Remembering the Days — Fair play: the 50th anniversary of Title IX

Remembering the Days podcast — episode 49

Women's college sports were barely on the radar in the early 1970s, but the federal Title IX ruling leveled the playing field for men's and women's sports at the collegiate level. Meet two of the first 18 women to receive athletics scholarships at the University of South Carolina, which is now a national leader in parity for its men's and women's sports programs.


Think about all of the excitement surrounding Gamecock women’s basketball.

Audio from cheering crowd at women’s basketball championship celebration.

“The Gamecocks started the season ranked No. 1, and that’s how they finished. Wire to wire, 35 wins, a program record.”

That was the scene after Dawn Staley’s team won its second national championship in five years.

Now try to imagine this: Women’s basketball wins a bunch of games in the regular season, gets an invitation to the NCAA tournament — and then the university tells them there’s no travel budget. The team will just have to sit out March Madness.

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re looking back to the early 1970s when women’s collegiate sports were in their infancy. And that scenario about a Carolina women’s basketball team being told they couldn’t attend a post-season tournament — that actually happened, but more about that later.

What changed everything was a federal ruling called Title IX, handed down 50 years ago that was intended to level the playing field for men’s and women’s sports at the collegiate level.

Judy Van Horn: “Fifty years ago, there were no women's varsity sports. And after Title IX was passed, institutions all over the country were required by law to have equity within their sports program.”

That’s Judy Van Horn, the university’s deputy athletics director and the deputy Title IX coordinator. As she mentioned, there were no women’s varsity sports at Carolina or anywhere else back then. Carolina did have women’s club sports that were funded by the Student Allocations Commission, just like the men’s club-level sports.

The only difference was that the women’s club sports got less than half of the allocations as the men’s. Even at the club level, women’s sports took a back seat in terms of funding.

But Title IX was going to change all of that, and universities and colleges everywhere had to comply if they wanted to continue to receive federal support. Of course, building varsity level sports teams takes time. Coaches had to be interviewed and hired, players had to be recruited, and to make things truly equal, athletic scholarships had to be offered.

Initially, there were seven varsity level women’s sports — basketball, volleyball, softball, tennis,  golf, gymastics and swimming, but golf was dropped in that first year.

The athletics department offered three scholarships in each the six remaining sports, so 18 women’s sports scholarships altogether. The women who received those scholarships nearly 50 years ago are now called the First 18. Cheryl Grindle, a volleyball player, was one of them.

Cheryl Grindle: “It was a life changing moment. And I had no idea at the time. As best I remember it, it was probably about the beginning of April of 1975, so I would have been scheduled to graduate in mid-May from high school.”

Cheryl had played volleyball in high school and was quite good at it, but she had no idea that volleyball could become her ticket to college. Her father had been reading the newspaper and spotted an item about Title IX and athletics scholarships for women.

Cheryl Grindle: “And on a Sunday afternoon I remember being in my room just reading, and he walked in and there were these two tiny little paragraphs way in the back of the newspaper, and he just set it down and said, ‘You should get one of these.’ And then he turned around and walked off. I read them and I'm not even saying I totally understood it other than athletic scholarships for women. That's what stood out for me. I can't tell you in that moment if I was even aware of Title IX. I probably was aware of some of the conversations about it, but I can't say that I had a full understanding of it and no adult in my life had approached me about it, not a coach, not a guidance counselor. So my father said something to me and I just said, ‘Should I start writing colleges?’ because I had no idea how to go about doing this. And he just said, ‘Yep,’ and kept on walking.”

Cheryl too her dad's advice, got on the typewriter and pounded out letters to athletics departments far and wide. Several schools acknowledged her queries but didn’t ask her to try out for their teams.

Then University of South Carolina volleyball coach Vickie Hamilton invited Cheryl to campus.

Cheryl Grindle: “Awesome, phenomenal, overwhelming. I can still remember it to this day and walking into that gymnasium and just being totally blown away as a 17-year-old at how exciting this was, what an opportunity this was. And at the same time, obviously being very intimidated and very scared, but obviously it turned out well. I walked away with a letter of intent.”

