What’s going on everybody. Zora Stephenson here. A has-been hooper (although I’m still confident in my jumper) and the host of one of NBC Sports’ latest podcasts, “Hardwood HERstory.” The purpose of the pod is to tell the stories of athletes who changed women’s basketball. And despite the fact that they all had a non-negotiable impact on the game, you probably haven’t heard of some of them.
That’s why we’re here. Some people give back to the sport through coaching or working for a team. I give back to the game through storytelling. Hardwood HERstory is a labor of love, here’s a list of things you can look forward to if you start listening:
1) Lusia “Lucy” Harris is in the Hall of Fame. The first woman to score a basket at the Olympics for USA Basketball, she led Delta State to three college championships and was drafted by an NBA team. Growing up people used to tease Lucy. They would say, long and tall and that’s all. She then went back to them after all her success and said, long and tall and that’s NOT all. Love it!!!
2) Ann Meyers Drysdale (also a Hall of Famer) probably played pickup with either your favorite basketball player or your parent’s favorite basketball player. She has stories for days and was kind enough to share some of them. A walking women’s basketball encyclopedia. Want to simply learn more about the history of the game? Listen to this episode!!
3) Dee Kantner. This is the episode where you laugh. We asked Dee Kantner to join the podcast because she was one of the first women to referee in the NBA. That’s why you’ll start listening, but you’ll keep listening because she shares a referee’s perspective on calls (and missing calls), how she went from engineer to ‘Hardwood HERstory’, and the bees she has to keep up with off the court. Pure entertainment!
4) Years into Niele Ivey‘s coaching career, Muffet McGraw and the Notre Dame Athletics administration saw her as the future of the school’s women’s basketball program. Now that she’s stepped into the head role, Coach Ivey talks about what it took to get there, what it means to lead her alma mater, her coaching philosophy, and her time in the NBA. Coach Ivey also gives the full scouting report on her son Jaden, who was scooped up by the Detroit Pistons as the fifth overall pick in this year’s NBA Draft. An inspiring episode for anyone who has a dream and wants to listen to someone who made it happen. Muffet McGraw chimes in too.
5) Elizabeth Williams had her jersey retired at Duke University, she was the WNBA’s most improved player in 2016, she led the Atlanta Dream and the WNBA as they campaigned against the team’s owner in the Georgia Senate race, and when her playing career is over, she has dreams of being a doctor. Talk about doing it all! Elizabeth also happens to be my best friend and it was so cool to interview her. To me, this episode is about a talented basketball player who finally found her voice off the court.
6) Allison Galer owns Disrupt The Game, an agency that only represents female athletes, mostly women’s basketball players. Alison shares why representing women is her calling, the goals she has for her company, and all she does as an agent.
If you need more reasons to listen, just let me know! Basketball is about so much more than putting a ball in a hoop. Within those four lines, there are stories of triumph, victory, success, and resilience. We can all relate to that. Want greatness to rub off on you? Listen to Hardwood HERstory.
Hardwood HERstory is available for download on all major podcast platforms, including: NBCSports.com/podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Amazon Music, Spotify, Google Podcasts, iHeart, and Pandora. Episode one featuring Lusia “Lucy” Harris is also embedded above.
Zora Stephenson played college basketball at Elon University. She works as a sideline reporter for the Milwaukee Bucks and also covers the Olympics and USFL for NBC Sports. You can follow her on Twitter @ZoraStephenson.
There is a conversation I have about two or three times a month. I’ll be talking with someone at the gym or having a conversation with a stranger on a plane and I will mention that I compete in Nordic combined. And they will inevitably ask, ‘So are you training for the Olympics?’
And I have to explain that, because I’m a woman, I’m not able to compete at the Olympics.
People are always astonished to learn that women can’t compete at the Olympics. ‘That’s insane,’ they’ll say. ‘How can I help? Who can I write a letter to?’ They are genuinely amazed that, in 2022, we still don’t have gender equality.
The good news is that this might change soon.
