Value of sports goes beyond playing for female athletes

By Giuliana Allegrotti

Before Teri Rodgers took over the girls’ basketball program at New Trier High School in 1999, all the team’s games were played in G110, a smaller practice gym on campus adjacent to the main gym, where the boys played. The whole setup felt stringent to Rodgers; the main gym somehow belonged to the boys and G110 belonged to the girls.

It was also something that bothered Rodgers. She said she was conscious of the message her female players were getting by holding their games in a smaller, inferior gym and one of her first acts as head coach was to move the girls to the main gym.

While female athletes don’t have to fight for equal gym access on a regular basis, getting people to watch their games and care about what they’re doing on the court or field is still a struggle. That ongoing battle, says Rodgers and women of her generation, is one girls today are equipped to fight.

“When Title IX was passed, on most college campuses, the only sports that got treated with any level of respect were men’s football and men’s basketball,” DePaul athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto said at a recent “Women in Sports Symposium” on the history and effects of Title IX, the 1972 legislation which ensured equal athletic opportunities for men and women.

The symposium was held to promote NBC Sports Regional Networks’ documentary  TOMBOY. It will debut Monday at 9 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet.

Ponsetto, a beneficiary of Title IX herself, played four sports at DePaul in the mid-70s and now is one of just 37 female athletic directors in Division I sports.

“I’d like to think one of the things we do at DePaul with both our male and female athletes is respect and understand the struggle of the women and men who went before them,” she said.

In 1971, before Title IX was passed, only about 294,000 high school girls in the U.S. competed in interscholastic sports. Today, roughly 3.1 million play. But a study from the University of Southern California and Purdue University that looked at sports coverage over a 20-year period found that men’s sports took up 96 percent of sports news in 2009. Women’s sports accounted for less than two percent.

Doug Bruno, the head coach of the DePaul women’s basketball team, said he’s been frustrated about the lack of coverage of his team for years.

“Our women just won the fourth Big East Championship, they’re going to the NCAA tournament for the fifteenth straight time. We can’t get one single article the entire year written about that basketball team,” Bruno said.

Bruno mentioned the 1975-76 Bulls team that won just 24 games, but still had four beat writers from the major Chicago newspapers covering the team.

If that’s what women’s sports are up against in terms of coverage, then part of their struggle today is figuring out how to market their teams.

Susan Goodenow, the vice president of branding and communications for the Bulls, sees that task not as daunting, but as a budding opportunity since more girls than ever are playing sports.

“As more women and girls see themselves on the court or on the field, I think you’re going to see more opportunities and more interest in those stories, [women and girls] wanting to buy those tickets, and wanting to follow those athletes,” Goodenow said.

She pointed to the U.S. women’s national soccer team, which won the World Cup in 2015 and ingratiated itself into the male-dominated sports media landscape. The final match in 2015 drew in 25.4 million viewers, making it the most-watched game in U.S. soccer history. But the fanaticism around American women’s soccer began in 1999, when the United States hosted the women’s World Cup. Roughly 37,319 people attended each game across the country. More than 90,000 people were at the final match at the Rose Bowl, making it the most-attended women’s sporting event in history.

For every team not winning World Cups, Ponsetto said it’s a matter of women advocating for themselves and the coverage. WNBA players and women’s professional golfers have long been expected to take part in the marketing of the sports.

“If you want people to cover your sport, be a little bit of an activist, stand up for yourselves and pick up the phone,” Ponsetto said. “Call the television station and those newspapers and those radio stations and let them know how important it is.”

But even if a female athlete called the local television station every day, she’d likely still face resistance. It’s why Peggy Kusinski, a longtime sports reporter for NBC and former high school athlete, said she thinks having women in positions of power is paramount to the success of women’s sports.

Kusinski is also on the board of directors for Girls in the Game, an organization based in Chicago dedicated to helping young girls develop leadership skills through sports.

“You don’t have to have the looks to be in television. Be my boss. Own the station. Be the general manager. Be the president. Be the news director,” Kusinski said. “We need women in those decision-making roles.”

Not coincidentally, the kind of confidence and self-assuredness required to be willing to call a newspaper or television station or work your way up into those executive roles, can be developed by playing sports, Rodgers said.

That development is often at the forefront of Rodgers’ mind when she coaches girls basketball at New Trier. Sure, the basketball is important, according to Rodgers, but helping the members of her team become strong, empowered women is more valuable.

“That’s definitely something that I hope I’ve helped the kids be – just confident young women,” she said.

New Trier senior Ashley Martinez said Rodgers has taught her “how to be a better role model for young people and a better friend.”

Rodgers actually cut Martinez from the team during her sophomore year, but Rodgers kept her on as team manager.

“Going from being a leader on the court to having to be a leader off the court was definitely tough,” Martinez said. “But I think [Rodgers] helped me a lot to recognize what I could still do.”

Bruno expressed a similar sentiment when talking about the camps he runs at DePaul during the summertime for young girls.

“I really feel like that’s the place we work the hardest to teach young girls how to empower themselves to be anything they want to be,” Bruno said. “To basically stand up for themselves and to understand that the formula to succeed transcends gender.

“The empowerment of young girls to be in charge of themselves, that’s what sports does. Sports is here to help young women become Peggy Kusinski or Jean Ponsetto. That’s what sports is all about.”

Photo at top: New Trier coach Teri Rodgers addresses her players during a game against Conant. Rodgers has coached girls for 19 years and said she certainly tries to focus on the players’ growth but is more concentrated on their development as young women. (Ed Gjertsen)