Nona Kerr was three years ahead of Cheryl and was also one of the first 18 women to receive an athletics scholarship at Carolina. Like Cheryl, Nona has very fond memories of her playing days on the women’s basketball team. She also played tennis and softball. In those early days, real equality with men’s sports was still an aspirational goal.

Nona Kerr: “We went to the Nationals in basketball in the ‘72-‘73 year and had to really barter with the athletic department at Carolina to allow us to go to New York for the Nationals. They said there was no money in the budget for that, weren’t going to allow us to go.”

Can you imagine if the legendary men’s basketball coach Frank McGuire had been told back then, ‘Sorry, Coach, no money to send the men’s team to the NCAA tournament’? There would have been rioting in the streets.

But all’s well that ends well. It turned out that Nona Kerr’s dad had been a football letterman at Carolina in the early 1950s. He and several of his Carolina football buddies convinced the Athletics Department to reconsider their decision. In the end, the women’s basketball team was allowed to fly to New York and compete in the tournament. By the way, Nona and her dad, Gale Kerr, were the first father-daughter athletic scholarship recipients at Carolina.

Nona’s dad and his Gamecock Club and Letterman’s Club buddies came to the rescue again when women’s softball qualified for postseason play but were initially told there was no budget for them to go.

Nona Kerr: “Then the same thing happened in softball. In the spring of '76, we again made nationals in softball. The same thing happened about us going to Omaha. School was out. We had to find a place to stay. We actually went for about a week without even knowing if we were going to be able to travel to play in the Nationals. But again, my dad and a group of gentlemen went back to the Letterman's Club and the Gamecock Club, and they did the bargaining for us and we were allowed to go, flew out there, had money for food, so we never had to do anything. But it was a bargaining piece just to get there.”

There were other obstacles for women’s sports back then. Female student-athletes had to purchase a lot of their own equipment and sometimes had to provide their own transportation to away games. Professors were not accustomed to having female students miss classes because of varsity game travel — some made accommodations and some did not.

Women’s teams also didn’t have have the same level of support staff such as athletics trainers, so players in those days were largely on their own when it came to taping up elbow sprains and ankle twists. But over time, things kept improving, and the number of women athletes in college sports increased dramatically. So, too, did the number of women’s varsity level teams. At Carolina, there are now 11 women’s sports and nine men’s sports.

Title IX mandates that the number of student-athletes for men’s and women’s varsity sports should mirror the actual demographics of the institution. The University of South Carolina passes that proportionality test with flying colors. Women outnumber men in the student body here, and there are more female student-athletes than male.

Title IX also calls for equity in funding varsity sports, and that’s what separates the sheep from the goats at the college level. According to USA Today, which released a story on this topic earlier this year, there are only five colleges and universities in the United States that spend at least 95 cents on women’s teams for every dollar spent on men’s teams. I’m happy to report that the University of South Carolina is one of those five institutions.

One more thing. Cheryl Grindle told me that the value of her athletics scholarship extended far beyond her playing days at Carolina. When she graduated in 1980, she interviewed with General Electric. They were impressed that she had been a student-athlete on scholarship and hired her for their sales team, knowing that she already knew how to juggle schedules, manage her time and handle multiple projects at once.

Of course, that’s the added value that participation in varsity sports can provide to all student-athletes, women and men.

Judy Van Horn: “And there's no greater joy than a student-athlete comes here and they're thinking, ‘What am I doing? Can I do this?’ And they realize that they can do this and they can be successful at the college level. And then four years later, they're walking through at graduation. They have that degree and they end up with a whole new life in front of them. We're so proud of what these student-athletes accomplish.”

That’s all for this episode, but stick around for a moment longer. This is the last episode of the spring season, and the fall season will begin in August with a new slate of stories about the University of South Carolina’s past. We’re going to talk about the myth of Commodore Capstone, explore some of the campus’ secret gardens, revisit the university’s first national sports championship team and lots more.

Thanks for strolling down memory lane with us on Remembering the Days. See you in a couple of months for the fall season. For the University of South Carolina, I’m Chris Horn. Forever to thee.

Share this Story! Let friends in your social network know what you are reading about