‘Forgotten’ women’s hoops pioneers describe what we lose if Title IX is lost

·14-min read

The next female Michael Jordan. Range like Stephen Curry. The James Harden of women’s hoops.

For years, the practice of comparing women to male players has been shrugged away with excuses: the women’s game hasn’t been around long enough, it hasn’t had enough stars, it needs the comp to stay relevant. But that’s far from the case in the minds of the first women whose lives changed dramatically with 37 words written into law 50 years ago this week.

“We don’t always have to follow the men’s lead, and we should not always follow the men’s lead, but there is one aspect of it [we should],” Elizabeth Galloway McQuitter told Yahoo Sports. “One thing the men do right is they honor their past. They honor their history. And the eras. The Title IX era should be cemented.”

Galloway McQuitter and Adrian Mitchell Newell were two of the first women to receive basketball scholarships in the 1970s as it became clear that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 did, in fact, apply to athletics. The act was signed into law by Richard M. Nixon on June 23, 1972, was primarily intended to open educational opportunities to women by prohibiting sex discrimination by federally funded institutions. But in those 37 words was “activity,” and as such the number of girls competing in high school sports expanded from 294,015 in 1971-72 to 3,402,733 in 2018-19, the most recent year statistics are available.

Few at the time recognized that Title IX would have such an impact on women’s athletic advancements. What Galloway McQuitter and Mitchell Newell did know was the law and proceeding scholarships allowed them to earn a collegiate degree they wouldn’t have otherwise. Galloway McQuitter signed to play at UNLV, blazing a path for women’s basketball in a city that now rallies around the WNBA-leading Las Vegas Aces. Mitchell Newell attended the University of Kansas, where she remains second in career points and rebounds. And they both starred for the Chicago Hustle of the Women’s Basketball League (WBL), a foundational block to the Chicago Sky’s first-ever WNBA championship last fall.

But few know any of that. And even fewer talk about it. What concerns the first beneficiaries of the law is that the following ones will continue to feel as they have: lost to a history that repeats itself in unbecoming ways.

“What has happened because the women don’t do it right is they have forgotten,” Galloway McQuitter, president of Legends of the Ball, an organization designed to share the WBL’s history, told Yahoo Sports. “They don’t know the original WNBA players. They don’t know the 10-year-in WNBA players. They don’t know the next 10 years [of] WNBA players. They know the last five years.

“But what’s going to happen to [Diana] Taurasi and [Sue] Bird and Candace Parker and what’s happened to Maya Moore, Sylvia Fowles and all these great players and Olympians? They’re going to become the new forgotten until — and if we don’t — find a way to cement [our history]."

Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird brings the ball upcourt during the first half of the WNBA Commissioner's Cup game against the Connecticut Sun on Aug. 12, 2021, in Phoenix.
Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird is in the final season of her WNBA career. Will she soon be forgotten to history? (AP Photo/Matt York, File)

What we lose without Title IX

Title IX and athletics are intrinsically linked over the past 50 years. But that wasn’t the case in the push to pass the law. Sports were barely on the radar.

“There would be no reason for us to think that Title IX was going to impact us in the future,” Galloway McQuitter said. “We had no idea about Title IX, its impact on us or how we would go on to impact Title IX.”

The early 1970s was still a time in which women were rarely accepted to graduate schools, faced blatant discirmination in hiring practices and couldn’t even have a credit card in their name. Doctors were still deterring women from athletic activities because they believed the uterus might fall out. There were some high schools, such as Galloway McQuitter’s in Rockdale, Texas, that offered organized sports. But what followed was a dead end until Title IX forced investment at the collegiate level.

The first scholarship student-athletes played in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) since the NCAA fought Title IX’s implementation and didn’t sponsor the sport until a decade later in 1982. For most of these players, just as today, the benefit was a fully paid education. They went on to careers as lawyers, police chiefs, doctors and scientists for the first time en masse. A select group went on to play professionally and work for decades as coaches.

“It’s important to note that without [Title IX] I would not have been an athlete at KU,” Mitchell Newell, the secretary of Legends of the Ball, told Yahoo Sports. “I would not have been a professional basketball player in the WBL, nor a coach. I was working at city hall downtown in Kansas City, Missouri [before college]. I would have had a good life, but it would not have been this life. It just totally changed our lives that we could go to college.”

