PENDLETON — The uniforms weren’t meant for volleyball and the net sagged in the middle. The game fundamentals were there, but little skill existed beyond that. When the ball hit the air, the play itself resembled more a glorified physical education class than true competition.
Not that any of the players minded, remembered Kathie Nooy, a senior at Pendleton High during the fall of 1975.
“Anything sports related, I was going to be involved,” said Nooy, formerly Schubert. “That first volleyball year, that was huge for us.”
Six girls from Pendleton and six girls from Hermiston gazed at each other from opposite sides of the court during the teams’ first volleyball match ever. They weren’t rivals, not like today. The high schoolers had hardly ever competed against each other, save maybe a track meet the spring before. Though technically opponents during their game on Sept. 16, 1975, the girls felt more like allies in working together for one goal.
Federal legislators were implementing the Education Amendments of 1972, and a portion labeled Title IX would change the opportunities for young women forever. Competitive volleyball, and quickly thereafter basketball, became available to girls in Eastern Oregon because of 33 words and a reader’s interpretation:
“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity…”
Title IX, a 1972 civil rights law that required boys and girls receive equal educational opportunities in institutions that receive federal funding, was the brain child of U.S. Rep. Patsy T. Mink, D-Hawaii, and Sen. Birch Bayh, D-Ind. Mink was the principal author of the amendment’s simple language. Bayh brought the legislation before Congress as its chief sponsor.
Forty years ago today, on June 23, 1972, President Richard Nixon signed the bill into law.
Though intended to rid the education world of sex-based discrimination and allow women the same access to schools and classes as their male counterparts, athletics have become a prominent peg in the discussion. As school-sponsored sports fall under the umbrella of educational activity, women began to see more doors open in the sporting world.
Prior to Title IX, participation numbers at the high school level skewed heavily in the boys’ favor — males were 12.5 times more likely to go out for varsity sports. For the 1971-72 school year, only one in 27 girls was involved in athletics, just 294,015 nationally compared to 3,666,917 of their male classmates.
As more and more schools around the country began adding women’s sports, those numbers drew closer. Though the law allowed educational institutions a three-year grace period to comply with the new regulations, many acted more quickly.
For the 1972-73 school year, female participation nationally jumped to 817,073. The next year, participation rocketed to 1,300,169. By the time schools like Pendleton jumped on board with its volleyball program in September 1975, a whopping 1,645,039 girls were involved in athletics in the U.S., a 560 percent markup from four years earlier.
The number of young women in sports has ballooned to more than 3 million just at the high school level as of the 2010-11 school year. While boys are still turning out in higher numbers, just less than 5 million for last year, the kind of growth that young women have created is still outstanding, said John Gillis, associate director of publications and communications at the National Federation of State High School Associations.
“I would contend and argue that that’s pretty amazing,” Gillis said of the 22 consecutive years of participation growth. “To have any kind of (national) participation numbers increase like that over that kind of time span, it’s pretty amazing.”
For Oregon in the 2010-11 school year, girls made up 41 percent of the 100,885 high school varsity athletes, just fractions of a percent below the national average.
Youth sports builds character, said Colleen Hunt, Pendleton’s volleyball coach during the 1975 season. The games are important, male or female, because of the life skills involved: work ethic, teamwork, leadership and perseverance — among others.
With all that on the line, and maybe aided by a little curiosity, the girls flocked to the new activity that Hunt was in charge of that fall. Enough turned out that the school filled a varsity and JV squad without trouble, 27 girls in all.
But there were bumps in store for Pendleton’s newest female sport — the school previously offered gymnastics in the fall and track and tennis in the spring as well as a brief intramural-type volleyball team decades before. The school added volleyball without funding for supplies and on the first day of practice, the players showed up to just two volleyballs and no uniforms.
“Finances are already limited,” Pendleton Principal Don Peterson told the East Oregonian between sets at the first Buckaroos volleyball game in 1975. “To really implement Title IX, we’re going to have to go to the legislature or somewhere if we’re going to reach further down the road from where we are now.”
