A Look Inside: Celebrating 50 years of Title IX

Published: Oct. 11, 2022 at 3:36 AM CDT
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EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) - The definition of Title IX, legislation that is now celebrating 50 years states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

In “A Look Inside” the impact of Title IX on women’s sports at UW-Eau Claire and the group of pioneers who made it possible to provide opportunities for student-athletes now and for the next generation.

“One of the biggest words that comes to mind is opportunity.”

Women have come a long way in sports, but it has taken years of determination and plenty of patience for women and girls to begin to be truly valued and are finding equal footing with men. This year, the NCAA celebrates the 50th anniversary of the passage of Title IX, the landmark legislation that gave women athletes the right to equal opportunity in sports and federally funded educational institutions. It was passed by congress and signed into law by President Nixon on June 23, 1972.

Leslie Huntington, Kim Wudi and Tonja Englund have more than 60 years of coaching experience combined at UW-Eau Claire. The softball, volleyball, and basketball programs are three of the now 13 Blugolds women’s sports available to student-athletes.

Wudi, a standout at UWEC who played for Blugold Hall of Fame coach Lisa Herb says it wasn’t that long ago that those offerings were few and far between.

“I’m always a proponent or our athletes appreciating the privilege and history of how they got the opportunities that they have and who paved that way and even if it’s their own parents,” says Blugolds women’s volleyball coach Kim Wudi. “So much of the growth in women’s sports right now is because the generation of moms right now had that opportunity, myself included are making sure that their daughters have that opportunity is really something that our athletes need to understand that it wasn’t that long ago that people didn’t have the things that they do.”

The women’s gymnastics program is one of the first sports that was offered to women at the varsity level at UW-Eau Claire. The program began in 1969 and was led by Blugold pioneer, Mary Mero. Softball coach Leslie Huntington says her current players can thank Mary for blazing the trail for women’s sports at the college level.

“She tells of the struggles that they had, the budgets, the lack of transportation, the lack of uniforms or sharing uniforms with other every team and things like that,” says UWEC women’s softball coach Leslie Huntington. “And now we look at the logos that are on our gear and the things that we’re able to provide for our student-athletes and none of those things would be possible without the people who paved the way and fought for those opportunities.”

In addition to being UW-Eau Claire’s first volleyball coach, Sandy Schumacher was also the Blugolds first women’s basketball coach from 1969-1987. Now in her 22nd year at UWEC, Tonja Englund is one of the only four head coaches for women’s hoops.

Every time I walk into Zorn Arena I think about Sandy, that Sandy drove the vans and she set the chairs up for those games and she coached multiple sports and that’s our WHY and it’s definitely my why every single day I come to work,” explains Tonja Englund, UW-Eau Claire women’s basketball coach.

Englund says her parents always encouraged her to “pay it forward”, that there would come a point where she needed to continue to coach and be a role model and to fight for more opportunities.

“Sometimes it’s almost overwhelming that’s what we take on for 17 or 18 of our players but I look back and think that I would be in a different place if not for those female role models,” says Englund. “I would be in a different place if it wasn’t for basketball. I tell my players it was a ball and a basket. It’s what changed my life, it’s that simple, sport changed my life. And for people who are not in athletics that don’t understand the importance of physical education in schools. I speak to that very strongly, that it was a P.E. teacher that recognized in me that I was a good athlete and when that happened, my grades improved, my confidence improved, I was a different person.”

All three coaches agree that there are more opportunities for women in college athletics, but there is still so much inequity within those opportunities.

“Yes there are a lot of opportunities for women to be head coaches but how long do they stay in the profession compared to men? Whether it’s salary, whether it’s a family, whatever the reason is, you don’t see men leaving the profession the way women leave the profession and for the reasons that women leave the profession. And I think there’s still the expectation of women in these roles that is very different than men in these roles and so I definitely think there’s a long way to go,” says Huntington.

“That leap into coaching profession right now is a big decision because they see us do so much and so I think that’s something that is a challenge for us is to show them that we have balance with our work life that we can have a family, we can do things for fun outside of coaching,” says Wudi. “Because a lot of in-season, they see the grind and that’s difficult I think so that’s something, we talk about equity, we talk about the opportunities, I think that for women and coaching especially it can be very challenging to balance everything and we have to model that for our athletes too.”