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Gender equity in sports has come a long way, baby; Title IX activists-advocates who fought for change see much progress and the need for more

June 11, 2012 5 comments

Title IX.   This often contentious  1972 federal education act is getting more attention then usual these days because the media is taking a reflective look back on the impact it’s had over its 40 year lifespan.  I’m doing the same with this article, which will soon appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  Because I reside in Omaha, Neb. and The Reader is an Omaha news weekly my story looks at the implications of Title IX and the context that brought it into being from a local perspective, though I certainly address the nationwide effect the legislation’s had.  The real interest for me in doing this story was to try and impress upong readers of a certain age that what is easily taken for granted today in terms of the ubiquitious presence of girls and women’s athletics obscures the fact that things were quite different not so very long ago.  Younger readers may be surprised to learn that schools, colleges, and universities had to be compelled to cease discrimination on the basis of sex and to give females the same opportunties as males.  What seems natural and common sense today wasn’t viewed in that light just a few decades ago.  I end my story with a rhetorical question asked by one of my sources, former coach and athletic director Don Leahy, who said, “Why was it ever different?”  My story attempts in a small way to explain why and to describe what the journey for women trying to gain equal opportunity in sports looked like.

 Illustration of athletes and sport silhouettes : Free Stock Photo

 

 

Gender equity in sports has come a long way, baby;

Title IX activists-advocates who fought for change see much Progress and the need for more

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Participants in girls and women’s sports today should be forgiven if they take for granted the bounty of athletic scholarships, competitive opportunities, training facilities and playing venues afforded them.

After all, they’ve never known anything else.

Their predecessors from two generations ago or more, however, faced a much leaner landscape. One where athletic scholarships were unheard of or totaled hundreds, not thousands of dollars. A handful of games once comprised a season. Facilities-venues were shared, borrowed or makeshift.

Until 1972 federal Title IX legislation banned discrimination on the basis of sex, educational institutions offered nothing resembling today’s well-funded athletic programs for females. Schools devoted a fraction of the resources, if anything at all, to girls and women’s sports that they earmarked for boys and men’s sports.

Second class citizen treatment prevailed.

Nebraska women’s basketball coach Connie Yori made her mark at Creighton University, where she played and coached at some 11 different “home” sites because the program didn’t have its own dedicated facility.

“We were gypsies in some ways. We just had to figure out places to play,” she says, adding, “That wasn’t that long ago either.”

Connie Yori, ©huskers.com

 

 

The gulf between then and are now is vast.

“I mean everything was different,” she says. “The way we traveled – the coaches and student athletes were driving the vans to the games. We as coaches had to regularly clean the facilities we practiced in. That was the norm, there wasn’t anyone else to do it. There’s countless examples. Opportunities to play, scholarship money, modes of travel, recruiting budgets, operations budgets, staff salaries, you name it, it’s escalated. But college men’s athletics has escalated too, so it’s not just the women.

“When I played college basketball there would maybe be 50 to 100 fans in the stands and now I’m coaching games where there’s sell-outs and ticket scalping is going on, and who would have thought that?”

Creighton, Nebraska and UNO have their own women’s hoops and volleyball facilities.

“That’s just kind of what’s happened across the board in women’s athletics in that institutions are more committed to equity, and as well they should be,” says Yori.

Gaps remain. Salaries for women coaches lag behind those for men. And where men routinely coach female athletes, it’s rare that women coach male athletes.

Still, things are far advanced from when women’s athletics got dismissed or marginalized and the very notion of female student-athletes was anathema to all but a few enlightened administrators and athletics officials.

In that proto-feminist era the so-called “weaker sex” was discouraged from athletics. Girls and women were considered too delicate to play certain, read: male, sports. Besides, it wasn’t feminine or ladylike to compete. Schools routinely said they could not justify women’s programs because they’d never pay for themselves. Consequently, the idea of giving females the same chances as males was met with paternalistic, patronizing objections. This despite the fact virtually all men’s programs lose money and only survive thanks to donations and to subsidies from student fees and revenue producing major sports.