On June 24, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will decide whether to include women’s Nordic combined at the 2026 Milan-Cortina Winter Olympics. I have also heard rumors that the IOC might “fix” the gender inequality problem by dropping men’s Nordic combined from the Olympics. That would be even more awful. To “solve” equality, you’re going to take the men’s event away?
While men have competed in Nordic combined since the first Olympic Winter Games in 1924, I realize that lots of people still don’t know what our sport is. So here’s the gist: Nordic combined competitions start with ski jumping. You’re scored based on how far you jump, as well as your style in the air. Those results then determine where you start in the cross-country portion of the competition a couple hours later. The first person to cross the finish line is the winner.
I got started in Nordic combined pretty late. I grew up between the United States (where my dad is from) and Finland (where my mom is from). It was like I lived a double life. I would spend the first semester of each school year in the U.S., and the second semester in Finland. I had two schools, two sets of friends, two homes. I know it sounds hectic and crazy – and it was – but I wouldn’t change it for anything.
I played lots of sports as a kid, but gymnastics was initially my favorite. By the time I was 12, I was training 25 hours a week and striving to make it to the Olympics.
And then, I dislocated my shoulder. It was a pretty rough injury. I tried to continue at first, but I wasn’t able to do uneven bars anymore as a result of the dislocation.
This led to what I would describe as a “freak out” phase. I went from being a full-time athlete to – all of a sudden – having all of this free time on my hands. I didn’t know what to do with myself.
Thankfully, it was around this time that I found Nordic combined. My brother Niklas, who is two-and-a-half years younger, was entered in an annual Fourth of July competition in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. It’s a little weird to say that my little brother inspired me, but that’s what happened. He finished second, competing against guys much older than him, and I just felt so inspired.
Less than two weeks later, I was at the top of a 45-meter ski jump, with zero experience, flying down the in-run about to take off. It was terrifying, yes, but it was also the coolest, most adrenaline-filled feeling I’d ever had.
That was back in 2017. And I basically got to grow up with women’s Nordic combined as it developed.
In 2018, I competed in some of the first ever women’s Continental Cup events. In 2020, I competed in the second ever Junior World Championships. And by 2021, we had women’s Nordic combined on the World Cup circuit.
Along the way, I decided to put college on hold in order to focus on Nordic combined. How could I pass up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete in a sport I love? And we were making so much progress in growing women’s Nordic combined that it didn’t feel like the Olympics were that far off.
But as I grew more serious, I also realized just how little we have compared to the men. From a huge gap in prize money to the number of competitions we have to the fact that we race 5 kilometers while men race 10 kilometers.
And then, of course, the fact that men have the Olympics and we don’t.
It’s nerve wracking to think that my future depends on what the IOC decides on June 24. If they don’t add women’s Nordic combined to the 2026 Winter Olympics, I don’t think I can wait to see if it gets added in 2030. I don’t want to send a message that, if you don’t get what you want, you should quit. But at the same time, competing at this level takes so much time and money. Literal blood, sweat, and tears.
Without the Olympics, what are we working towards? And what message are we sending to the world about equality?
I truly believe that if the IOC decides against putting women’s Nordic combined in the 2026 Winter Olympics that there isn’t a future for women in this sport.
Annika Malacinski is the top ranked U.S. woman in the sport of Nordic combined. She finished the 2021-22 World Cup season ranked 17th in the world.
Fifty years ago, Title IX changed the landscape for women across the United States – on sports fields and in classrooms.
Before President Richard Nixon signed the law forbidding sex-based discrimination at all federally funded educational institutions, women accounted for less than 10% of all medical and law school graduates while fewer than 4% of girls played high school sports. What’s more: it was legal for schools to deny women classroom opportunities, reject them from colleges just for being women, prevent them from competing in athletics, discriminate against pregnant students, sanction hazing and sexual harassment, and retaliate against those who advocated for equality.
