By Ellen Staurowsky, Ed.D.
Last week, famed college basketball coach Pat Head Summitt passed away. The celebration of her life and mourning of her loss offers an opportunity to reflect on what her career represented as a chapter in women’s sport history in the United States.
As a symbol of an era, Summitt’s ascent in coaching coincided with the passage of Title IX in 1972, the federal law that bars gender discrimination in schools. Described by so many as a pioneer, her career unfolded within a U.S. cultural revolution that marked a mass shift in the acceptance of female athletes as legitimate in their own right. Summitt played basketball for the University of Tennessee at Martin during a time when women’s college teams were just transitioning from student-run enterprises, organized through women’s athletic associations (WAAs), to more formal structures.
Summitt’s coach at UT- Martin, Nadine Gearin, was the first women’s basketball coach the school had ever hired. As Summitt often reminisced, it was not unusual that UT-Martin would play Tennessee Technological University three times in one season, and that her team had only one set of uniforms. While her brothers were courted by college coaches and extended athletic scholarships, the prospect of that kind of opportunity was simply not a part of the landscape when she was coming up. In 1973, Summitt was a newly minted graduate assistant with the women’s basketball program at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, a program she took over the following year as head coach at age 23. After she drove a team van to the games, the team bedded down for the night in sleeping bags on gym floors before playing the next day, wearing uniforms funded from the proceeds of a donut sale. Summitt found her calling and passion at UT-Knoxville for the next 38 years.
From those modest beginnings, Summitt left an indelible mark on the game of basketball and conceptions of what female athletes could achieve. Under her vision, the Lady Vols emerged as a lucrative brand within a competitive, corporate college sport marketplace.
Distinct, powerful, dominant and forward-moving, Summitt’s sensibility that women’s sport should be taken seriously, that she should be taken seriously, and that her players deserved equal treatment and respect, guided all that flowed and followed in a march to becoming the winningest college basketball coach and team in NCAA Division I history. En route to a .841 record of 1098 wins and 208 losses, she systematically created the infrastructure to inspire fan following, program loyalty and television coverage while those around her were inclined to dismiss women’s basketball as less important and not worthy of attention.
By the time she negotiated a record-setting $1.25 million contract in 2006, she had become a transcendent figure — no longer a “women’s” basketball coach but a coach of the highest caliber who received the honorifics peculiar to sport which signify a certain quality of exceptionalism. She was co-captain of the U.S. women’s basketball team that competed in the inaugural women’s tournament in the 1976 Summer Olympic Games and a member of the inaugural class inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. In keeping with the long lists of firsts, she would have not one basketball court named in her honor, but two (The Pat Head Summitt Court at the University of Tennessee-Martin and the Summitt at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville). Two streets bear her name on those respective campuses as well.
The terms “history making” and “record setting” became part of the Summitt lexicon. She was named Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year eight times, NCAA Coach of the Year seven times, and Naismith Coach of the 20th Century. The Lady Vols won eight national championships and had a 100 percent graduation rate under her tenure. In 2012, she was honored by President Barack Obama with the highest award that can be given a U.S. civilian for distinguished service to the country, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The honors she received may be proportional to the challenges she faced as a woman working in the male dominated profession of coaching and a college sport community that has had considerable difficulty making its way toward fair and equitable treatment. It is significant that even in her passing, there remains a focus on what has alternately been described as her “ice stare,” “ice cold stare,” “penetrating laser stare,” “intimidating stare,” “threatening stare” and “icy look.” She was the first female coach to be featured on a cover of Sports Illustrated in a pose that captured the infamous Summitt “stare” in 1998.
That stare offers a view into the ambivalent position women have had, and continue to have, in sport. While there is much to be celebrated in Summitt’s life and legacy, the tenuousness of the progress that she helped foster is ever present. Shortly after Summitt resigned and coached her last game in 2012, the separate women’s athletic program that had served as the platform for much of the success that female athletes had achieved at the University of Tennessee was merged with the men’s program. A lawsuit filed by Summitt’s former colleagues, Jennifer Moshak, Heather Mason and Colin Schlosser alleged that they had been fired by the University of Tennessee in retaliation for making internal complaints regarding lack of fair treatment and equal pay. A similar lawsuit was also filed by former sports information director, Debby Jennings. Settlements in both cases amounted to approximately $1.5 million. Just days after Summitt’s death, the University of Tennessee announced that it had reached a $2.48 million settlement in a suit where eight female students (at least one of whom was a female athlete) alleged that they had been sexually assaulted by male athletes.
In many ways, Summitt’s story is the story of women’s college sport, where there is much to be celebrated, but where the work remains unfinished. In a recent study released by the Women’s Sports Foundation entitled Beyond X’s & O’s: Gender Bias and Coaches of Women’s College Sports, the largest national study of its kind, these were the major findings:
- Men are given more professional advantages than women: The vast majority of female coaches agree that it’s easier for men to get top-level jobs (80%), negotiate salary increases (91%), be promoted (70%) and secure multi-year contracts (67%).
- Advocating for fairness has consequences: Many female coaches expressed fear of unfair treatment, retaliation and loss of their jobs if they express Title IX concerns to athletic department leaders or university administrators.
- Women experience more gender bias on the job than men: More than 40% of female coaches felt “discriminated against because of their gender,” compared to 29% of their male colleagues. Many women believed management favors men and nearly half are often asked to perform tasks that are not within their job description.
- Female coaches hold back: Women said they are less willing to voice their opinions outside of the athletic department and are less involved in decision-making inside the athletic department.
The degree to which coaches of women’s teams feel pressure not to advocate for fair treatment and Title IX compliance demonstrates the fear they have about being retaliated against if they do speak up. Working in an environment where two in 10 women are head coaches of college teams, over a third of women’s coaches believe they may lose their jobs if they speak up to administrators within athletic departments.
Those findings shed light on the climate that Summitt navigated so gracefully and with incredible success. She is quoted as saying “It is what it is. But, it will be what you make it.” What she made of her career in college basketball was forged out of an iron will, a passion and love for the endeavor and the people she served, a brave spirit, a vision of the possible, a penchant for taking on the impossible, and a creative impulse for constant reinvention. In the process, she inspired and uplifted. Her legacy will play out as future generations of women and men make what they make of sport and life.
Ellen J. Staurowsky, Ed.D., is a professor of sport management in Drexel’s Center for Hospitality and Sport Management, and editor of the forthcoming Women and Sport: A Continuing Journey from Liberation to Celebration and co-author of the Women’s Sports Foundation report Beyond X’s & O’s: Gender Bias and Coaches of Women’s College Sports.
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