Former Creighton softball coach Mary Higgins bought the rationale until realizing the contradiction

“I just remember thinking, ‘Well of course we don’t have women’s athletics, we can’t make any money, no one will come.’ And then it was like the light went on – ‘Well, wait a minute, the baseball team doesn’t make any money, they don’t have any people in the stands, then how come they have it and we don’t?'”

Mary Higgins

 

 

When people like Higgins began questioning tired old assumptions and asking for their fair share of amenities there was push back, including from men’s coaches protecting their turf.

“Well, you start with the fact that people don’t like change, period,” says former University of Nebraska at Omaha chancellor Del Weber.

With institutional support virtually nonexistent at the collegiate level, the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women evolved into the main national governing-sanctioning body. Meanwhile, the NCAA actively ignored, then opposed inroads made by women. When school presidents and NCAA officials saw the hand writing on the wall and, some argue, the profits to be made from championship events, women’s athletics fell under the NCAA’s aegis in the early 1980s.

The real impetus for change may simply have been demographic. As women became the majority population, more entered college. Today, women account for the majority enrollment at Creighton and UNO.

Where the benefits of athletic competition (improved self-esteem,  leadership skills development, higher graduation rates, et cetera) were once anecdotal, they eventually became measurable.

As far as defining moments, says Higgins, “the linchpin for our programs to grow was getting scholarships. Once we had scholarships we could go get the players.” That’s when the real gains occurred.

“The AIAW got things launched and then I think we got more sophisticated with the NCAA and a lot more money became available. It was a positive thing for growth but that was a painful transition.”

UNO associate athletic director Connie Claussen began women’s athletics there in 1969 as volunteer softball coach. She soon added volleyball and basketball. “I didn’t ask anyone, I just did it,” she recalls. All three sports shared the same set of uniforms. The teams practiced and played in a quonset hut. The equipment room was the trunk of her car. There was no budget, only donations scrounged from sympathetic boosters. Similar limitations applied at Creighton. Nebraska enjoyed a decided facilities advantage. For a time small schools could hang with big schools as everyone started from scratch and had no scholarships available.

 Connie Claussen

 

 

Even after Title IX passed, says Claussen “it took several years for it really to have an effect on most athletic programs,” and then only with some prodding. In the case of UNO the Chancellor’s and Mayor’s Commissions on the Status of Women brought pressure. Even the U.S. Office of Civil Rights got involved at the behest of parents Mary Ellen Drickey and Howard Rudloff.

“What sticks out in my mind is that in our old gym they had hours set aside for when the women could come in,” says Higgins. “You think about that now and it just sounds ludicrous but that’s just what it was. The women could come in I believe Sunday and Wednesday nights because God forbid they sweat or show any effort.”

Peru State College basketball coach Maurtice Ivy excelled at the high school, collegiate and pro levels but when she was learning the game as a youth in the 1970s there was no exposure to girls or women’s hoops.

“I didn’t really see women playing, and so the person I watched play and I kind of emulated my game after was Dr. J.”

Mauritce Ivy getting her Husker jersey retired, ©huskers.com

 

 

As an Omaha youth Ivy and other inner city girls developed their skills as Hawkettes, the state’s first select basketball team run by the late Forrest Roper. Richard Nared’s Midwest Striders track program impacted generations of girls, including Ivy and her younger sister Mallery, who set several state records. The sisters’ father was among the first local coaches to offer girls the opportunity to play football.

Fastpitch whiz Ron Osborn organized a statewide club softball association as a forum for girls to play in and as a showcase to convince schools they should start their own softball teams.

Today, girls club teams are everywhere.

Grassroots pioneers worked independently of Title IX to bring about change. Ivy thinks of them and graduates like herself as “soldiers” in the women’s athletics movement.

But there’s no mistaking Title IX, whose enforcement has been upheld in countless legal findings, is the bedrock equal opportunity protection upon which girls and women’s athletics rests. By compelling schools receiving federal assistance to uphold gender equity it’s propelled the explosion of women going to college and the exponential growth of girls and women’s athletics. It’s meant a dramatic increase in the infrastructures supporting female student-athletes and a proportionate increase in the number of participants.

“You went from nothing to everything,” is how former UNO and Creighton athletic director and now UNO associate athletic director Don Leahy describes its impact.

