"My first assignment was the short-course nationals at Yale," she says. "They got me a work permit, sent me up to New Haven, put me in a booth beside Jim McKay, put a headset on me and said, 'Take it, kid.' "
Ten years later de Varona finally got a contract with ABC. Until then she never knew when or whether she would work, or how much she would be paid, but she got by. In her considerable spare time she went to work on her credentials: She enrolled at UCLA as a political science major; she founded the Women's Sports Foundation with King and served as its president for seven years; she worked on various Olympic committees; she lobbied for, and helped frame, the Amateur Athletic Act of 1974; and she got involved in the Special Olympics.
"I had to go out and create my own image," she says. "I had to have unbelievable credentials and be five miles ahead of everybody else. If I'd done it the normal way, beginning as a [television] production assistant, I'd never have made it."
The almost pathological resistance to qualified women in the world of business is a fact of American life. In sports it has been elevated to an art form. Everybody has a different explanation.
"Progress of women in sports is slow for the same reason that it's so slow in the business world," says a male sports executive who asked not to be identified. "It's a male-dominated society that we live in, and on top of that, most people in the sports world are chauvinists."
"It's do-re-mi," says King. "It's economics. You've got to have the opportunity and you've got to have the exposure. If you're not exposed, people don't know you're there. Two percent of all [product] endorsements go to women athletes."
"We were all raised by strong women, our mothers," says Gloria Steinem, editor of Ms. magazine. "To a child, the mother is a strong woman. And men measure their maturity and their masculinity by how far they have distanced themselves from strong women.
"Women excel," Steinem continues, "when success depends on their own talent and their own effort. They excel, one, when money is not a requirement and, two, when authority over other people is not a factor, especially authority over men. Women tend to be writers, not editors; poets, not playwrights; artists, not architects." Steinem might have added, "athletes, not commissioners."
The commissioner of the Ladies' Professional Golf Association is John Laupheimer, 55, a businessman who had five years of experience as administrative director of the USGA. When Laupheimer was named to the LPGA job five years ago, no women were considered for the position.
Laupheimer says he spends 20% to 25% of his time dealing with Japanese businessmen. Japanese corporations sponsor several LPGA tour events. Would that important relationship suffer if a woman were commissioner? "I think the Japanese would view it as just one more thing they have to adjust to in order to be able to deal with the Western world," says Laupheimer.