Because of all the tremendous accomplishments today's female athletes produce, it's almost impossible to remember the problems girls had getting into the gym or onto the playing field 50 years ago.
“They had a boys swim team at Snider, but no girls team,” said 1968 Olympic gold medalist Sharon Wichman. “I was the only girl I knew of who swam. ... I remember being really mad because I had to take a test on football, and I remember saying, 'I'm never going to play it, so why should I have to do it?' The gym teacher thought we should know it so we could support the boys at the games.”
A lawsuit finally forced the Indiana High School Athletic Association to change. South Bend Riley golfer Johnell Haas sued in 1969 because there was no girls team, but girls were prohibited from playing on boys' teams. On Nov. 27, 1972, the Indiana Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional to take opportunities away from female athletes in non-contact sports.
During the 1972-73 school year, the IHSAA sponsored volleyball and gymnastics, adding golf and track the next year and swimming and tennis in 1974-75. Basketball was added in 1975-76.
“I can't attribute all of that to the lawsuit, but some of it,” said Harlan native and former IHSAA Assistant Commissioner Pat Roy, one of those fighting for girls athletic opportunities at the time. “The girls were already saying to themselves, 'If athletics are good for boys, why can't they be good for girls?' They were beginning to ask some pointed questions that people could not answer.”
Before the IHSAA started sponsoring sports, girls competed in the Girls Athletic Association, a glorified form of intramurals.
“I remember there were intramurals with either gymnastics or volleyball,” recalls former Leo girls basketball star Tonya Burns-Cohrs. “I remember asking if I could play basketball, and the instructor said it was only for boys. The only time I got to play was at recess or at home.”
The IHSAA sports were phased in over a period of four years to allow schools the chance to find coaches and officials and work out schedules. Girls teams were almost always given practice times late at night after the boys had used the gym during prime hours.
The first female athletes also had to use shoddy equipment, and the uniforms were usually hand-me-downs. Former Norwell Miss Basketball Teri Rosinski remembers buying boys shorts for the girls team so they didn't have to practice wearing cutoff jean shorts.
Before 1973, there were no track events longer than 400 meters for girls because experts wondered how longer distances might affect their ability to have children.
Indiana Association of Track and Cross Country Coaches Hall of Fame member Bobbi Widmann-Foust, who spent much of her coaching career at South Side, used to run distance races in Ohio under the name “Bobbi” instead of Roberta because girls were not permitted to run long distances in Indiana.
Coaches at that time worked three or four sports, some in the same season. Referees often called junior varsity and varsity games. The males who coached were often fathers of girls who wanted their children to have more opportunities.
There are lots of opportunities now.
About this series
Ever wonder what a Northeast Indiana Sports Hall of Fame might include? During a time when it may be difficult to look ahead to great sporting events, the Journal Gazette is going to offer you a look into Fort Wayne and Northeast Indiana's fantastic athletic past. Over the next few weeks, we'll offer some suggestions on the people and events which could be featured in such a facility.