Don Leahy

 

 

“To me, it standardized and normalized athletics,” says Higgins. “Now it’s just expected.”

Institutions found not complying with Title IX are forced to take corrective action under penalty of court-ordered monetary damages.

Nebraska’s been a battleground for some notable Title IX actions, including a 1995 lawsuit brought by Naomi Friston against the Minden Public School District for scheduling girls games at off times compared to boys’ games. Creighton University graduate Kristen Galles, who successfully represented the Friston case, is now one of the nation’s leading Title IX and gender equity attorneys.

Some school districts, colleges, universities and states were more progressive than others early on. For example, where Iowa embraced girls high school athletics decades before Title IX neighboring Nebraska dragged its feet.

Yori, an Iowa girls athletics legend, says, “I feel like I grew up in almost the perfect place during my era to be a female athlete because Iowa was ahead of its time in regards to the support of girls athletics.” She says the late Iowa Girls Athletics Association president, E. Wayne Cooley, “found ways to place girl athletes on a pedestal.”

Not so much in Nebraska.

“When I crossed the river from Iowa to Nebraska during the early 1980s,” Yori says, “I saw a really different climate for girls athletics here. There was definitely a difference in the commitment level. I mean, there just weren’t opportunities. It’s been great to see how much progress we’ve made in Nebraska and now the two states are on level playing fields in my mind.”

At the collegiate level some Nebraska institutions did take the lead, including John F. Kennedy College in Wahoo and Midland University in Fremont, both of which built dominant women’s athletic programs in the ’70s. Recently retired Midland basketball coach Joanne Bracker was an inaugural member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

Under Claussen UNO won the 1975 AIAW Women’s College World Series, one of several national titles won by UNO women’s teams. Claussen and CU’s Higgins helped grow college softball, serving on AIAW and NCAA committees and leading their respective schools in hosting more than a dozen CWS championships, which Higgins says was “huge” in legitimizing women’s sports here and beyond.

The late Omaha Softball Association guru Carl Kelly and College World Series Inc. chairman Jack Diesing Sr., along with corporate donors, helped sponsor the women’s tournament.

The start of the 1980s saw NU women’s sports emerge. The volleyball program began its run of excellence under Terry Pettit. Gary Pepin’s track program shined with superstar Merlene Ottey. Angela Beck’s basketball program reached new heights with Maurtice Ivy. NU softball began making noise.

 

 

By the early ’90s, a full complement of women’s sports was in place wherever you looked, whether big public schools like NU, smaller private schools like CU or then-Division II UNO.

None of it would have happened without activists pressing the cause of female student athletes. Along the way Title IX and its supporters met resistance, including court challenges.

“I think there’s a lot of women and men who made a huge difference for the young women of this generation,” says Yori. “Connie Claussen and Mary Higgins were very much advocates for change. There were a lot of battles fought – in offices, in meeting rooms, and even legally in courtrooms. There were people that got fired for voicing their opinions and became the sacrificial lambs because of that. There were a lot of people who didn’t want change and didn’t want to give women the opportunity they are now being given.

“You know, we still need to fight for it, but there’s not such a gap as there was.”

Higgins says the trailblazers of modern women’s athletics were “people who just had a burning passion to make this happen. It consumed me,  I know it consumed my colleagues. It’s like, ‘We’ll do whatever it takes. We’ll figure it out, we’ll find a way.”

Parents played roles, too, as coaches, administrators, boosters.

“I do think dads and their concern for their daughters had a major impact, and that was absolutely the case at Creighton,” says Higgins. “It wasn’t Title IX telling Creighton they had to do it. Title IX was happening at the same time but our then-assistant athletic director, the late Dan Offenburger, kind of led the charge. He coached our very first softball team. He didn’t have time to do it, we didn’t have any money, we didn’t even have a shoestring. But he got it going because it was the right thing to do. Plus, he had three daughters and he was motivated to create opportunities for them.

“I’m sure there are stories like that all over.”

As near as UNO, where Don Leahy says he supported women’s athletics not only because “I thought it had to be done” but because “I had a daughter who played sports.” There were also a wife and mother to answer to at home.

