Cathy Beene, Georgia Southern’s Associate Athletics Director/Senior Woman Administrator, is talking about how women’s athletics have grown in the 40 years since Title IX became a federal law.
"It’s like that Virginia Slims ad, ‘You’ve come a long way, baby,’" she said, referring to a cigarette brand that was introduced in 1968 and marketed to young, professional women. "We really have come a long way."
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 was signed into law June 23, 1972. It was a momentous shift for women’s equality throughout the country. Title IX requires equal access to academic and athletic opportunities for all students, regardless of gender, in all of the education programs and activities of a school, university or other entity that receives federal financial assistance.
Beene, 60, shakes her head as she recalls some of the financial hardships that female student-athletes faced when she began working at GSU in 1996.
"When I came here as a coach in tennis, I pulled out their clothes to see what they had, and these kids had just a regular T-shirt with holes in them," she said. "They had a couple of tennis skirts. So I’m looking at that, and I had a couple of the team members come in and I said, ‘Is this what y’all are wearing?’"
"That’s all we have," her players responded.
"That was changed," Beene said. "Immediately."
In 1972, many universities barred the admission of women. Female sports teams were scarce. And in 1976, the NCAA filed a lawsuit in an attempt to have Title IX overturned because the NCAA did not want to share the money designated for men’s sports.
Since Title IX was passed, the number of female college athletes has increased from 30,000 to 190,000.
"When I came here in 1996, most of the women’s sports teams did not have a locker room strictly for their sport," Beene said. "The soccer team would change in the hallway and then go out to the soccer field. They didn’t have anywhere to change. The athletes didn’t think too much about it but (former GSU Senior Woman Administrator) Brenda Carter did. I did."
Now, there are locker rooms for all nine of GSU’s women’s sports teams: softball, volleyball, basketball, tennis, soccer, cross country, indoor track, outdoor track, and swimming and diving.
Beene, who was hired by GSU Athletics Director Sam Baker, coached the Eagles’ tennis program from 1997 through the 2002 season before she moved into full-time administrative duties. Beene is in charge of GSU’s women’s sports. She also is currently serving her second term as chairwoman of the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Tennis Committee.
Beene credits Baker with steadily making improvements to GSU’s women’s sports programs. To be in compliance with Title IX, GSU’s men’s cross country and men’s swimming programs were eliminated during the 1999-2000 school year to fund women’s indoor and women’s outdoor track.
"Sam has done an incredible job getting our women’s sports up," Beene said. "I came in six months after he did. For me to sit and watch all the facilities, the scholarships, the coaches, I can remember when I first came, our coaches didn’t have assistant coaches. All the things that he’s done, and it’s not because he had to, it’s because women’s sports are important to him.
"Sometimes you don’t find that with athletic directors. … Our athletes here today do not understand what all has transpired in the last 15 years at Georgia Southern. We have 15 sports. Track counts as three: cross country, indoor track and outdoor track. We have nine women’s sports."
GSU offers six men’s sports: football, baseball, basketball, golf, soccer and tennis.
Before arriving at GSU, Beene was the tennis coach at the University of Texas-Arlington, and she held the same position at the University of Houston prior to that.
"I’ve been through the gamut of it, before Title IX and then as things have progressed," she said. "I’m just excited that our coaches and student-athletes have what we have right now. I’m just happy for them because I know Sam’s worked very hard to get all that.
"You can always get more, and you always want more, but those young ladies have what they need to compete at the highest level."
Lack of resources
Beene, and other female athletes of her generation, did not have what they needed to compete. After graduating in 1969 from Harlingen High School in Harlingen, Texas, Beene attended Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas.
She did not, however, attend on an athletics scholarship.
"When I was going to Lamar University, you didn’t have women’s athletic scholarships," she said.
Beene and Linda Rupert-Thomas, her doubles partner, won an Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) national championship in 1973. Beene won Texas AIAW singles championships in 1970 and 1971. She graduated in 1973.