I. The Title IX Starters: Dr. Bunny Sandler, Rep. Edith Green, Rep. Patsy Mink, and Sen. Birch Bayh
It was 1969 and Dr. Bernice “Bunny” Sandler had recently earned her doctorate from the University of Maryland. Her department had seven openings but failed to consider her for any of them. When she asked a colleague about it, he told her “Let’s face it, you come on too strong for a woman.”
Sandler’s then husband helped her understand that there were plenty of strong men in the department and therefore, this was sex discrimination. “It was the first time I had ever thought of myself as having been discriminated against,” Sandler, who died in 2019, recalled decades later.
But just because Sandler had a term for the discrimination she encountered didn’t mean the discrimination itself was against the law.
Over the next few years, she amassed an impressive team and launched a master strategy for change. Some of her most notable teammates: Rep. Edith Green (D-Ore.), Rep. Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii), and Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) in Congress.
Green chaired the Special Subcommittee on Education, sponsored Congress’s first-ever hearings on sex discrimination in education, and ultimately drafted Title IX and sponsored it in the House.
She was joined by Rep. Patsy Mink, the first woman of color in Congress. Mink would become one of Title IX’s strongest voices, leading the bill to be ceremoniously re-named ‘the Patsy Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act’ after her passing.
Meanwhile across the Capitol, Sen. Birch Bayh launched a parallel effort in the Senate, where he was also busy authoring the Equal Rights Amendment.
Collectively, “the Starters” and their other behind-the-scenes colleagues – including Pauli Murray and Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.) – fought for a law that they believed would do the most good and be the most inclusive.
Between Sandler’s awakening in 1969 and June 23, 1972, when President Nixon signed Title IX into law, the bill had several starts and stops. There were efforts to limit its application, delay its implementation, and defeat it in its entirety. Given that the bill’s origins stemmed from Sandler’s experiences on the job market and the fact that the conversations in Congress focused on academic employment and admissions, the potential impact on sports was largely ignored.
“One member of the Senate needed reassurance that women would not be allowed to play football, but that was it,” Sandler wrote in 2007.
“By 1972, when Title IX was close to passage, there were about five or six of us (plus Rep. Green) who realized that Title IX would cover sports and athletics, but again, we had no idea of how bad the sex discrimination was in the world of college sports or in K-12,” Sandler continued.
“My understanding of Title IX’s impact on sports was something like this: ‘Isn’t this nice! Because of Title IX, at the annual Field Day Events in schools, there will be more activities for girls.’ If those of us close to Title IX did not fully realize its impact, especially on sports, how could others have known what it would be?”
Tennis great Billie Jean King was as formidable on the court (39 grand slam titles, anyone?) as she is off it. Her playing career started long before Title IX, so as a college athlete in the early 1960s, she watched as the men’s team members received scholarships while she worked two jobs. Shortly after Title IX passed, King bested Bobby Riggs in the famed Battle of the Sexes, demonstrating to the 90 million people watching worldwide that women deserved equal opportunity in sport.
“I wanted King/Riggs to change the hearts and minds of people to more closely align with the legislation of Title IX,” King reflected decades later. “I was afraid if I did not win we would give people a reason to weaken Title IX. It was definitely a pressure-packed moment.”
Tatyana McFadden is a force. Between 20 Paralympic medals, becoming the first person to achieve a marathon “Grand Slam” (followed up by doing it for the next three years), and running the Paralympic marathon followed by five marathon majors last fall, her place as an athlete is cemented. Her legacy out of competition is perhaps even more important, though.
As a ninth-grade girl in Maryland, McFadden was supposed to be protected by Title IX – but as an athlete with a disability, she still faced discrimination. Notably, she was prohibited from racing alongside her able-bodied teammates and competitors.
“All I wanted to do was join high school track, but I was denied a uniform, I was denied (the opportunity) to race alongside others, and was practicing separately as well,” recalls McFadden. “I just thought, ‘We are in the 21st Century and I am 100% being discriminated against as a female athlete with a disability.”
McFadden and her mom sued the Howard County Public School System and won. Three years later, Maryland passed the Maryland Fitness and Athletes Equity for Students with Disabilities Act (also known as “Tatyana’s Law”). Five years after that, the US Department of Education issued a national mandate requiring equal access to extracurricular activities for students with disabilities.
The mandate has been called the “Title IX for people with disabilities.” It’s a fitting name. Thanks to McFadden, all kids with disabilities have a right to equitable sport.
IV. The Organizers: Dana Bolger, Alexandra Brodsky, Annie Clark, and Andrea Pino
While Title IX is often best known for its impact on women’s sports, the law is also integral to expanding opportunities for girls’ education (looking at you, shop class) and other school-affiliated activities, protecting survivors of sexual assault and harassment, and guaranteeing rights of pregnant students and those who are parents.
Perhaps no movement has transformed campus cultures in recent years than the one Dana Bolger, Alexandra Brodsky, Annie Clark, and Andrea Pino started in the 2010s, connecting universities’ obligations under Title IX to their handling of sexual assaults.
After finding each other through mutual connections and related news stories about student survivors of assault, Bolger, Brodsky, Clark, and Pino, then students or recent alumnae from three different universities across the country, worked together to make noise about Title IX violations at their alma maters and nationwide. Clark recalled connecting with Pino, “We started talking and realized that this was not an isolated incident, that it was a national epidemic and no one had really connected the dots because we had been looking at these cases in isolation.”
The four organizers shared strategic notes with each other, started conversations on campus, and filed suits against their universities. As their stories reached students across the country, they received countless notes of support and requests for advice, leading them to sit at the helm of a growing network and serve as informal consultants to survivors nationwide, in part through social media.
“You don’t need to be in a survivors’ group meeting to hear these stories anymore…the human connection is the same, but social media lets you do it on a completely different scale,” Bolger told the New York Times in 2013.
They formalized their collective work with the launch of national organizations Know Your IX (Bolger & Brodsky) and End Rape on Campus (Clark & Pino). In the years since, they have contributed to new legislation and authored books We Believe You (Clark & Pino) and Sexual Justice (Brodsky). Bolger, Brodsky, Clark, and Pino’s collective voices, persistence, and impressively self-taught legal acumen led to policy changes and advanced the understanding that campus sexual assault is a Title IX issue.
“If you have a campus that has rampant sexual assault, there is no equal access, mainly because female students do not feel safe going to libraries, they do not take night classes, they do not feel safe walking home at night. And because of that the campus itself is not equal,” explained Pino.
V. The Influencer: Sedona Prince
Equity in women’s sport sometimes comes in small packages, like a 37-word statute (Title IX) or a 38-second TikTok video. Sedona Prince, then a redshirt sophomore forward for the University of Oregon’s women’s basketball team, noticed disparities between the weight rooms for the men’s and women’s “March Madness” tournaments (fun fact: the women’s tournament in 2021 was not even officially branded March Madness because that was against the rules). They sent a TikTok and tweet that amassed more than 13 million views, ignited outrage, and eventually resulted in the NCAA undertaking an equity audit.
Visible changes were made ahead of the 2022 NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, including equalizing the number of teams in the two tournaments, providing identical swag bags, equalizing pay for referees, and finally giving the women the right to use March Madness branding – something Prince celebrated by – how else? – posting a video to TikTok.
Of course, other systemic issues remain, like “the unit.” For every game a men’s basketball team won at the 2022 NCAA tournament, their conference received over $338,000. That money will be paid out in six years with a true value of $2.03 million. Women’s basketball teams, however, received nothing – not for making the tournament, not for winning a game, and not even for winning the NCAA title.
But thanks to Prince, disparities like these have become more visible. And her contributions are only more impressive because she managed to indict an organization that technically doesn’t even have to adhere to Title IX (the NCAA is not federally funded, while its member organizations are).
“My video was the first domino to fall and the wave it produced is still rolling,” Prince reflected to USA Today in a March 2022 essay. “What it also helped me realize is if we want change for women in sports, we have to demand it. Change is not going to come from the top. It has to start with us.”