Leahy says the coaches he worked with at UNO and Creighton “fought diligently for their programs but at the same time they maintained a common sense that made it possible for this thing to develop. We talked and we gradually worked through these things and I think that made a big difference.”

“This stuff did not come easy,” says Del Weber, who approved the early road map for women’s athletics at UNO laid out by Leahy and Claussen and the gender equity program that they and former athletic director Bob Danenhauer devised.

Ramping up meant serious dollars. Leahy says when it became clear accommodating women’s athletics was a new reality “the first thing that came up was – how are we going to pay for this?”

Bruce Rasmussen

 

 

Current Creighton athletic director Bruce Rasmussen, who coached CU’s women’s basketball team, recalls, “We didn’t have enough resources to properly compete just with our mens’ programs and now we had the burden of essentially doubling our athletic department. It was, ‘How do we balance what we can do with what we should do?’ And there was a lot of stress across the country. Women’s athletics completely changed the dynamics of universities and how were they going to support a full athletic department. So there was a lot of tension and trauma going on.”

“And funding it is not just a matter of we’re going to give them x number of dollars,” says Rasmussen, “but it’s facilities, it’s staffing, it’s scholarships, recruiting, traveling, equipment…”

At Creighton as anywhere, says Rasmussen, “we’re asked to provide not only an athletic program but also to be fiscally responsible as a department and as a program. So when it comes to asking for more money, especially when you’re running at a deficit, there’s certainly friction. I think factions of the faculty felt every dollar that went to athletics was a dollar out of their pocket.”

By the ’90s, girls and women’s sports were a given. By the 2000s, they’re as much a part of the culture as boys and men’s sports. Some professional women’s sports leagues flourish. Icons have even emerged: Pat Summit, Lisa Leslie, Florence Griffith-Joyner, the Williams sisters, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Brittney Griner.

“To turn that around was a seismic shift,” says Higgins.

“In a short time things really have come a long way,” says Claussen, who hastens to add, “But it took a long time to get” the opportunity.

Once spare media coverage has increased to the point that it’s commonplace if still a trickle of what males get.

“Hopefully we’ll continue getting more and more and that’s where the NCAA plays a big part in getting those television contracts,” says Claussen. “All that’s going to help increase the interest.”

The sustainability of athletic programs is an increasingly difficult proposition for schools struggling to keep pace with peers in a competitive arena of ever rising costs.

“At some point women’s athletics has to generate enough money to pay for itself because until it does we’re not going to get where we need to be,” says Rasmussen. “In men’s basketball we wouldn’t have the budget or spend the money on salaries we do if weren’t generating that, and we’ve got to move to the point where on the women’s side we’re generating realistic revenues. And the key to that is having generations of females who played sports, understand the value of sports and are willing to make a commitment to those sports.

“We don’t exist as an athletic department without people making a commitment to us.”

Creighton’s state-of-the-art athletic center and arena for volleyball and women’s basketball resulted from multi-million dollar gifts by donors Wayne and Eileen Ryan and David Sokol. Rasmussen says having coached women’s sports helps him effectively make the case for them when he asks for support.

In 1986 Claussen inaugurated the UNO Women’s Walk, now the Claussen-Leahy Run/Walk, which has raised $4 million-plus for women’s athletics.

NU’s men’s and women programs have some of the best facilities in the U.S. thanks to mega donations.

The strong sisterhood of girls and women’s sports that exists today is built on decades of sacrifice and perseverance. Ivy wants her athletes to know the history. It’s why she says she tells them about “who paved some of the way and the different struggles people had to endure so that we can have.” Yori does the same with her players because she wants them to know “where we come from as a sport.”

“There were groundbreakers and pioneers before us who made a huge impact on the opportunities young people have today,” Yori says. “Women of previous generations were not given opportunities and so it’s neat to see when they are given opportunities how much they can take advantage of that.”

“Why was it ever different?” asked Leahy.  Why indeed.

