ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Lobo women’s hoops coach Yvonne Sanchez benefited greatly from Title IX, but there were growing pains
Editor’s note: President Richard M. Nixon signed the above into law on June 23, 1972, 40 years ago Saturday. It initially was intended to give women more opportunities in higher education. Then by opening the gates to gyms, stadiums and playing fields, it changed the way women in America — New Mexico included — live and play.
Yvonne Sanchez remembers the not-so-good old days for female athletes.
Growing up in Los Alamos in the 1970s, Sanchez took up sports when joining a team left one alternative.
“Up until midschool or even high school, there really wasn’t anything for girls,” Sanchez said. “There were like three or four of us who really wanted to play, so we played basketball and baseball with the guys. That was the only choice.”
At the time, Sanchez was unaware of Title IX, the landmark legislation signed in 1972 that would revolutionize sports for women and girls. Several years passed before significant changes trickled down through collegiate, prep and youth sports.
Sanchez first noticed a shift when her family moved to Albuquerque and she enrolled at Eldorado High School in 1981.
“I couldn’t believe all the girls sports,” she said, “and there was really good competition.”
Some 30 years later, Sanchez could be the poster child for Title IX and all it has delivered. She’s head coach of one of the country’s most popular women’s college basketball teams, commands the third-highest annual base salary ($264,000) among University of New Mexico coaches and sometimes has to pinch herself when she remembers the “good old days.”
“People don’t understand how things have changed in my lifetime,” Sanchez said. “Kids playing now have no idea.”
Sanchez played college ball at U.S. International in the mid-1980s and says the women’s game has since evolved in nearly every respect. Playing gear, she said, effectively illustrates the transformation.
“Our players now get brand-new Nike gear,” Sanchez said, “pretty much whatever they need. When I played, we had to buy our own gear. If basketball shoes wore out, we called Mom and Dad and begged. Title IX helped to change that.”
Like many colleges and universities around the nation, the University of New Mexico can trace much of its women’s sports history to Title IX’s passage. Prior to that, UNM fielded various women’s intramural and club teams.
Scholarship sports were largely 1970s additions.
“It was in keeping with the changes occurring nationally,” said Gary Ness, who witnessed the women’s sports transformation at UNM as a student-athlete in the 1960s, a professor in the ’70s and as the school’s athletic director from 1988-92. “I remember it was a huge financial outlay and it was controversial, but schools had to comply with the mandate.”
UNM did, adding women’s basketball in 1974-75 and several more women’s programs between 1975 and 1978. Few were immediately successful. Funding, fan support and even participation lagged in the early days.
“A lot of girls didn’t realize they could even get athletic scholarships,” Sanchez said.
Ness recalls seeing more women participating in sports, particularly when the AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women) began sponsoring national championships. The NCAA picked up women’s championships in 1981-82, and television tournament coverage followed.
“Once they had a TV presence,” Ness said, “(women’s sports) became quite popular. That basically killed any argument about killing women’s sports.”
Changes associated with Title IX did not always go smoothly, including at UNM. Women’s basketball, for example, failed to attract significant interest initially. The program was dropped in 1987.
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“At the time, that was devastating,” said Janice Ruggiero, UNM’s associate athletic director for student-athlete welfare. She played three seasons with the Lobos before the program was cut. She transferred to Hawaii as a senior.
Women’s basketball was reinstated in 1991, but not just for Title IX considerations.
“The (Western Athletic Conference) wanted to make women’s basketball a major sport,” Ness said. “When we entered the WAC for women’s sports, we brought it back.”
UNM competed in the High Country Athletic Conference for women’s sports until 1990-91.
One year later, in 1992, Ness and UNM faced a Title IX lawsuit when they dropped women’s gymnastics. The suit was ultimately dismissed, Ness said, because UNM added women’s soccer in place of gymnastics.
But UNM again found itself facing Title IX-related criticism in 1999. The school dropped three men’s sports (gymnastics, swimming and wrestling) to cut costs while retaining gender equity.
Other schools took similar actions, fueling one of the major arguments against Title IX. Opponents charged that instead of creating athletic opportunities for women, the legislation was eliminating them for men.
Ness, whose tenure as UNM’s AD ended in 1992, understood the objections.
“To me, that was the only negative about Title IX,” he said. “Men’s sports were dropped to satisfy the equity formula, and I don’t think that was ever the intention. Schools did it, including UNM, but I never agreed with it.”
On Title IX’s 40th birthday, arguments for and against are still being made. Women’s collegiate sports now attract more participants and attention than ever, but they still pale in comparison to the exposure, fan support and coaching salaries men’s programs receive.
Sanchez’s base salary last season was just $200 less than that of UNM men’s coaching counterpart Steve Alford, but her total compensation was less than half of the $1 million-plus Alford received.
It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, Sanchez said.
“To me, equity has nothing to do with salaries,” Sanchez said. “Men’s basketball is a lot more scrutinized and there’s a lot more pressure to win. That’s just the way it is. I’m more concerned about equality in facilities, gym time and the way players are treated. Working alongside Steve Alford, those things have never been issues.”
UNM athletic director Paul Krebs acknowledged the profile difference between men’s and women’s sports, but said he strives to make things as equitable as possible for student-athletes. During his tenure, Lobo softball, volleyball and women’s basketball have enjoyed facilities upgrades, and Krebs pointed out that men’s and women’s locker facilities included in the Pit renovation are nearly identical.
“I have a son and I have a daughter,” Krebs said. “I want them both to have opportunities, and they should be equal.”
Like Sanchez, Ruggiero and Krebs can recall when men’s and women’s sports were far from equal.
“I tell our women’s players what it was like when I played, sleeping four to a room and traveling in vans,” Ruggiero said. “They’ll say, ‘I would’ve transferred to another school,’ but they don’t understand. That’s just how it was 20 years ago — at every school.”
“Our current female athletes haven’t known a day when there was such a great disparity,” he said. “Unfortunately, they may take some things for granted, but it also means we’ve come a long way.”
Taken as a whole, UNM has to rate as a Title IX success story. Not only have the school’s women’s sports programs become competitive, they’ve built impressive fan bases.
The Lobo women’s basketball, volleyball and soccer programs ranked among the national attendance leaders last season. UNM is among a handful of schools able to count women’s basketball as a revenue-producing sport. Its 10 women’s programs are all fully funded.
“I feel good about where we are with our women’s programs,” Krebs said. “The facilities are outstanding, coaching salaries are competitive and our student-athletes have performed extremely well in the classroom. I’d say our programs are healthy and strong.”
According to 2010-11 numbers, UNM had 252 participants on its women’s teams, 355 on men’s teams (athletes who played multiple sports were counted extra), including 117 in football. Krebs said the ratio is fairly typical but requires vigilance.
“I think we can still do better with women’s participation,” he said, “but we need to do it without hurting men’s teams.”
Ruggiero said she’s satisfied with UNM’s commitment to women’s sports but believes Title IX remains necessary as protection for programs already in place.
Krebs, however, emphasized that equity is a double-edged sword. With equal treatment comes equal expectations.
“I feel like we’re trending the right way,” Krebs said, “but I want our women’s programs to win championships. Men and women, that has to be the goal.”
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal