Struggles and victories: Stringer talks Title IX
Rutgers women's basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer remembers a time when organized, school-supported athletics for girls and women didn't exist. She grew up in Edenborn, Pa., in the 1950s and early '60s, wanting to do what made her happiest: playing basketball and baseball. She did that with the boys during after-school pick-up games, but she was never allowed to participate in formal games because girls were banned from sports altogether.
Stringer was changed by Title IX. In 1972, the same year the law passed, she accepted the job of women's basketball coach and physical education instructor at Cheyney State. Now her legendary career includes milestones she never dreamed of reaching as the daughter of a coal miner. She has led three different schools to a Final Four (Cheyney, Iowa and Rutgers); served as an assistant coach for Team USA at the 2004 Summer Olympics, winning gold; was enshrined at the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009 (alongside Michael Jordan); and has amassed 863 career victories, placing her behind only Pat Summitt and Jody Conradt on the all-time list.
The 64-year-old Stringer recently sat down with espnW to talk about Title IX's legacy, the evolution of women's college basketball and how she sees the game's future unfolding.
espnW: Can you imagine the direction of your life had Title IX existed when you were growing up? You never got the chance to play basketball in high school, with cheerleading being the only activity for girls.
Stringer: That's a really big thing to think about: Where would I be? I don't know. I would hope that I would have taken advantage of every opportunity I could have gotten my hands on. What I think about is something different. What about all the women leaders who were lost because there was no Title IX? I think of the doctors, lawyers, teachers, even astronauts, these women could have become if they'd had that chance. So many were left behind because there were no athletic scholarships, and they couldn't afford to go to school. Back in my day, the boys knew they could find a way to school, either on academics or athletics. Girls didn't have that. I got an academic scholarship to Slippery Rock, and that's how I got to go to college.
espnW: But your struggle transformed you into becoming a longtime champion for women's rights, demanding gender equality in college sports. Do you think you'd still be so determined if you had Title IX removing those obstacles?
Stringer: I think you're right; I would have been a very different person than the woman I have become over the years because of the experiences I went through. I hate to say it, but I think I'd be softer, less focused perhaps. Things would have come easier. Kids today don't realize how the world has changed. They have no sense of their own history, the struggles, the victories that had to be won in order for them to do something like play college basketball with funding, facilities, scholarships. When I played at Slippery Rock, it was like a dream to know we had a schedule of games and we were going to play! [Stringer was on the school's basketball and field hockey teams, which were more like club programs.] The gym was open to me; we could go in there and do what we loved. That was huge, amazing. It made me so happy. You tell that to today's kids, and they're just looking at you like, 'Are you done yet?'
espnW: Considering your work for gender equity in sports, do you have any thoughts on why men dominate the ranks of women's college basketball coaches these days? Why aren't women getting the top job, especially if there are so many more women involved in the game today?
Stringer: I want to know the answer to that question too. I ask a lot of people that. Why? Why? Why? I really believe it is important to have a woman as a leader, on so many levels. I think this is a very serious issue that needs to be addressed. It's important for girls to see women as coaches; that way it's something for them to aspire to. If they only see men, they subconsciously accept that the job is perhaps only for men.
espnW: But what about the players who say they are more comfortable with a male coach?
Stringer: That's exactly my point. Why do you think they say that? I bet it's because they've never had a female coach. There are so many good women out there who are or should be coaching. But maybe it comes back to who is running college athletics and universities -- men. We need more women to ascend to true positions of power and influence. That's why I have always been such a proponent of the National Organization for Women and the Women's Sports Foundation. We need to keep holding institutions accountable for their decisions, and demand that women be part of the power.
espnW: So what do you think needs to happen to change the diversity ratio in coaching?
Stringer: I think it starts with us women. We need to do a better job of being mentors to each other, standing up for each other, promoting each other. Men do that all the time.
espnW: Do you think that doesn't happen because women feel they are in competition with each other? By helping another coach, you may be cutting your own throat?
Stringer: I bet there is an element of that. Sadly, yes. Because probably to some degree we are all in competition with each other. We need to move past that. You see male coaches working with each other. I don't see them worried about that. They're talking to each other, asking questions, networking. And the mentoring -- there is tons of mentoring on the men's side. Why do women not do that? Why do we not help each other? I am very big into mentoring. I want women to do a better job of helping ourselves.
espnW: You mentioned that you feel today's female athletes take for granted what they have in terms of scholarships, opportunities, facilities, etc. Do you do anything to educate them?
Stringer: I think it's so important to know your history, know where things have come from, so you can know where things need to go. If I went into my locker room today at Rutgers and asked my players who Cheryl Miller was, I bet they would shrug their shoulders and have no clue. And that's Cheryl Miller, one of the greatest -- if not the greatest -- players of all time. It always makes me mad that we, as women, do not celebrate our greatness, our history, more. I can tell you that the players on the men's team will know Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. The men's history is celebrated. We need to do that with the women's game and Title IX. What has been achieved is way too important to be forgotten or not discussed.