Black Women Make Their Mark in Athletics (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

April 10, 2012 16 comments

Those too young to have lived it themselves are often unaware of the fact that until well into the 1970s organized school athletic opportunities for girls and women were either nonexistent or extremely limited and that no where were they equal to the opportunties afforded boys and men. That all began to change due to federal Title IX legislation passed by Congress in 1972 and enacted in 1976.  The gender equity gap in sports wasn’t erased overnight but over the ensuing decades and generations things evened out to the point where today there is great parity in terms of scholarships and resources devoted to male and female athletics in schools at all levels and, of course, there are many examples of girls and women sports teams whose fan followings rival or exceed that of their male counterparts.  June is the 40th anniversary of the landmark Title IX legislation, whose impact has gone far beyond athletics, and that motivated me to post the following article I wrote some eight years ago about the strides that African-American female athletes have made in and around my hometown of Omaha, Neb.  The piece appeared as part of a 2004-2005 series I wrote called Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness for The Reader (www.thereader.com), many of whose installments can be found on this blog.
 Athlete in mid air against sunset Stock Photo

Black Women Make Their Mark in Athletics (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Gender equity got a major boost in 1972 when Congress passed Title IX legislation. Enacted in 1976, the law made it a crime for any educational institution receiving federal money to deny females the same rights as males, including in the field of athletic competition. The effects of Title IX have been far-reaching.

Since Title IX’s passage, female participation in interscholastic-intercollegiate sports has grown from a few hundred thousand annually to millions, U.S. Department of Education figures show. Once rare, female athletic scholarships are now proportionally the same as men’s. The amazing growth in female athletics — from the explosion of girls softball, soccer, swimming, track, volleyball and basketball programs to the birth of professional leagues to the capturing of Olympic gold medals — can be traced to Title IX. The legislation didn’t so much create great female athletes as legitimize them and provide an equal playing ground. It’s in this context Omaha’s black female athletes emerged on a broader stage than before.

Cheryl Brooks-Brown came along when fledgling athletic programs for girls were just evolving in the post-Title IX era. In local hoops circles, she was known for being a bona fide player. She got her game competing with boys on the courts near her home at 25th and Evans and with the Y-based Hawkettes, a select Amateur Athletic Union touring program for school-age girls founded and coached by the late Forrest Roper.

“I guess the ultimate complement for a girl is when you’re told, ‘You play like a guy,’ and I got that quite often,” she said. “I think I was a player that was before my time.” Wider recognition eluded her in an era of scant media exposure and awards for girls athletics. “That’s just the way it was,” she said.

For decades, Nebraska girls hoops was confined to intramural, club or AAU play. In the early ‘70s, the Hawkettes’ Audrey and Kay Boone, sisters of pro legend Ron Boone, were among the first local women to land athletic scholarships — to Federal City College in Washington, D.C. and John F. Kennedy College in Wahoo, Neb., respectively. When, in the mid-’70s, girls hoops was made a prep pilot program, Brooks got to compete her senior year (‘74-’75) for Omaha Central. In a nine-game season, she scored 20-plus points a game for the Eagles. It wasn’t until 1977 the Nebraska School Activities Association sanctioned full girls state championship play.

Brooks got two in-state offers — from UNO and Midland Lutheran College (Fremont, Neb.) She became the first black female to play at Midland, which competed then in the AIAW. Small college town life for a black woman in a sea of white faces presented “growing pains” for her, just as women’s athletics faced its own challenges. For example, she recalls the women’s team having to defer to the men’s team by practicing in the auxiliary gym. “Today, it’s much better, but athletics is still a male-dominated field. The battle’s still on,” she said.

An impact player ranking eighth all-time in scoring at Midland with 1,448 points, Brooks led the Warriors in nine individual categories as a sophomore and earned acclaim as one of the region’s best small college players as a junior. She led the Warriors to a 100-19 record over four years, including a berth in the ‘78 AIAW post-season tourney. She was selected to try out for a U.S. national Olympic qualifying team.

Her coach at Midland, Joanne Bracker, said the 5’9 guard’s “strength was her penetration to the basket. She was very offensive-minded. She had the ability to see the court extremely well. She was probably as good a passer as scorer. She would be competitive in today’s game because of her intense love and appreciation for the game and her understanding of the game. She’s a basketball junkie.”

