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Commentary

'You can do better': How Pat Summitt exemplified why Title IX matters

Tennessee Volunteers head women's basketball coach Pat Summitt at the game against Texas on December 14, 2008. Title IX was passed the year Summit began assistant coaching while she was still a student at the University of Tennessee.
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Tennessee Volunteers head women's basketball coach Pat Summitt at the game against Texas on December 14, 2008. Title IX was passed the year Summit began assistant coaching while she was still a student at the University of Tennessee.

I grew up before Title IX, federal legislation that requires gender equity in education, including sports. That meant that my basketball play amounted to “throw it to Sue” — the tallest girl in our gym class. We never learned strategy and didn’t know what we were doing.

To put it another way, we were not taken seriously.

Over the years, I became a University of Tennessee women’s basketball fan because of Pat Summitt. Summitt began coaching the year Title IX became law and ended her career as the winningest coach in college basketball history. Few people exemplified the difference Title IX made in women’s lives more than Pat Summitt.

During the peak of my Summitt fandom, I won an auction to spend a day in Knoxville with the Lady Vols. Everything blurred when I hit the court for practice with Pat: the drills, the whistles, the razzle-dazzle under the basket. By the time I met the trainer, I felt part of the team.

Without recognizing I had lost my mind, I pulled up my shirt and showed the trainer a side muscle that was giving me trouble. We were standing at center court when she grabbed a roll of athletic tape and fixed me up.

That tape sealed the deal. I was officially a Lady Vol with players and coaches and trainers and that vast Thompson-Boling Arena all to ourselves. It was like we owned the place.

That night at the game, I sat behind Pat. The Lady Vols were up by 20 points at halftime, but in the locker room, she blew a gasket.

“If I didn’t know better,” Pat yelled, “I’d think you were throwing the game.”

She complained of missed free throws and turnovers. Her disappointment was so fierce I stared down at my shoes and tried not to cry.

“You can do better,” she said.

I will never forget that game. Beyond the fun and the flash, there was something else: the exhilaration of being pushed to your best. Those 37 words in Title IX made a difference.

Once you gain the right to stand at center court, you realize the rest of the world is yours, too.

Martha Ackmann is a writer who lives in Leverett, Massachusetts. She is the author of "Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League."

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