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Lifestyle
A sporting chance: Title IX opens doors for athletes such as Kaye and Meagan Cowher

Sunday, October 06, 2002

By Lori Shontz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Her father said no. When Kaye Young and her twin sister, Faye, wanted to play basketball for their junior high school team in the late 1960s, their father responded with a list of more important things they had to do after school, including prepare dinner and do the laundry.

Meagan Cowher, 16, is a basketball player for Fox Chapel High School, following in the footsteps of her mother, Kaye, who played at North Carolina State. Meagan's dad is Steelers Head Coach Bill Cowher. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Her mother, however, said yes. A woman who had never participated in a sport, she was strong enough to stand all day, working on an airplane-parts assembly line near their home in Bunn, N.C. And to take her daughters' side.

"The reason we played is because of my mother," said Kaye Cowher, formerly Young. "She put her foot down. She said that absolutely, these girls are going to have the opportunity to play."

A couple of decades later, when Cowher was a mother herself, of course she said yes. When 8-year-old Meagan wanted to play basketball, her mother was thrilled. So was her father, Steelers Coach Bill Cowher. Meagan never even imagined that they might object.

At its most basic level, that is what Title IX has achieved in just one generation.

Kaye Cowher, who was a 16-year-old high school junior when the law was passed in 1972, was grateful for the chance to play. Meagan Cowher, now a 16-year-old junior at Fox Chapel High School as Title IX marks its 30th anniversary, expected it.

There are more concrete differences, of course.

Kaye had one college scholarship offer; Meagan will get interest from dozens of colleges. Kaye never left her home state to play basketball as a teen-ager, and she never played the sport out of season. Meagan has already participated in tournaments in 10 states other than Pennsylvania, and she competes year-round. Kaye, at 5 feet, 11 inches, played an inside power game. Meagan, 6 feet 2, had to bulk up to hold her own against the bigger players inside, and she is comfortable on the perimeter, as well.

The additional opportunities have turned Meagan into a player with skills that take her mother's breath away.

"She's better than I am, and I hate to say that," Kaye said, smiling. "I was not that good when I was 16."

But Title IX has done more than provide the means for women to hone their athletic skills. A generation ago, sports-minded girls and women were considered exceptions if not downright freaks. As athletic women have become more commonplace, even celebrated for their achievements, they have helped to eliminate a variety of perceived limits.

When Meagan did a presentation on women's athletics in school last year, she interviewed her mother, whose personal athletic history is peppered with the growing influence of Title IX. But she put the advancement of athletic women into a broader context, noting that girls who play sports have lower rates of drug use and teen-age pregnancy -- and that male business executives are always able to pick out the women who grew up as part of a team.

The project expanded Meagan's understanding of Title IX: "I saw how it helped women."

A change in aspirations

As part of the first generation to benefit from Title IX, Kaye Cowher found herself with unprecedented opportunities at each stage of her basketball career.

She had assumed that her playing days would end with high school graduation, but she became one of the first women in North Carolina to receive an athletic scholarship to college. Thankful to get what she considered four extra years of basketball at Peace College and North Carolina State, Cowher was astonished to learn as a college senior that a professional basketball league had formed. She played for three additional years in the Women's Professional Basketball League.

Her competitive basketball career didn't end until 1981, when the league folded.

"Five years before that, and the opportunities wouldn't have been there," Cowher said. "Title IX has a lot to do with that, but sometimes I think it was just fate. Good fortune."

Cowher didn't always aspire to be an athlete. She had rarely even dribbled a basketball until she was in eighth grade, and the basketball coach stopped her in the hall because she was tall. It didn't take her long to fall in love with the sport, although she had to squeeze it in to an already busy schedule. She also played volleyball for the high school team and softball in a local league, and she worked in the neighbors' tobacco fields and her father's vegetable garden.

When it wasn't basketball season, she didn't play.

She still averaged about 25 points a game, and when she and Faye were seniors, the president and coach of a junior college in Raleigh, Peace College, called her high school coach and asked if they could come one day to watch the Young twins play. That was the entire recruiting process. Knowing that Kaye and Faye couldn't afford tuition for Peace, an all-female junior college that attracted mostly daughters of affluent families, they awarded the twins athletic scholarships.

After two years at Peace, they were recruited to play at N.C. State by Kay Yow, who is still coaching there. For the first time, Kaye became aware of Title IX, only because Yow and her assistant coach, Nora Lynn Finch (who went on to become an athletic director), were interested in more than the X's and O's of sport. They were involved in the fight for equality, and they wanted their players to be aware of what was going on around them.

Still, Cowher and her teammates lacked many of the support structures taken for granted today. For instance, a locker room.

"I changed in a restroom stall," Cowher said. "And it was not something I ever considered. Today, we'd be saying, 'Something is wrong here.'"