After college, Brooks coached at Central, but her playing was strictly limited to recreational ball, as women’s pro hoops was still a decade away. The elementary ed grad has taught in the Omaha and Chicago public schools and was an adoption caseworker with the state of Illinois. She’s now back in Omaha, on disability leave, awaiting a kidney transplant. She’s done some recent coaching at the North Omaha Boys and Girls Club and continues working as a personal coach for a promising Omaha Benson player she hopes lands a scholarship, an easier task today than when she played.

“When I coach kids I tell them, ‘You don’t know how good you have it with all the opportunities you have.’ It’s unbelievable.”

By the time Brooks left Midland, a new crop of girl stars arrived, led by Central’s Maurtice Ivy and Jessica Haynes, both of whom were premiere prep and collegiate players. At the head of the class is Ivy, arguably the best female player ever to come out of Nebraska. Her credits include: vying for spots on the U.S. Olympic squad; leading the Nebraska women’s program out of the cellar en route to topping its all-time scoring charts; starring in pro ball in Europe and America; anchoring national title Hoop-It-Up teams; and directing her own 3-on-3 tourney.

For inspiration, Maurtice looked to Cheryl Brooks, whom she followed into the Hawkettes and at Central. A 5’9 swing player, Maurtice combined with Haynes, a 6’0 all-court flash, in leading the Hawkettes to high national age-group rankings and the Eagles to two straight state titles.

Maurtice Ivy

From more than 250 college scholarship offers, Ivy selected then-lowly NU. The high-scoring, tough-rebounding playmaker became the first Lady Husker to top 2,000 points while being named first-team all Big 8 her final three years. She closed out a stunning collegiate career with Kodak All-America and Conference Player of the Year honors. As a senior, in 1987-88, she capped NU’s turnaround by leading it to its first NCAA tournament appearance.

Great players are born and made. Ivy earned her chops going head-to-head with boys.

“They were the ones that pushed me. They were the ones that made me,” she said. Her proving grounds were the cement courts at Fontenelle Park, across the street from her childhood home. There, she hooped it up with boys her own age, but didn’t really arrive until the older guys acknowledged her.

“They wouldn’t let me play for years. I had something to prove to them. Then, eventually, as my game improved…I proved it. The fellas were yelling my name to come across the street to the park. Once I got respect from the fellas, I knew I was there.”

Off the playground, her hard court schooling came via two men — the Hawkettes’ Forrest Roper, whom she calls “by far the best coach that ever coached me,” and her father, Tom, a former jock and youth sports coach who coached her in football. “I played middle linebacker for five years with my dad’s Gate City Steelers team,” she said. “He didn’t start me. I had to earn everything I got.” When not on the sidelines, “Pops” was courtside or trackside giving her “pointers and tips.”

Despite also competing in softball and track, basketball was IT. “That’s all I did — from the crack of dawn till the street lights came on,” Maurtice said. “That’s when we had to be inside. That was our clock.” The court was the place she felt most complete. “That’s where I found my peace. I was happy when I was out there. That’s what, as a child, brought me joy,” she added.

Her prowess on the court made her a star but her low-key personality and workmanlike approach tamped down any raging ego or showboat persona.

“I may have expressed myself out there, but I never wanted to tear anybody down,” she said. “I’ve always been pretty grounded. I expressed myself as a fighter…a warrior…a winner…a competitor. I had a blue collar work ethic out there. I did whatever I needed to do to get the W.”

The fire to win that raged inside was stoked by the heat of competition she braved every day. “I grew up around a lot of competitive people and it just challenged me to want to be a complete basketball player. I had people challenging me all the time and, so, either you sink or swim.”

Steeled early-on in the rigors of top-flight competition, Maurtice blossomed into a hoops prodigy. So rapid was her development that, at only 15, she made the U.S. Olympics Festival team and, at 17, she was invited to the 1984 Olympics tryouts in Colorado Springs. She was again invited to the tryouts in ‘88. Although failing in both bids to make the Olympics squad, she regards it as “a wonderful experience.”