Beene was inducted into the Rio Grande Valley Sports Hall of Fame on June 30, and was inducted into Lamar University’s Hall of Fame in 1993.
"In college, when I was playing, we really didn’t get anything," Beene said. "Luckily, in college at that time, you could get rackets free. I was on Wilson’s promotional list so I didn’t pay for strings or rackets or shoes, but we had to pay our own expenses when we traveled on the weekends (to tournaments).
"At Lamar, if we used warm-ups, we had to go check out a warm-up. All the women’s sports had to use the same warm-ups, so you had to check them out when you left for trips. Nowadays, that’s unheard of, which is great."
Creating the AIAW
In 1971, the AIAW was created as an alternative to the NCAA to give women an opportunity to continue playing sports after high school. In 1980, the NCAA voted to begin offering championships for women’s sports. By 1982, the AIAW dissolved.
"There was a fear when Title IX came into place," Beene said. "The men were hesitant, scared, or whatever the word is you want to use there, that all of a sudden a lot was going to be taken away from them and transferred to the women’s sports. That wasn’t the case.
"When the NCAA took over the women’s sports, you kind of lost the AIAW. Things changed. But there was always a big division between AIAW and the NCAA. The women administrators at that time, they didn’t want to go to the NCAA. They had developed and worked for years to comprise what they had. And then, all of a sudden, they’re losing total control of everything. So that wasn’t pretty."
The women of the AIAW laid the foundation for women’s athletics. Beene said it is important to remember their efforts.
"You, obviously, can’t jump in at one time and fully fund every women’s sport," she said. "It’s got to happen on a gradual basis. But it’s interesting to me, the biggest part for me, is our student-athletes today across the country, not just here at Georgia Southern, they don’t know anything about it so they all expect that this is just the deal, this is what women have had the whole time. And that’s not the case."
GSU volleyball player Moriah Bellissimo, a rising senior from Blackstone, Va., is the president of GSU’s Student-Athlete Advisory Board. She knows what Title IX is but admitted that she did not know it turned 40 this year.
"I didn’t know that at all," said Bellissimo, 20, who has played volleyball since she was in the sixth grade. "I definitely think it’s a very easily forgotten thing. So many things can easily be taken for granted. We just celebrated Independence Day, and people take their independence for granted so much. And I think, especially with my generation not having to go through that struggle and having to fight for a spot or fight for respect or anything like that, it’s really, really easy just to take it for granted and kind of almost expect for it to be how it is."
Bellissimo said she cannot imagine a world in which men are provided athletics scholarships but women are not.
"We have a really nice setup right now," she said. "A lot of times, I think, we get clothes for our team that I would never be able to buy on my own. It’s just strange because I’ve heard those stories before about people not having locker rooms.
"Because of Title IX and everything that’s come along with it, I’ve had opportunities in these past three years, and in this coming year, that there’s absolutely no way I would have gotten to have had it not been for that. We went to Kansas last year. We’re going to New Mexico this year. We just got back from taking a team trip to Costa Rica. There’s no way any of us would have been able to go and do that."
More work to do
Despite the growth of women’s athletics throughout the country, Beene said more work remains to get all colleges in compliance with Title IX.
"What happens is when you have football, whatever university has football, it’s very, very difficult to comply because of the numbers (of players)," she said. "All schools fight that battle. People try to add women’s sports to get the numbers up because there’s not an equivalent sport, a parallel sport, to match those numbers."
Title IX is enforced through the NCAA’s certification program. A peer review team visits universities throughout the country and evaluates whether they are in compliance.
"We were fine. We were in compliance," Beene said of GSU. "But I’ve also been a peer reviewer. And you go to some of these schools and they have major problems because they’re not doing what they need to do for the women’s sports.
"Do the women’s sports and athletes across the country have everything they need? Probably not, but it’s 500 percent better than it used to be."
Noell Barnidge may be reached at (912) 489-9408.