VI. The Momentum-Maker: Justine Siegal
Justine Siegal is witnessing a watershed moment. While girls’ participation in sport has increased by nearly 1000% (thanks to sports like basketball, soccer, volleyball, track and field, swimming, tennis, golf and others with widespread support), many still consider a sport like baseball to be a “boys’ sport.”
That’s now how Siegal sees it, though.
Siegal grew up playing baseball. The most important advice she did not listen to came at 13 years old when her coach told to switch to softball because she was a girl. As she recalled, “It didn’t matter that I was one of the best players on the team, that I loved baseball, or that I practiced a lot more than any of my male friends. It only mattered that I was a girl.”
“The day my youth baseball coach told me to quit was that day I decided to play baseball forever,” she told ESPN. She has made good on that promise to herself, making history many times over as the first woman to coach a professional men’s baseball team, to throw batting practice for an MLB team, and to coach for an MLB affiliated team.
It’s not just about her, though. As she is known to ask any chance she gets, “If you tell a girl she can’t play baseball, what else will she think she can’t do?”
Girls having access – and encouragement – to play baseball is a social justice issue that her nonprofit Baseball for All (BFA) has been tackling since 2010.
BFA started with a single all-girls team and now boasts players from 48 states and five countries that represent the organization in tournaments across the United States and compete against one another in the annual national tournament. Some of those players go on to play at the college varsity level on men’s teams, as a record six women did last year.
Others go on to take the field for their colleges in the newly launched Women’s College Club Baseball Championship. University of Washington took home the inaugural trophy in March 2022, but the proliferation of opportunity for girls and women to play baseball is the true victory.
Wherever they’re playing, Siegal and colleagues remind anyone who will listen, “When people ask, “Is that a girl?” Tell them it’s a baseball player.”
Sharp with the questions, Siegal wants to know: “More than 100,000 girls play youth baseball, but only 1,700 girls go on to play high school baseball. Their love of baseball – and their talent – didn’t just go away. So what happened to those other 99,000 players?”
VII. The Educator: Venkayla Haynes
Venkayla Haynes is determined to stamp out gender-based violence, especially within marginalized communities. A survivor of abuse and assault, Haynes has spoken openly about how those experiences have shaped her work.
“I just felt like a lot of me was taken away,” she told The Nation. “What I wanted was for when I reported my freshman year was for me to be relieved, for me to be taken care of, and for my Title IX rights not to be violated.”
As an alumna of Spelman, a historically black women’s college, she personally confronted the added complexities Black survivors of sexual assault face, “We always come to these situations where we can’t come forward because we want to protect Black men or protect our Black brothers because they’re already fighting against a system that further criminalizes them.”
The importance of centering and supporting Black women, LGBTQ+ survivors, undocumented immigrants, and those with disabilities shines through in her work to teach college students their rights under Title IX. “Our understanding of sexual violence and survivorship needs to be intersectional, expansive, and continue to evolve,” she wrote for Forbes.
Specifically, she emphasizes connecting marginalized survivors with organizations that intentionally focus on their community. In addition to partnering with universities – including HBCUs— Haynes has collaborated with the Biden Foundation, ItsOnUs, and Know Your IX.
VIII. The Full Circle Legacies: Ginny Gilder and Ann Meyers Drysdale
While women’s pro sports don’t fall under the protection of Title IX, some of the law’s first beneficiaries – including Ginny Gilder and Ann Meyers Drysdale – have ensured that the intentionality of the legislation continues when athletes graduate from college.
Just two years after Title IX was signed into law, Meyers was among the first women to receive an athletic scholarship. At UCLA, the California native was a four-time All-American basketball player. She also knows the legislation still hasn’t lived up to its full potential.
“Fifty years later after Title IX, we know that a lot of schools – the majority of schools – are not in compliance with Title IX,” Meyers Drysdale said on the new NBC Sports podcast Hardwood Herstory. “But it’s become the calling card of women’s sports.”