“Still hungry for the game” after college, she pursued pro ball, playing two years in Denmark before joining the WBA’s Nebraska Express. In a five-year WBA stint, she twice won league MVP honors and led the Express to the league title in 1996. While her pro career unfolded before the women’s game reached a new level with the WNBA, she’s proud of her career. “I do think I’ve been a pioneer for women’s basketball. I’m always flattered when they compare players coming up now to me.”

Since retiring from the game, Ivy’s remained involved in the community as a mentor, YMCA program director, Head Start administrator and director of her own 3-on-3 Tournament of Champions. She’s also pursuing her master’s degree.

The hoops journey of the former Jessica Haynes (now Jackson) mirrored that of Maurtice Ivy’s before some detours took her away from the game, only to have her make a dramatic comeback. From the time she began playing at age six, she often went to great lengths to play, whether walking through snow drifts to the YMCA or sneaking into the boys club.

“I can honestly say basketball was my first love,” she said. “I’d wake up and I couldn’t wait to get to the gym.”

 Image result for jessica haynes omaha central san diego state
Jessica Haynes

 

 

Another product of the Hawkettes program, she got additional schooling in the game from the boys and men she played with in and out of her own hoops-rich family. Her cousins include former ABA-NBA star Ron Boone and his son Jaron, a former NU and European star.

She recalls her uncles toughening her up in pickup games in which they routinely knocked her down and elbowed her in the ribs, all part of “getting her ready” for the next level. She tagged along with Ivy to the parks, where they found respect from the fellas.

“When they would choose us over some of the other guys to play with them, that was an honor. We were kind of like the pioneers” for women’s hoops,” said Jackson, who dunked by her late teens, although never in a game. LIke Ivy, Jackson was considered among America’s elite women’s players and was selected along with her to compete in the Olympic Sports Festival.

Originally intending to join Ivy at NU, Jackson opted instead for San Diego State University, where she was a first-team all-conference pick in 1986-87. “My strengths were speed and quickness. I was a slasher. I loved to go to the cup,” she said. Haynes, who played at the top of the Aztecs’ 1-3-1 zone, was a ball-hawk defender and fierce rebounder. Despite playing only three seasons, she ranks among the school’s career leaders in points, rebounds, steals and blocks.

Her career was cut short, she said, when harassment allegations she made against a professor were ignored by her coach and, rather than stay in what she felt was an unsupportive atmosphere, she left. She moved with her then-boyfriend to Colorado Springs, where he was stationed in the Air Force.

After the couple married and started a family, any thoughts of using the one year of eligibility she had left faded. But her love for the game didn’t. She played recreational ball and then, in the mid-’90s, earned a late season roster spot with the Portland Power pro franchise of the ABL. That led to a tryout with the L.A. Sparks of the newly formed WNBA. She got cut, but soon landed with the league’s Utah Stars, for whom she wore the same number, 24, as her famous cousin, Ron Boone, who’d played with the Utah Jazz.

To her delight, her game hadn’t eroded in that long layoff from top competition. “It came right back.” When a groin injury sidelined her midseason, she ended up returning to her family. Her last fling with the game found her all set to go play for an Italian pro team. Only she’d have to leave her family behind.

“I was at the airport with my passport and visa. My bags were checked. The reservation agent was searching for a seat for me. And then I looked at my daughter, who had tears streaming down her face, and all of a sudden I said, ‘I can’t go.’ I didn’t. I’m very family-oriented and I really feel in my heart I made the right decision,” she said.

Today, Jackson is the youth sports director at the South Omaha YMCA, where she coaches her daughter’s team, and a voluntary assistant coach at Central High. She hopes to coach at the next level.

In the annals of Nebraska prep track athletes, one name stands alone — Mallery Ivy (Higgs). The younger sister of Maurtice Ivy, Mallery dominated the sprints in the early ‘90s, winning more all-class gold medals — 14 — than anyone else in state track meet history. Her run of success was only slowed when injuries befell her at powerhouse Tennesee. So dominant was Mallery that she never lost an individual high school race she entered. She set numerous invitational and state records. She holds the fastest time in Nebraska history in the 100. She ran on the 400-meter relay team that owns the state’s best mark. The Ivys form an amazing sister act.

