didn't start out as a wound. It began in the little town of Waukon, Iowa.

RUNGE: My dad was a teacher. He put a basketball hoop up in the driveway and said if we wanted to go to college, we'd better get out there because he wasn't going to be able to afford to pay for us to go.

HARRIS: It turns out that Jody was really good at basketball. Luckily, Iowa was one of the few states that had high school girls' teams. They played six on six, with rules that were designed to be less physical than boys.

RUNGE: I remember one game, I think I scored like 82, 83 points. To score that many points in a game is just ridiculous, kind of fun.

HARRIS: Ridiculous or fun, the fans loved it. They filled the high school gym. And they packed the stands at the state championships.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: Des Moines, Iowa, March 10, 1979.

HARRIS: Jody was named an all-state player two years in a row. This and all her scoring got the attention of the coach at the University of Kentucky. And Jody won a scholarship. She was part of the early wave of women to benefit from Title IX this way.

VALERIE STILL: She looked like she was about 6'7" because she had tons of hair.

HARRIS: This was one of Jody's teammates at Kentucky, Valerie Still (ph).

STILL: She always exudes this confidence - shoulders back, chest out, chin up.

HARRIS: After college, Jody wanted to stay in the game, but for women, there were no options to play pro without leaving the U.S. So she decided to pursue coaching. She bounced around filling assistant coaching positions. Then one day, the University of Oregon called.

RUNGE: It was the head job, and I was just ready to be a head coach and do things my way.

HARRIS: In 1993, two decades after Title IX, Jody became the University of Oregon's first full-time female coach for women's basketball. She faced an immediate challenge, a team that had just tied for last place in the PAC 10. But she stopped their losing streak her first year on the job, and her PAC 10 colleagues voted her coach of the year.

RUNGE: Well, I thought it would be great for recruiting.

HARRIS: Recruiting is a huge part of your job.

RUNGE: Absolutely, yeah, probably the biggest part.

HARRIS: Why is it so important?

RUNGE: Well, because it's - you know, you can't win the race without the racehorse.

HARRIS: But Jody had a problem that made recruitment hard. She had a yearlong contract that had to be renewed every summer.

RUNGE: The other coaches were saying, hey, you don't want to go to Oregon. She's not going to be there if she doesn't have a multiyear contract.

HARRIS: Would people actually say to you - like, parents...

RUNGE: Are you going to be there for my daughter?

HARRIS: They would say that to you?

RUNGE: Absolutely.

HARRIS: Jody was mired in other battles, too, some for basic equity, like the locker room, where women had to cross a hallway between the showers and their lockers; a hallway that male athletes and the staff used all the time, too. Other challenges were cultural. Men's basketball was expected to bring in revenue.

RUNGE: Men's and women's basketball is apples and oranges. It's two different things because you don't make revenue.

HARRIS: Jody wanted a contract that not only lasted longer than one year, but also paid her better and included university commitments to promote women's basketball so her team could have a shot at becoming a moneymaking sport. It took a year and a second winning season, but she got a raise that almost doubled her base salary and promises to market the women's team. She was finally in a position to bring in top recruits, and she did. She took Oregon to the NCAA championships every year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: ...Led by Jody Runge will start...

HARRIS: At one playoff game, the camera shows Jody standing on the sidelines.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: When she got there four years ago, they hadn't won in four years. She's done a remarkable job.

HARRIS: Fans filled the Oregon Arena. Parents brought their little girls to games. A group of wealthy women alumni became team and Jody boosters. But some players felt her style was too harsh and her criticism sometimes too public. Jody says it was her job to be straightforward with her players.

RUNGE: My assistants would tell me often that the kids don't even think you, like, go to the grocery store. They're not seeing that soft underbelly side of you.

HARRIS: That soft underbelly - it felt to her like the double bind that many women in male-dominated industries know. Jody delivered wins, but that wasn't enough. She was expected to show a gentle side, too.

BILL MOOS: Be tough. Chew their a**. They need that.

HARRIS: This is Bill Moos. He took over as Oregon's athletic director a couple years after Jody got there.

MOOS: But don't forget to tell them you love them. They came here to play for you.

HARRIS: Bill and Jody butted heads a lot. From Bill's perspective, Jody could be stubborn and disrespectful, while Jody felt she was pushing for the equity guaranteed to her and her team by Title IX.

PEG REES: We were excited and frightened.

HARRIS: Peg Rees headed the PE department at Oregon.

REES: We were excited to see what she could accomplish and what would come from her pushing the envelope because if she's successful, that could bode well for all of us.

HARRIS: Why did she have to do it alone?

REES: Because people were afraid for their jobs. Men have the ability to fail up in sport, and women don't have the ability to fail at all.

HARRIS: Jody's next contract negotiations with Bill left blood on the floor, as a local newspaper columnist described it, but she reached equity in base pay briefly with the men's coach. The tension with Bill didn't go away.

RUNGE: The tension between Bill and I, you know, was not helping me be - show that soft underbelly. You know, I was wound pretty tight.

HARRIS: One Sunday evening near the end of her eighth season at Oregon, Jody was on a live sports TV show. As she was busy talking up her team, Bill was secretly meeting with any of her players who wanted to share concerns about her. Just over half the team went to talk with Bill, and afterwards, Bill hired a law firm to investigate Jody's whole program. The lawyer's report said the players had asked that Jody be replaced, but by the time it was submitted, she'd made up her own mind. She had already resigned.

RUNGE: It just became really clear to me that I can't fix this. It's broken.

HARRIS: Jody took a year off, tried for some other coaching jobs, but didn't get one. She left the university, and she bought a bed and breakfast up in Portland. She never coached college basketball again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED EMCEE: Good evening again, everybody.

HARRIS: Then last month, more than two decades after she left, the University of Oregon finally honored Jody Runge, adding her to its sports hall of fame.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED EMCEE: Please welcome to the stage Jody Runge.

HARRIS: Jody came up wearing her high heels and standing tall, as always. Jody told me she enjoyed seeing old friends, and she felt appreciated at the ceremony. But one thing the emcee asked really bothered her.

RUNGE: The first question he asked me was how proud I am.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED EMCEE: Just how proud are you of that?

RUNGE: Well...

It's not about being proud. It's about having to have had to fight all those battles. You know, it cost me a career. And for people to say that I should be proud of that is, you know, really insulting because it's not something I'm proud of. It's just something I felt like I had to do to continue to be successful.

HARRIS: What she's saying seems bigger than basketball, bigger even than Title IX. All those pronouncements that women have been dealing with - not athletic, not sellable, not worth investing in, ungrateful for opportunities - who says? Who gets to decide what women or anyone are worth or how they should be?

For NPR News, this is Emily Harris in Portland, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.