A year after graduating from UCLA, she became the first (and still only) woman to sign an NBA contract. She didn’t make the team – but her time in professional basketball was just getting started. She was the first woman to work an NBA broadcast for one of the three major networks and when the WNBA launched in 1997, NBC approached Meyers Drysdale to serve as their main analyst. She worked as a broadcaster for a decade, before joining the Phoenix Mercury as a General Manager and leading the franchise two its first two WNBA championships. Today Meyers Drysdale serves as a VP for the Mercury and their NBA counterpart the Suns.
Four years after Title IX’s passage, Ginny Gilder and her Yale rowing teammates were still afterthoughts. Most glaring: while the men took hot showers after practice, the women’s boathouse didn’t accommodate showers, so they sat on the bus waiting for the men.
Yes, even in the dead of winter.
When enough was enough, 19 team members marched into the athletic director’s office, stripped out of their sweats to reveal their bodies naked except for “TITLE IX” handwritten in marker across their backs and chests, and read a statement with a now-memorialized first line: “These are the bodies that Yale is exploiting.”
The Seattle Storm has won three WNBA championships under their leadership and revolutionized what community impact could mean when they became the first sports team to partner with Planned Parenthood.
“It’s probably not a tremendous coincidence that I’m now part of the ownership group of the Seattle Storm of the WNBA,” said Gilder in 2012. “After the [Title IX] protest I learned an important lesson: Don’t take no for an answer. Don’t let people tell you your dreams can’t come true.”
IX. The Young Activist: Rebekah Bruesehoff
As a 10-year-old in 2017, Rebekah Bruesehoff took to the New Jersey streets. With purple hair pulled back, slim jeans, a pink coat and matching shoes, she carried a sign: “I’m the SCARY TRANSGENDER person the MEDIA WARNED you about.”
Five years ago, I spoke at a rally in because transgender students were being attacked. Me with this "I'm the scary transgender person the media warned you about" sign went viral. I wasn't scary at all. I was just a 10 year old being herself. pic.twitter.com/jCGeq7swXJ
In the years since, the legislation attacking trans kids – and trans girls in particular – has only become more vicious. In fact, in a hate-fueled turn of events, fifty years post-Title IX, nearly all legislation around girls’ and women’s sports focuses on exclusion – rather than inclusion.
Now 15 years old, Bruesehoff’s voice has only grown louder. She’s passionate about field hockey and knows that the laws banning trans girls from sport hurt trans girls and cis girls alike. That’s not a future she’s willing to accept, leading her to share her story as part of the Human Rights Campaign’s efforts to protect trans girls’ right to sport. She’s also testified in support of laws that require schools to include the accomplishments of LGBTQ+ people in the curriculum.
If Title IX’s greatest legacy has been its evolution to protect gender equity in all its forms, Bruesehoff, her family and friends are well poised for the fight.
It’s simple for Rebekah: “This is so important to me because I would believe that everyone deserves access to be part of their school community. And that means being in sports.”
There is much to celebrate as Title IX turns fifty – and many more than nine (or so) to thank for the progress made thus far.
There’s also more to fight for. There are still fewer girls playing sports today (50 years after Title IX) than there were boys playing sports when Title IX was passed. And though Title IX has changed the game for countless girls across the country, the progress has been unequal: girls of color still have just one-third the number of sports opportunities as white boys.
The gift of this anniversary then is to simultaneously celebrate and commit to a brighter future. To advocate and act. To chart a path forward by looking back.
Risa Isard is a writer, consultant, and expert in the intersection of sports, gender, LBGTQ+ and social issues. She is a Research Fellow with the Laboratory for Inclusion and Diversity in Sport at the University of Massachusetts, where she is pursuing a Ph.D. in the McCormack Department of Sport Management in the Isenberg School of Business. She has also written for espnW, Quartz, AdWeek, and Global Sport Matters. Follow her on Twitter @RisaLovesSports.
On Her Turf editor Alex Azzi contributed to this report.