Hunt, who was in her first year as a coach and P.E. teacher in Pendleton, scrambled to fill the gaps herself. She borrowed PHS shirts and shorts that the track team wore each spring and bought gold polyester numbers to fashion jerseys. The numbers would need to be removed at the end of the season.
Practices in what PHS today calls “Gold Gym” crammed the volleyball team in shoulder-to-shoulder with the gymnastics girls. The runway for the vault sprawled out adjacent to the back of the practice court and the spikers would pause their action each time a gymnast started a run.
Girls on the balance beam had to show particular care during volleyball service practice. It wasn’t uncommon that rogue volleyballs would disrupt even the most vigilant balancers.
“It was definitely a shared environment,” Hunt said with a laugh.
Despite the smiles now as a 59-year old retired teacher, Hunt didn’t always find the humor in her team’s predicaments back then. With the boys’ basketball team playing all its games at the Pendleton Convention Center, P.E. classes and gymnastics events were the main tenants of the gym.
The surface, a “floating” or sprung floor, was designed to better absorb shock, but left the volleyball team no place to anchor its net poles without tearing holes in the floor. Hunt would string the net up with cables drilled into the walls, creating a non-regulation sag near the center of the court.
Even when the school could be convinced to work on the floor, maintenance crews wouldn’t bother to tip-toe around the volleyball schedule, causing a visiting team to once show up for a game only to see the playing surface being torn apart. Hunt had no prior knowledge of the repairs.
“I don’t think that anybody had done the little things intentionally,” said Hunt, who coached volleyball to varying age groups until 2008 and retired from teaching in 2010. “They just didn’t think about it. But that’s the thing. They didn’t think about us.”
Activities Director Don Requa did his best to help the first volleyball team gain traction despite the fundings crunch. When Hunt approached Requa about getting kneepads for her girls, he took her to the wrestling supply room. The wrestling pads completed the volleyball girls’ borrowed attire.
“We believe in sharing around here,” Requa said to Hunt.
Forty years since the landmark Title IX passage the landscape for women, particularly in athletics, is still muddled. Participation numbers are up for both boys and girls in high schools, but the interpretation of Title IX has led to other issues.
The three-prong test of providing athletic opportunities to each sex in proportion to their enrollment, demonstrating continual expansion for opportunities of the underrepresented sex or accommodating the interest and ability of that sex may have led to fewer opportunities for young men.
Even as Pendleton was adding girls’ volleyball and basketball, the boys’ sports programs were starting to sweat, noted EO Sports Editor Don Chapman in an editorial that ran in the Sept. 17, 1975, edition of the paper. With budgets remaining static, activities departments were left with a hard choice: siphon funds away from boys’ football and basketball teams or search for more money elsewhere.
“It could be easily done if boys’ programs were sliced,” Chapman wrote. “But Peterson doesn’t want to see that happen, nor does anyone on the (Special Study Committee on Girls’ Athletics),” a state-wide committee at the time to which Peterson belonged.
At the college level, the same issues have led to the discontinuation of programs at several schools. According to a study by College Sports Scholarships, more than 170 schools each dropped men’s cross country, golf or tennis in the United States from 1987 to 2002 to comply with the law. Hundreds more had to dump rowing, track, swimming or wrestling teams for men.
And though the debate over equality proceeds, high school-aged girls today are thankful for the opportunities, Pendleton’s Jory Spencer said. The right to play now feels commonplace, but that doesn’t mean it’s not appreciated.
“I can’t imagine life without sports,” said Spencer, a recent PHS graduate who played varsity volleyball, basketball and softball during her senior year. “It’s really taught me so many life lessons. It kind of gives you a sense of power, knowing that you’re strong and you can succeed.”
Kathie Nooy and her Pendleton teammates, those in on the ground floor for the shift, are glad to see the latest generation taking advantage of that.
“I go back to how we fought to say, ‘Wait a minute, we belong here,’ ” said Nooy, 54, now a U.S. Bank branch manager in Pendleton. “We didn’t always have this and it’s such a great thing.”
Contact AJ Mazzolini at email@example.com or 541-966-0839.