Cowher graduated in 1978, just as the Women's Professional Basketball League was starting. She and Faye played a season with the New York Stars, then two more with the New Jersey Gems, competing against players like Carol Blazejowski, Ann Meyers and Nancy Lieberman, the biggest names in the sport.

In 1979 Kaye and Faye became part of an advertising campaign for Dannon Yogurt, and they starred in the first television commercial to feature professional women basketball players.

Each personal advancement was part of an overall, national advancement for women. That's why now, as Cowher follows and encourages her daughter's basketball career, she finds herself constantly marveling at the differences.

"The past three years at Fox Chapel High School, there have been more female athletes than male athletes," Cowher said. "To me, that's just phenomenal."

Opportunities

The first chance Meagan got, she signed up for a basketball team. She was in third grade, five years younger than her mother was as a rookie, and unlike her mother, she knew all of the basics before her first practice.

Meagan grew up playing basketball in the back yard -- her family was never without a hoop. "I did this because of you," she said to her mother recently, as they sat in Fox Chapel's gym. "And I was tall, I had the right body."

Meagan's first coach? Kaye.

"We fought all the time," Meagan said, laughing. "I never wanted to come out of the game."

Added Kaye, "And I was probably tougher on her than I was on the other kids."

Kaye based her coaching style on that of her own coaches, primarily Yow and Finch, so the third-graders were learning drills and skills that she hadn't encountered until college. Such early experience shows itself in the quality of play, particularly at the upper levels.

"When I played, the guards would pass to the forwards and the center -- you would never see a forward pull down a rebound and then go coast to coast," Kaye said. "Today, all five girls do everything. That's why the game is so good."

Meagan didn't restrict herself to the basketball court. She swam. She ran track. She played soccer, too, becoming so proficient that she competed at the Cup level. By sixth grade, she was so good at both basketball and soccer that she had to quit one of them.

Between the scheduling conflicts, the traveling time and Meagan's drive to excel, it was impossible to find time for soccer and basketball. Meagan agonized over the decision, and she eventually decided to devote herself to basketball.

In Kaye's day, such a situation was unthinkable on many levels. There weren't enough sports or teams to cause conflict. There weren't so many benefits that could come from concentrating on one sport. And the expectations for girl athletes weren't so high.

Meagan plays basketball year-round, taking a break only in August for some summer vacation. Winter, it's high school ball. Early summer, it's AAU. Midsummer, it's camps. Spring and fall, it's pickup games in the open gym at Fox Chapel High, as often as not with the boys.

"The boys are all more athletic," Meagan said. "They can jump twice as high as us."

Kaye frowned a little. "Meg, you're flattering them entirely too much."

Mother and daughter debated the issue briefly, with Kaye conceding that although girls are welcome to play in the pickup games -- a big improvement from her teen-age years -- the boys still have them guard other girls instead of boys. As Kaye continued to press her daughter, Meagan stopped downplaying her skills: "We're not the last ones picked."

Meagan doesn't need to be told to work out, both because she loves to and because she must to be competitive. She lifts weights with a personal trainer twice a week, and she shoots hoops in the driveway all the time. She and a male friend often play one-on-one basketball.

"I was up 6-5 in the last game we played," Meagan said. "But it's to be continued."

Kaye laughed. Guys "will keep playing until they win, I'll tell you that."

Meagan doesn't intend to back down. She was in eighth grade the first time she beat her mother at one-on-one, in a game so long and intense that the janitor agreed to lock up late so they could finish. Like her mother, she doesn't like to lose.

"It was a couple of years before I got serious about basketball," said Meagan, who wants to play in college. "I just played because you wanted me to. Then a part of me started to love the game. I developed my own love for the game."

Rooting section

Title IX was passed as the women's liberation movement was gaining steam, and Cowher, like many women who came of age during those years, is proud to call herself a feminist.

Meagan doesn't identify with the label, saying that it's a word generally given a negative connotation by boys. When her European history class reading list included writings by 18th-century writer Mary Wollstonecraft, an early advocate for women's rights, "The guys would say, 'Oh, she's just a feminist.' "

Such sentiments aside, Title IX has broadened boys' perspectives, too. A generation after Cowher's father refused to attend her high school basketball games, the loudest, most enthusiastic fans of her daughter's high school basketball team are the members of the boys' team.

Meagan has never known anything different. Never once has she heard someone suggest that girls don't belong on the basketball court, not even in passing. Never once has she been told to change into her uniform in a bathroom. Never once has she needed to protest to get the equipment she needed.

Title IX has done its work so well that for Meagan, one label is enough: athlete.

Cowher thinks another label fits her daughter, too. "Oh, you're a feminist, Meg."

Her daughter thought for a minute. "I get angry if girls are put in different categories [from boys]," Meagan said. "Especially in athletics."


Lori Shontz can be reached at lshontz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1722.

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