It was June 23, 1972, and Linda Estes allowed herself a sigh of relief.
Title IX became law that day, and Estes, then in charge of women’s athletics at the University of New Mexico, thought she understood what it meant for her department.
“I was very naive,” Estes said. “When it passed, I thought all my problems would be over. I didn’t think I’d have to fight to enforce it.”
But fight, she did.
She has the scars, yes, but also tangible results.
In 1972, UNM’s budget for women’s athletics was $4,300 for nine teams.
When she retired in 2000, it had grown to $2.96 million.
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But more than the dollars, it was about opportunity.
“I always knew in high school that boys had all these privileges,” said Estes, a 1957 graduate of Highland High. “The boys had athletics, and we didn’t. It was so unfair, but I never thought about it being illegal.”
While Title IX was never designed specifically for sports, Estes says she immediately recognized it “as a tool to develop women’s athletics.”
She was drawn to the Nancy Lopez case in the early 1970s, prior to the enactment of Title IX. Lopez wanted to play golf on the Goddard High boys team because there was no girls team.
Estes remembers attorney Roberta Ramo “testifying that when you provided athletics for males and not for females, you were discriminating against the taxpaying parents who had daughters and not sons.”
Lopez won that fight, and Ramo credits Estes with standing by her and the Lopezes.
“Linda is one of smartest, most motivated, bravest people I know,” Ramo said.
But the challenges for Estes were just beginning.
“I think, generally, there’s a resistance by certain men to women having equality on any level,” Estes said. “The second part is the thinking, ‘Oh, my god, if we have women’s athletics, it will be taking away from men’s programs.'”
Football, Estes said, was the most paranoid about Title IX.
“That was always the thing — we’ll have to cut programs,” Estes said of a chief argument. “But all the time they were saying that, they were putting more resources into football. … Where they were vulnerable was that they always sold football as a revenue-producing sport, and most times, it’s not. Sure you have the Oklahomas and the Michigans. But mostly you have the have-nots. If you look at the Mountain West Conference, most are subsidized.
“And that’s OK. I don’t have a problem with that. Just don’t sell me the stuff that football is a revenue-producer. If you’re subsidizing football, women’s programs have the right to be subsidized.”
Breda Bova, UNM’s longtime faculty representative to the NCAA, watched Estes with admiration.
“She is such a strong woman,” Bova said. “She never lost sight of the fact that a lot of girls in her generation never had the opportunity. She fought hard for that when she was here at UNM. She didn’t shy away from anything. We were very fortunate to have her here.”
Bova says it wasn’t easy for Estes and remembers a meeting with a group that wanted to do away with athletics at UNM.
“She was speaking on behalf of the student-athletes and somebody made a horrible comment,” Bova said.
“She didn’t let it bother her,” Bova said. “She kept on going.”
Estes had to deal with critics who said she was out to ruin UNM athletics.
“It was awful,” Estes said. “It was hell. I just put on my boxing gloves and went to work.”
She had both allies and enemies.
She credits Ferrel Heady, UNM’s president at the time Title IX came into being, with taking the cause to the state Legislature.
“He announced, in 1973, in Santa Fe, they were going to put more money in women’s athletics,” she said. “That was a big step. President Heady was wonderful.”
But John Bridgers, UNM’s athletic director from 1979-87, and Estes were constantly at odds.
“The worst years of my athletic career,” Estes says, who insists the only thing the former Baylor football coach cared about was football.
Gary Ness eventually took over as AD and appointed Estes in charge of all sports other than football and men’s basketball.
In 1992, an outgoing, outspoken Rudy Davalos became athletic director and some feared he would clash with the outgoing, outspoken Estes.
“When Rudy Davalos came,” Bova said, “they took a walk, just the two of them, and talked. They became really good friends.”
“I loved Rudy Davalos,” Estes said. “The thing about Rudy is he is not afraid of strong women. He was married to a strong woman. I loved working for him. We didn’t always agree, but you knew exactly where you stood. They were the best nine years of my career.”
Meanwhile, Estes had been grooming Janice Ruggiero, a former Lobo basketball player she had plucked out of the business world and into the world of college athletics.
Ruggiero now has Estes’ title, but is the first to say Estes can never be replaced. She still relies on her mentor’s advice from time to time.
Estes now lives in Koloa, Hawaii, where she plays golf and dabbles for the Democrats.
She had a chance to meet Patsy Mink, a Hawaiian and the driving force behind Title IX, before Mink died.
“She talked about how she’d always wanted to go to medical school,” Estes said. “She went to college and was at the top of her class. She applied to 10 medical schools, and they all wrote back and said they were not taking any women (that) year.
“I bet they wish they had, because she went to law school and became an advocate. She didn’t even think about athletics. It was a byproduct.”
But Estes did think about athletics and became a pioneer.
“We have many heroes in our state,” Ramo said, “and Linda is one of them.”
To mark the 40th anniversary of Title IX this weekend, Estes planned to go out and have a glass of champagne.
“I hope I’m around when it hits 50,” she says.
— This article appeared on page D8 of the Albuquerque Journal