Title IX, the AIAW and the WBL are called the Triad. They are all in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame as Trailblazers of the Game recipients in addition to the Immaculata Mighty Macs (won first three AIAW titles), Delta State (won three consecutive AIAW titles) and 1976 USA Olympic team, which helped catapult the WBL as the ’96 team did for the WNBA.

“That’s how powerful and how impactful this era of women’s basketball players and coaches and everyone else affiliated [with it] were,” Galloway McQuitter said. “And for others not to know that just blows my mind.”

The two met as teammates with the Chicago Hustle. Galloway McQuitter was dubbed “bandit” by radio broadcaster Les Grobstein for her 136 steals, a league-best in the inaugural season. She averaged 13 ppg, 9.3 rpg and four spg. Mitchell Newell was the Hustle’s No. 2 draft pick the next year and called the “athletic prototype” for her ability to play every position well. But the league folded after three seasons, so each went on to coaching careers.

The Chicago Hustle's Liz Galloway drives to the hoop against the New York Stars' Gail Marquis during a WBL game in Chicago on Dec. 15, 1979. (AP Photo/Larry Stoddard)
The Chicago Hustle's Liz Galloway drives to the hoop against the New York Stars' Gail Marquis during a WBL game in Chicago on Dec. 15, 1979. (AP Photo/Larry Stoddard)

“We didn’t just play three years and disappear. We remained relevant,” Galloway McQuitter said. “We have coached players who have coached players who have coached players. I have coached WNBA players and ABL [American Basketball League] players. We have members [in Legends of the Ball] who coached in the ABL and in the WNBA. We have impacted generations.”

For those knowledgeable, their lives have intersected with countless legendary names whose careers began in those early post-Title IX days.

Doug Bruno, the Hustle head coach, is still at DePaul where he coached Chicago Sky guard and three-time 3-point contest champion Allie Quigley. Ann Meyers Drysdale out of UCLA. Marian Washington coached at Kansas for 30 years and was an assistant for the ’96 Olympic team. Fran Garmon, who brought Galloway McQuitter to Temple Junior College in Texas, coached for 30 years and was involved with Team USA. Lucille Kyvallos at Queens College. Sue Gunter at LSU. Margaret Wade at Delta State. Jody Conradt at Texas with the NCAA’s first undefeated season in 1985-86. Pat Summitt — well, certainly everyone knows Pat Summitt. And Lin Dunn, who had her start at Austin Peay State in 1970, is still around as the Indiana Fever’s interim general manager.

Yet, few are knowledgeable. It’s easy to know Summitt, an eight-time NCAA-winning coach, since she, Dunn and Bruno remain tied to current WNBA headliners. That throughline is easy for broadcasters and fans. Not as much for others.

“We go back to a certain point, and to that I say, ‘Go back farther,’ ” Galloway McQuitter said. “Yeah, you don’t have to go back to 1892. You can, though, because women have been playing since 1892. But you do need to go back farther than the 26 years of the WNBA or 1982 with the women in the NCAA. And my question was, as you’re looking back 50 years at Title IX and when it was implemented, do you wonder who stepped through the doors that it opened?”

The pessimistic answer is most don’t wonder, and it’s a dangerous path to walk down.

Is Sue Bird on path to ‘The New Forgotten’

As the Google confetti stopped falling on the 25th anniversary celebration last year, the WNBA faced criticism for a subdued, botched effort that many felt failed to properly spotlight its past. And that was just the 25 years of stardom, not including any predecessors. Of those there are plenty.

Galloway McQuitter spoke of them all last month during a TEDxBoston talk in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Title IX. WPBA, WBL, LPBA, WABA, NWBA, LBA, WBA, ABL and the WNBA were all listed above their teams. The series she took part in was partially supported by Athletes Unlimited, hosts of the most recent pro women’s basketball league in the U.S.

“It definitely impacts the young WNBA players not knowing their history,” Galloway McQuitter told Yahoo Sports via phone after her talk. “They say, ‘OK, to be her you have to see her.’ We were there, we were always there. There is footage, there’s game footage. So you can see us. You can aspire to be like that.”

If that historial knowledge continues to fall by the wayside, then the generations coming up on retirement “become the new forgotten, because it’s already happened,” Galloway McQuitter said.

The Houston Comets are often left out of dynasty talk even though they won the first four WNBA championships in the late 1990s. Louisiana Tech and USC were 1980s powerhouses in the NCAA. Schools like Immaculata and Cheyney State ran the AIAW, but were either kicked down to the NAIA or disbanded altogether much like the Comets and pro leagues before them.

Cynthia Cooper and the Houston Comets celebrate after winning the 1999 WNBA championship over the New York Liberty.
Cynthia Cooper and the Houston Comets celebrate after winning the 1999 WNBA championship over the New York Liberty. The Comets won four titles in the WNBA's first four seasons.

And that plays into the problem. Once something is gone, it’s gone. And as years go by, the memory fades and rarely triggers a worthy remark. The WBL stars watch games, but never hear broadcasters make the historical comparisons they feel are easy.

“When you don’t know about these people, it cheats everybody,” Galloway McQuitter said. “Everybody is cheated. Not just a little Black girl looking at another Black woman, but the little white girl or the little white boy. Because you start breaking down walls of racism and all the isms: sexism, racism, ageism. You start breaking down those walls when you start seeing people accomplished in everything rather than just your narrow vision or view of, ‘only white males do this’ or ‘only certain people do this.’ ”

Legends of the Ball owns footage of the WBL, the two players told Yahoo Sports, and have been willing to share it. Some of it is in the ESPN 30 for 30 “Dream On” documentary, part of the relative flood of women-sports-centric docs over the past two years coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the 1996 Olympics and the 50th anniversary of Title IX.

“The men, they know their generational players,” Galloway McQuitter said. “And their generational teams. And their impactful eras.”

Fans, especially younger ones, are often eager to learn of the history they never heard and the role models they never saw. But the information has to be handy for them to aspire to be Cynthia Cooper or Lisa Leslie rather than Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Larry Bird or Bill Russell. Right now, there are young players mimicking passes like Sue Bird and post play like Sylvia Fowles. But coverage of women’s sports remains stagnant and works in blips of tentpole events. When game action is barely covered on a large scale, no wonder historical features aren’t given their proper due.

What happens when Bird, Taurasi and Fowles have been out of the game for a decade or two? Will children know their names, see their highlights, mimic their moves? The great Maya Moore has only been out of the WNBA for three-plus seasons now and how often do we hear about her game rather than her social justice work?

“We see ourselves in them. They don’t know our name or speak our names,” Galloway McQuitter said. “They carry our dreams inside, [but] they don’t know who we are. They continue to soar and we feel like we’re the ones that gave them wings. But they don’t know it. Nobody knows it. And that’s the agony inside, that’s the passion you hear. And that’s why we just keep knocking on doors and knocking on doors until we open doors so that our history can walk through.”

The group that first benefited from Title IX doesn’t want that agony to continue through the generations. In 25 years, society should remember and see Sue Bird.

Renewed concern over Title IX protections

Progress can be fragile.

“You asked, ‘What if Title IX is taken away?’ and I don’t see that happening,” Mitchell Newell told Yahoo Sports. “But I didn’t see Roe vs. Wade being in the predicament that it’s in now.”

There is a heightened awareness of forgetting history now that the Supreme Court appears ready to overturn the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision that guarantees federal protections of abortion rights. In the draft opinion, Justice Samuel Alito voted to strike down the law partly because abortion is not specifically mentioned or protected in the U.S. Constution. While he did write the decision concerns only abortion, legal experts caution it could could set the precedent for other court rulings to be challenged and potentially overturned.

“It’s ludicrous, but it’s happened,” Galloway McQuitter said. “And so yes, now everything stands to be under attack. And you’ve got to cement the history. You’ve got to report on the history.”

Roe vs. Wade is six months younger than Title IX. They will always be intertwined as laws that give women the right to choose. Choose when or if to have a family. Choose if they go to school and for what. Title IX has also always been under attack, namely for the incorrect claim it requires boys and men’s sports to be cut from the docket, and lawsuits are filed annually. Some over the decades have reached the Supreme Court.

“I think that now we as women need to know those 37 words,” Mitchell Newell said. “And we need to know who fought to get us those 37 words and we need to make sure that we keep those 37 words and what they provided for us. We can’t go backward. We have to fight for even more.”

When they’re at camps or tournaments, they teach kids, parents and coaches about Title IX and players from their era to now. They push for panels on display in the Hall of Fame, the Smithsonian and the WNBA offices. The group presses colleges to “Find Your Trailblazer” and shine a light on her. They’re happy for the progress and success, the nice hotels and gear.

But the more years that pass between nothing to a little something, the more likely it becomes that everything is forgotten if we aren’t careful. And if the game is going to truly flourish, the children’s children need to know the history from the Title IX era through the Sue Bird one and beyond.

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