Pioneers in women's sports at UK honored, Title IX lauded

bestep@herald-leader.comFebruary 3, 2013 

When A'dia Mathies pulls up for a 15-foot jump shot, the sharpshooting guard on the University of Kentucky women's basketball team is living out Sue Feamster's legacy.

Feamster was the first head coach of the UK women's team — and UK's first women's athletics director — after federal legislation referred to as Title IX revolutionized the opportunity for girls and women to take part in sports at all levels of education.

Congress approved Title IX in 1972, barring discrimination in all educational programs and activities at schools that receive federal funding.

It applies to areas other than participation in sports, but the growth of women's sports has been a key result of the law.

Feamster created a women's varsity sports program from scratch after the law was approved, choosing which sports to include, developing budgets, recruiting athletes and hiring the first varsity coaches, according to interviews and a UK media guide.

At halftime of the Kentucky-Georgia women's basketball game Sunday, that first class of coaches received an award named, appropriately enough, the Susan B. Feamster Trailblazer Award. It was all part of a celebration of Alumni Day, National Girls and Women in Sports Day and an observance of the 40th anniversary of Title IX.

In addition to UK's first women's basketball coach, those honored, and the sport they coached, were Suzie Stammer, field hockey; Betty Rider, golf; Leah Little, gymnastics; Delphine Nemeth, volleyball; Claudia Young, tennis; and Harold Barnett, track and field.

Feamster said most of the women's coaches had other jobs in the early days but made great sacrifices to build their programs.

"I think what the coaches did was remarkable," Feamster said. "They're part of history."

UK also honored current and former players on women's teams.

When more than 7,000 people come out on a cold Sunday afternoon to watch the nationally ranked UK women play, it's hard to believe that didn't exist before the mid-1970s.

Women played varsity basketball at UK in the early 20th century, but in 1925, a university panel voted to end the program, deciding the sport was too strenuous for women, according to one UK media guide.

In the early 1970s, female athletes at UK took part in club sports.

There were no scholarships, little money and no chance to compete for NCAA championships.

Ceal Barry, a standout on the first women's varsity basketball class, said team members paid for their own travel before Title IX and shared wool warm-up sweats with field-hockey players.

Young, the first varsity women's tennis coach, said only 100 people or so attended the women's basketball games in the early 1970s.

As for the tennis team, Young said she drove the van to pick up her players. They didn't travel to schools more than a few hours away, and the university didn't even provide shoes for players. "It was minimum," Young said.

Feamster, then a UK graduate assistant, said she was at a conference in Minneapolis before Congress approved Title IX and heard a presentation on the proposal.

"A light bulb went off in my head," Feamster said, because she recognized what the law could mean for women's participation in sports.

At her recommendation, then-UK President Otis Singletary set up a committee to study creation of a varsity sports program for women, Feamster said.

UK established such a program in 1974, ahead of other schools in the state and the Southeastern Conference, Feamster said.

"We were seen as a leader," she said.

The changes under Title IX were not universally welcomed, but there was no negative reaction from men's programs at UK, Feamster said.

Support from Singletary and his wife, Gloria, played a big role in the acceptance of women's varsity sports at UK, Feamster said.

The change that came under Title IX, such as scholarships and more funding for women's sports, was like going "from the outhouse to the penthouse," Barry said.

It's not an overstatement to say the law changed lives.

Sese Helm Brooks, who played for UK from 2000 to 2004 and took part in Sunday's Title IX observance, said the sports scholarship made it possible for her to attend college.

"It gave women the opportunity to advance and be successful" that men had, Brooks said. "It's a breakthrough."

Barry was majoring in accounting but decided to go into coaching after she saw the opportunities created by Title IX.

She coached for 28 years, compiling one of the top records in women's NCAA history. She is now senior associate athletics director at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

Those kinds of opportunities had not been available to women before Title IX, Barry said, adding, "I think it changed the landscape of our country."

Bill Estep: (859) 231-3212. Twitter: @billestep1.

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