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Title IX and ONU

As Ohio Northern University marks the 40th anniversary of Title IX this week, we also recognize the 40-year struggle to see gender equity realized in intercollegiate athletics and celebrate the tireless champions of equality who brought us to where we are today.

President Richard Nixon signed Title IX into law on June 23, 1972. But that was merely the beginning of a long journey. Years of court challenges followed, further clarifying and shaping law. On college campuses across America, female coaches and student-athletes found themselves fighting to build athletic programs the law said were finally theirs.

The crucial language in Title IX states, “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 receiving Federal financial assistance.” So, while the law declared gender-based discrimination in intercollegiate athletics illegal, it did not immediately level the playing field.

That leveling would have to come from within.

The women’s locker room at ONU is named for the woman credited for founding women’s sports at Ohio Northern, Helen Spar Ludwig, BSed ’44, H of F ’89, Hon. D. ’89. “Mrs. L,” as she was affectionately known, graduated from ONU in 1944 and returned in 1963 to help coach basketball, track, volleyball, tennis and softball over the course of her career. In 1989, she became the first female member of ONU Athletics Hall of Fame.

The locker room also honors legendary coaches Sheila Wallace-Kovalchik, H of F ’91, and Gayle Lauth, H of F ’94. Together, these three women guided an entire university from the pre-Title IX era into the 21st century.

Early successes for women after Title IX were simultaneously revolutionary and modest. By law, female athletes were allowed to participate in activities that they were often previously denied, but they wouldn’t play the same number of games as the male athletes for many more years, nor would they have a governing body to oversee rules and officiating until they created one for themselves. Indeed, in those early years, challenges were seemingly everywhere.

“We doubled the number of teams in many sports, like in basketball. But we didn’t double the number of qualified coaches,” says Lauth, a former ONU softball and basketball coach. “So where were the nonqualified coaches? Women’s sports. We did not double the number of qualified officials, so where were the rookie or untrained officials? Women’s sports.”

In 1972, there were four varsity sports for women at Ohio Northern: basketball, volleyball, tennis and softball. In 2012, there are 10 thanks to the additions of cross country, indoor and outdoor track and field, swimming, soccer, and golf. Today, women’s sports enjoys excellent head coaches, professional assistants, athletic training, sports information for statistics and record-keeping, individual uniforms for each sport, dedicated facilities, and licensed officials. None of these things existed for women before Title IX, and many took well into the 1980s, 1990s and even the 2000s to finally occur.

From left: Sheila Wallace-Kovalchik, Helen
Ludwig and Gayle Lauth circa 1972.

The real barrier to equity in sports came down, like it often does, to money. To make up for shortcomings in budgeting, coaches and student-athletes made sacrifices. At ONU, the head coaches served as assistants for one another. Lauth volunteered to help with volleyball for 22 years, attending every practice and every match while serving as head coach for basketball and softball. For about four years after Title IX, the student-athletes wore the same set of uniforms for every sport. There was no money to provide the women’s programs with what was already established for the men.

Gender equity in collegiate athletics has been a steady evolution dictated primarily by the determination of coaches and students-athletes at each institution. There was no sea change in women’s athletics because of Title IX. There was no date when all of a sudden, things were different.

“We probably moved a little faster here at Ohio Northern than some of the other Division III colleges in our conference, because we had some continuity in our staff, and I think we had the respect of other faculty members and the central administration. So in many respects, I think we moved faster. As slow as it seemed, we moved faster,” says Lauth.

It is a sentiment shared by Roxanna (Grist) Laycox, BSed ’71 H of F ’92, who played basketball, softball and volleyball at ONU before Title IX was enacted.

“Looking back, I think Ohio Northern did some progressive things. I remember when we started playing five-on-five basketball, I thought that was amazing,” she says. “My sister went to Ohio State and I honestly think we were a little better in terms of women’s sports.”

“There were lots of times when
I wanted to throw in the towel.
But the students kept me going.
They are the athletes that really
lived the fight and supported it
and were appreciative of it,”
says Lauth.

For Ludwig, Lauth and Wallace-Kovalchik, Title IX became their careers, as it did for many female coaches of their generation. They were the ones who grew up without equal opportunities in high school. They were the ones who were told that they didn’t need to be paid the same as men. They were the ones who were told that they should trade in their 1967 Pontiac Firebird convertibles, as Lauth had been, for station wagons.

These women across the country lived through inequity and fought hard for it when they were finally given the chance. They went beyond their official duties and responsibilities at every turn, making sure that the foundation they were laying would be one that future generations could build upon.

Before the NCAA recognized women’s sports in 1982, female coaches formed governing bodies on their own to create schedules and improve officiating. One such body, the Quint-county Board of Women’s Officials, was started by Ludwig, Lauth and Wallace-Kovalchik and included five nearby colleges: Heidelberg, Findlay, Bluffton, Defiance and ONU. It was replaced by another, and then another until women’s athletics finally achieved equitable governance under the NCAA.

“There were lots of times when I wanted to throw in the towel. But the students kept me going. They are the athletes that really lived the fight and supported it and were appreciative of it,” says Lauth.

Today, women’s collegiate athletics is strong because of Title IX. The current generation of women athletes has grown up in a landscape where gender equity is assumed and female athletes are as famous as their male counterparts. This summer’s Olympics were a tremendous showcase for women in sports. For the first time in history, Team USA had more female athletes than male. American women won gold medals in soccer, basketball, tennis and track and field, and a silver medal in volleyball, sports commonly found on college campuses thanks to Title IX.

The Legacy of Title IX at ONU

OAC Team Titles - 62
OAC Individual Titles - 224
1st Team All-OAC honorees - 247
1st Team Academic All-OAC honorees - 227

NCAA Team Appearances - 47
NCAA Individual Appearances - 63
All-Americans - 77
Academic All-Americans - 39

Women have role models in sports to inspire them to play, to learn the self-discipline, sacrifice and perseverance that is so rewarding in life. Women are not just allowed to participate; they are encouraged. They are dared to be the next Abby Wambach or Serena Williams. There are no limits. Those days are over.

“The kids today are so far ahead of where we were,” says Laycox, who coached at West Carrollton High School in West Carrollton, Ohio. “I recently had the chance to watch some game film from my varsity basketball team from 1975-76 and the skill level I saw on film is closer to a fifth- or sixth-grade select team today. There is no doubt they could have developed into better players, but they just didn’t have Title IX long enough.”

If Ohio Northern University is a microcosm of women’s intercollegiate athletics over the past 40 years, it is no wonder that as a nation, we are where we are today. The foundation Ludwig, Lauth and Wallace-Kovalchik built with their determination and relentless pursuit of fairness is strong. It is safe to say that ONU’s fiercest competitors weren’t always on the field.

“I went through a period of time where I had anger that I personally as an athlete did not have the opportunities that the women now have,” says Lauth. “At some point in time though, I very peacefully came to the conclusion that that was not meant for me. I was meant to fight for it.”

And win.