Illinois women on growth, continued challenges

As Peg Kopec got deeper into her career as the volleyball coach at St. Francis High School in Wheaton, she sometimes wondered how much to reveal to her players and students about the old days of girls sports in Illinois.

Kopec grew up before the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which pushed the Illinois High School Association into adding more girls sports and state tournaments. Her playing experiences came in the Girls Athletic Association, which offered occasional “play days” with other schools.

In the decades before Title IX, when some people fretted about sports being too strenuous or not ladylike, girls played six-on-six basketball, which basically reduced it to a half-court game so they didn’t overexert themselves. There were postal tournaments, in which girls recorded individual results in things such as basketball shooting or swimming and mailed them in, so they didn’t fall under the wicked spell of in-person competition.

And there were play days, which consisted of girls from multiple schools on one team so as to avoid rivalries.

“I never knew whether to set the girls down and tell them how awful it used to be — or never say anything because why would you assume that you’re less than anybody else?” Kopec said. “I always had trouble with, do I tell them anything and then that might feed into how they’re (viewed as) second-class citizens? But they need to know a little bit how it was fought for — so you appreciate it.”

With the 50th anniversary of Title IX this week, the inequities between women’s and men’s sports in the past — and the present — are again in the spotlight. Kopec and others who led area sports programs through major changes in the 1970s reflected recently to the Tribune on their teams’ journeys and challenges — but also the remaining spaces for improvement.

Illinois women on growth, continued challenges

“I’m excited for the next chapter of Title IX, what’s going to happen in the next 50 years,” former DePaul athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto said. “Because we’ve grown from infancy to our adolescent years, and now I think we’re about to emerge into our adult years of Title IX and really see a lot more progress hopefully happen at a pretty rapid pace. Because I think the foundation has been laid.

“It’s so encouraging to me as I talk to young fathers of daughters to see the incredible amount of support and energy and enthusiasm they have for their daughters playing sports, for them to be afforded the same opportunity to grow their self-confidence and self-awareness and develop their leadership skills.”

Of course, that wasn’t always the case.

Former IHSA executive director Marty Hickman counted Ola Bundy as one of his mentors.

He worked with Bundy in the final stages of her 29-year career as assistant executive director, but they spent time together long after, talking over weekday lunches about Bundy’s mission to increase girls’ opportunities in high school sports — and the struggles she encountered on that journey.

Illinois women on growth, continued challenges
Illinois women on growth, continued challenges

“This wasn’t a super hard sale,” Hickman said, “but she really wanted me to understand that the same values and benefits that boys had for many, many years before girls from participating in high school sports were the same things girls were going to benefit from.

“They were going to learn to be good teammates. They were going to enhance their lives through participation. They were going to learn all the things that come with being on a sports team, that were naturally assumed to be good for the guys. She knew exactly the same thing was going to be good for female participants.”

Those positive attitudes about girls sports — common now — had to be promoted and pushed when Bundy began at the IHSA in 1967.

The odd thing about looking at the history of women’s sports in Illinois is one of the biggest modern-day sports — girls basketball — was gaining popularity in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Games featuring teams such as Lake Forest University, University of Chicago, Hull House and Austin and Oak Park high schools received attention and sometimes were covered — occasionally smugly but not always — by the Tribune.

But by 1907, Chicago Public Schools and the former IHSAA moved to ban interscholastic girls games.

According to a Tribune story from 1907, an IHSAA report stated that girls “should not appear before the public promiscuously in interscholastic basketball games. The game is altogether too masculine and has met with much opposition on the part of parents. The committee finds that roughness is not foreign to the game, and that the exercise in public is immodest and not altogether ladylike.”

So girls basketball and other sports were stifled for decades until Title IX pushed the IHSA to begin expanding them, starting with state tournaments in tennis, bowling and track and field during the 1972-73 school year. Bundy was a one-person organizing committee at the IHSA in those years.

Hickman recalled Bundy telling him how she had trouble getting volunteers for the girls state track and field meet. She believed it could be as big a showcase as the boys meet, which first was held in 1893, so she worked hard to recruit and prepare every detail, Hickman said. In 2022, 16 years after Bundy’s death, the state meet program thanked more than 200 volunteers who helped run a three-class meet with hundreds of participants.

“She wanted to make sure every race went off without a hitch because she felt there was going to be more scrutiny on her and the girls side of things because not everybody wanted it to be successful,” Hickman said. “So she was relentless in preparing because she knew how important it was for those events to be successful. That really came with any event she ran.”

Bundy developed a reputation as a tough, sometimes stubborn administrator who was a stickler for the rules, but Hickman said she built that exterior to help her get things done. She was, he said, compassionate and good-hearted underneath the persona.

“She was constantly fighting battles in the late ‘60s and the early ‘70s as she was trying to push the association and schools toward a more inclusive environment for girls in sports, and so she felt like she had to be that way just to get things done,” Hickman said. “And she could do it. She could be a real hard-nosed, tough lady, and I say it in the nicest of ways, but it was because she felt she had to be that way to be accepted. She felt like there was more pressure on her … because of the fact that not everybody was on board.”

As Bundy was pushing for change at a statewide level, the first girls coaches in Illinois were in charge of building programs — and new attitudes — at their schools.

The uniforms. That’s what former Fremd coach Carol Plodzien lamented first when thinking back to the early years of her 34-year stint as girls basketball coach at the Palatine high school.

