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We’ve come a long way, baby

Championship atmosphere is proof of Title IX’s payoff

By Nancy L. Meyer

Title IX, the mandate that requires equal educational and athletics opportunity at federally funded educational institutions, became law when I was a high school athlete. Unfortunately for me and my teammates, the new law did little to enhance our experience or opportunities.

My teammates and I loved the sports we played as much as any athlete does today, but we were under no illusion that our play mattered as much as that of our male classmates.  Varsity girls teams practiced two to three times a week, usually after the freshmen boys were finished; we drove ourselves to away games and wore uniforms that would make today’s athletes scratch and cringe. 

Our coaches knew little about training female athletes or game strategy; we played before crowds that barely made it into double-digits, most of them our parents. My parents, like most of their generation, attended the boys’ games as faithfully as they attended mine, even though they had no son on the team. I practiced for hours upon hours on my neighbors’ driveways, shooting baskets, dreaming of a day when girls sports mattered. 

So when I looked around on the night of Nov. 17 in the DeVos Fieldhouse on Hope College’s campus and saw nearly 3,600 fans cheering wildly for a women’s athletics event, I did so with tears in my eyes.

Calvin College’s women’s volleyball team captured the imagination of a campus, a community, a region. Billboards along the freeway to Holland, Mich. promoted the event and Calvin’s team. Fans who had never attended a single volleyball match this season, or perhaps ever, came out in droves to watch the Knights battle against their foes for three straight nights. 

The black-clad Knight Nation student section filled the arena with raucous cheering, aiding a national attendance record for an NCAA Division III Women’s Volleyball Championship game hosted at Hope. More people came to watch a Calvin women’s sporting event than any time in its history, even more than 1986 when Calvin played at home in the women’s volleyball finals. Back then a packed gym of curious spectators watched a young freshman, Amber Blankespoor (now coach Amber Warners), led her team in an epic battle against a powerful UC San Diego team in the championship match.  We lost in five sets.

Title IX is 40 years old this year. Its impact over time has been tremendous, so much so that today’s female athletes know little of the open discrimination that so many of us aging female athletes experienced. Thanks to Title IX and the sweat and tears of many former athletes, coaches, and administrators − both male and female − today’s female athletes don’t have to know.

Perhaps it’s the nature of the game of volleyball that brings out the fans. Perhaps. But I’d like to think that today’s fans recognize and appreciate the high degree of athleticism, power and sheer drive-to-win exhibited by both Calvin and eventual champion St. Thomas (Minn.) that we witnessed this past weekend. And even more compelling, the matches were battles of will, of wild swings in momentum, of passion and drama and maximum effort – all the ingredients that make for a fantastic fan experience. 

We Calvin fans wish that the outcome of the match had been different, but I will always to be grateful to Calvin’s volleyball team and Calvin’s Knight Nation cheer section for their interest and commitment to women’s athletics. The team went on a great journey this season and many of us were blessed by watching them play the game they love, the women’s game that so many fans have now come to love.

And I will be eternally grateful to our student cheering section for their impassioned chants and roars of support and unconditional love for our female athletes, win or lose.

We have come a long way, baby.

Nancy L. Meyer is the director of women’s athletics at Calvin College.