The bottom line is this: women's basketball is women's athletics right now, at least on the college level. And it has a chance to become the third women's sport—following the lead of tennis and golf—to capture a substantial share of the public's entertainment dollar and to attract big television money.
This is startling because women's basketball is hardly a polished game. Nonetheless, in six years it has progressed from intramural status to the brink of overemphasis. It has its own weekly Top 20 and full-ride scholarships, and by all indications it is headed down the same rocky road of recruiting violations and other abuses that the men's game has traveled. In short, the game may be young, but it is already in trouble. Recruiting in many places is similar to the Oklahoma land rush; the talent is out there for the taking, and fewer and fewer coaches and administrators seem concerned about how they go about getting it. Women are switching schools "to play on a national champion." Meanwhile the AIAW, which does not require that transfer students lay off a year before becoming eligible—as the NCAA discovered long ago was necessary—staunchly defends their "right to seek a better education."
Worse still, these actions are being undertaken in cavalier fashion; the coaches involved are laughing at the rules and at the AIAW's inability to enforce them. The problem is that half of the AIAW membership wants to run a sophisticated physical-education program for college women; the other half wants to get involved in the business of big-time sports. Half of the AIAW leadership is too naive to believe that the above examples of wrongdoing are taking place on a wide scale; the other half is too busy trying to get a piece of the action to worry that the sport is sitting on a powder keg.
"We've plunged in so quickly that we already may have gone too far," says Emily Harsh, the women's athletic director at Vanderbilt. "The men are trying to back out of the same situation the women are nearing. It's a shame. One coach sees another coach get a player and figures it must've been crooked. She thinks she's got to do it, too, or she'll get behind. Then the ball begins to roll. There seems no end to it."
The start of it occurred in 1972 when legislation known as "Title IX" changed the way women's college sports would be organized. A rider to the Educational Amendments Act that Congress passed despite a storm of protests from the NCAA, Title IX stipulated that the woman athlete share, with her male counterpart, in all athletic monies and facilities. It was never the intent of Title IX to make women's sports big-time, in the sense that men's sports long have been.
Because of Title IX, disgruntled athletic directors were forced to spend long hours tearing apart their male-oriented budgets in order to find a way of robbing Peter to pay Pauline. At first, the major colleges seemed more interested in issuing warnings that the law would prove the undoing of intercollegiate athletics than they were in building strong women's programs. While they were complaining, small schools with well-established women's basketball teams continued to rule the sport—albeit on borrowed time.
Since 1972, when the newly formed AIAW held its first national basketball championship, all six first-place trophies have been taken home to either Immaculata, Pa. or to Cleveland, Miss. Immaculata College, a Catholic women's school near Philadelphia, won the first three titles in 1972-73-74, largely because Coach Cathy Rush was the best women's strategist in the country. Mississippi's Delta State College has been the champion for the past three years, thanks to the prowess of the game's best player to date, 6'3" Center Lucy Harris. These two schools were so dominant that Immaculata was also runner-up to Delta State in '75 and '76. But last season—as a sign of things to come—Louisiana State and Tennessee took second and third. Neither Delta State nor Immaculata is likely to win the title this year, because while some big-school coaches like Alabama's Ed Nixon, who is strapped for funds and has never even been introduced to Bear Bryant, are still treated as second-class citizens, most of the nation's major colleges have begun to gear up for women's basketball in a big, big way.
As one would expect, UCLA has jumped in with both feet. The Bruins' new coach, Billie Jean Moore, is expected to bring an AIAW championship banner to Pauley Pavilion before long. It could happen this month, because the 1978 nationals will be held at UCLA March 23-25. The University of Texas Tower used to be lit only when the Long-horns won a football game. These days it also glows in the dark when the Lady Longhorns win a state championship. At Mississippi State there is even a genuine referee-baiter coach who combines all the tempestuous qualities of Woody Hayes and Al McGuire. That is sassy Peggy Collins, a 30-year-old ball of fire whose sideline antics have been known to include Jimmy Connors' favorite hand signal as a rejoinder to antagonistic crowds. Even Joe Namath has been caught up in the fun. When he heard about Nixon's economic plight, Namath mailed the women's program at his alma mater a check for $50,000.
With all this going on, it is not surprising that the AIAW has already been called upon to investigate its first recruiting scandal. Yet it seems so dreadfully early for that kind of thing. So early, in fact, that the AIAW does not even have a full-time enforcement committee. That may explain why no evidence of wrongdoing was found in the case of Lynette Woodard, the freshman at Kansas who was allegedly offered a new car or several thousand dollars if she would enroll at Nebraska. Lest this be dismissed as a flight of fancy, it should be noted that a former Nebraska coach has told a friend that the offer came from Cornhusker alumni in the Omaha area, where Woodard had starred as an AAU player.
Despite the Woodard case, women's basketball still has a way to go before it reaches the seedy side of town where the men's game often hangs out. But when the 7-year-old AIAW and the 72-year-old NCAA each held a convention in Atlanta during the second week in January, the subjects of concern were remarkably similar.