“There’s not a lot of siblings that have done what we’ve done,” Mallery said.

The two never seriously competed against each other, but their individual exploits influenced each other.

“I think there was a mutual respect we had for one another. Mallery is one of the best track athletes to come out of this state,” Maurtice said. “I encouraged her. And the reason I got in track is that Mallery started having some success. I was like, Wow, she’s bringing in way more medals than I am in basketball. And she got in basketball because of me. We didn’t really compete one-on-one. I think we had a couple races, but, to be totally honest, she probably would have beat me, especially in the 100 and 200.”

Three years younger than her sister, Mallery used Maurtice as a measuring stick for her own progress.

“Well, I was the baby, so I always had to follow on behind her footsteps. She was somewhat my drive,” Mallery said, “because if she excelled, I had to excell. If she did it, I had to do it, and do it better. There was not like a rivalry with us. We always wanted each other to do the best we could. We always had each other’s back. But because she held track records, I still had to compete with her times…and I had to beat them.”

For extra incentive, Maurtice made challenge bets with Mallery to best her marks. One year, a steak dinner rode on the outcome. “I was down to my last race, the 400, and she held the record…and I broke that record,” Mallery said. “She still owes me that steak.”

As with Maurtice, Tom Ivy was there for Mallery. He challenged her to races and put her through her paces. She further refined her running with the Midwest Striders, a youth track program that’s turned out many award-winning athletes.

“He was the one who wouldn’t let us let up,” Mallery said of their father. “If he would show up at practice, he would make comments like, ‘You gotta dig down and fight,’ and that made you fight a little bit harder. We couldn’t perform until we heard that voice, and then we were fine. I remember at one of my state meets being in the blocks and thinking, Oh, my God, my daddy’s not here, and then literally hearing his voice, ‘Let’s go ladies,’ just before the start. And I was like, All right, I’m cool.”

Mallery dug the deepest her final two meets when, not long before districts she came down with chicken pox. Badly weakened after sitting out two weeks, she barely qualified for state. A grueling training schedule for state paid off when she gutted out four victories in winning four all-class gold medals.

The Ivy sisters fed off the motivation their family provided. “They always reinforced we could do anything we put our minds to,” Mallery said. “They knew that whatever anybody told us we couldn’t do, we would do it.”

Like her sister, Mallery is community-oriented, only in Atlanta, where she lives with her husband and their two children. She works in an Emory University health care program aimed at preventing HIV, STDS and unplanned pregnancies and contracts with the country to counsel at-risk youths. The owner of her own interior design business, she’s back in school going for an interior design degree.

Many more women athletes of note have made an impact. Just in track and field alone there’s been Juanita Orduna and Kim Sims as well as Angee Henry, the state record holder in the 200-meter dash (24.52 seconds) and Mikaela Perry, the state record holder in the 400-meter dash (55.36 seconds). In hoops, there’s been the Hawkettes’ Deborah Lee and Deborah Bristol and Bryan’s Rita Ramsey, Annie Neal, Marlene Clark and Gail Swanson. More recently, there’s Bryan’s Reshea Bristol and Niokia Toussaint.

 
Reshea Bristol
Peaches James

 

 

Point guard Bristol starred at the University of Arizona. As an All-Pac 10 senior she averaged 15.6 points and 7.5 assists. She led the league in assists and was second in steals. She ranks among UA’s all-time leaders in 12 categories. Drafted by the WNBA’s Charlotte Sting, Bristol later played in Europe.

Now, there’s softball standout Peaches James. The former Papillion-La Vista pitching phenom just concluded her record-setting Husker career and brilliant season-ending senior run by leading NU within two wins of the College World Series. She’s now playing professionally for the Texas Thunder in the newly formed National Pro Fastpitch League.

UPDATE:  Since this article appeared more than a decade ago many more black female athletes of distinction have emerged in Nebraska, including Yvonne Turner, Dominique Kelley, Dana Elsasser, Mayme Conroy, Chelsea Mason, Brianna Rollerson.  When my article was published the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame didn’t exist and now all of the women featured in the story are inductees there in addition to various school athletic halls of fame.

 
 
 
 
 
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