Being a girls coach or sports leader in the 1970s meant fighting the big fights — from pushing for a sport to be recognized and having state tournaments to arguing for gym time and better coaching salaries, something boys coaches sometimes fought against, Plodzien said.

Illinois women on growth, continued challenges

But it also meant battling a long stream of smaller inequities.

When Title IX passed, Fremd girls athletes had one set of uniforms shared among three sports, Plodzien said, so the basketball team would wait for the volleyball team to complete a match and then take the uniforms for its game. Plodzien said she also didn’t have enough softball uniforms for an entire team, so if she wanted to put in a new pitcher, she had players form a circle on the field as the starter passed along her uniform top to the reliever.

The facilities and resources also left something to be desired. Plodzien’s basketball teams sometimes had to share a locker room with opponents. She was given just two VHS tapes to record games, so she taped over old ones. And she said her softball team used a wooden snow fence for a backstop.

“But the problem is once you had a passed ball, it broke right through the fence and rolled down the hill,” Plodzien said.

Kopec has other memories of unequal treatment.

She questioned why St. Francis’ big and small gyms casually were called the “Boys Gym” and “Girls Gym.” And she and her assistant wrote letters to school leaders to plead for a freshman girls team when the boys had one.

“And after a while, I’m sure they were like, ‘Let’s get rid of these two. Give them the team. Let’s set these two up,’” Kopec said. “That’s fine. I don’t care what you call me. We got a third team and that was merely fair. Nothing special. Merely fair.”

Plodzien and Kopec still can’t comprehend the idea that cheerleaders cheered only for boys teams.

“You are subliminally saying that (the girls) are not worth cheering for,” Kopec said. “And they’ll say, ‘Frankly, the girls don’t want to cheer for the girls.’ And I say, ‘And frankly, I’m not interested. Then don’t be on the team. Don’t be in that group. This is who you’re cheering for.’ I think that’s a big deal.”

Amid the sexist attitudes and policies, the coaches went to work building programs from the ground up.

Kopec tried to make her players feel special and proud of their team — “Remember, at that time, it was all about the boys. It just was.” — so she began instilling a long list of team traditions, including an overnight retreat. They became a hallmark of her program — along with 12 state titles over four decades.

Plodzien watched videos, went to opponents’ games and sought advice from the boys coach as she built up her skills. Parents would get impatient with girls who were new to the sport.

“Thank God I was successful,” said Plodzien, whose team was third in the first girls basketball state tournament in 1977. “So that killed the flames.”

Kopec and Plodzien have since retired after Hall of Fame coaching careers, but they still watch the progress with interest. They see the need for more female coaches and officials, but many areas still are lacking.

The Women’s Sports Foundation put out a detailed Title IX report in May showing participation in girls sports at the high school level rose from 294,000 participants in 1972 to 3.4 million in 2018-19, the last reporting year. At the college level, women’s participation rose from 29,977 athletes in 1972 to 215,486 in 2020-21.

But multiple reports in recent months showed inequities still exist in the number of opportunities, funding and leadership for women’s sports nationwide.

A recent AP-NORC survey found women are much less likely than men to say significant progress has been made in achieving equal treatment in the U.S. According to the poll, 61% of men say the country has made a great deal or a lot of progress, while 37% of women said the same.

A USA Today investigation on Title IX at the NCAA Division I level found 87% of colleges and universities in the Football Bowl Subdivision don’t offer athletic opportunities to women proportionate to the number of women attending them. (Proportionality is one of three ways schools can comply with Title IX.)

And according to the NCAA demographics database from 2020-21, women made up just 25% of head coaches at all levels, 14% of Division I athletic directors and 24% of ADs at all levels.

It’s those last two numbers that Lenti Ponsetto points to when thinking about the biggest areas that still need to be addressed.

Lenti Ponsetto was among the first generation of Title IX athletes, playing multiple sports at Elizabeth Seton High School and DePaul in the 1970s. She watched — and then led — as the Blue Demons added more women’s sports, hired part-time and then full-time head coaches and offered their first women’s scholarships.

Illinois women on growth, continued challenges

After her playing career and a brief stint as an assistant women’s basketball coach, she climbed the ranks in the athletic department for more than 20 years before she was offered the AD position in 2002. At the time, she was one of 21 female ADs in Division I. Last year, there were 50.

Since she had been entrenched at DePaul for so long and was a fixture on multiple NCAA committees, Lenti Ponsetto said she felt support from the school and her NCAA peers. But she said there was some pushback from fans — “always just a handful of people who have a difficult time accepting that kind of a change.”

She wondered if decision makers wanting to avoid such pushback — especially at schools with big-money football programs and donors — plays into the unequal numbers.

“There’s probably a little bit of a lack of courage in really wanting to make that move,” Lenti Ponsetto said. “It’s having the mindset that you’re going to place a woman in that position because it’s either time or it’s the right thing to do. There’s certainly not a shortage of qualified women. It’s more of a mindset that you’ve got a football program — how is that going to go over with our donors and our alumni?

“It’s really an important message for all of our student-athletes to see institutions support women at the highest level. And it’s probably the last place in all of higher education that has such a low number of women in that leadership position.”

Conceivably, more women in leadership positions who are cognizant of the ongoing inequities could result in more opportunities and better funding for women’s sports.

But that’s a fight that must continue.

Plodzien recently accepted an award from the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association and delivered a speech about her efforts to push for the changes started by Title IX.

Afterward, listeners told her to keep fighting.

“Look, I’ve been doing this for 51 years,” Plodzien told them. “I’m getting tired. We need you. You are the people who have to start standing up.”

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