By Jonathan Lange, columnist
Evanston’s own Wendy Davis Schuler was a member of the 1976 Olympic team. But you won’t find her name in the record books. Invited to the Olympic Trials, she made the cut and was selected to America’s first women’s basketball team only to sustain a broken foot in the closing hours.
Schuler had earned the right to go to Montreal and, could have joined her team on the silver medal podium. Instead, she voluntarily gave up her spot to an uninjured alternate. Almost five decades later, she told me, “I sometimes regret that. But it was just the right thing to do.”
Her choice erased her from the history books, but it speaks volumes of her character. It is only one episode in a life dedicated to lifting up women’s athletics. That career, from athlete to coach, and now to state senator, spanned the most significant legislation in the history of women’s sports.
This year is the 50th anniversary of Title IX. On June 23, 1972, President Nixon signed legislation prohibiting sex discrimination in programs receiving federal financial aid. The effect was immediate. Prior to 1972 the NCAA had virtually no female sports. But by the 1972-73 school year NCAA women’s sports were a reality.
It was Schuler’s Junior year at the University of Wyoming, and she reveled in the new opportunities. Throughout her high school years and for her first two years in college, intramural sports and loosely organized athletic associations were the outer limits of women’s athletics. Funding was minuscule, equipment was second-rate, and travel to events was haphazard.
Schuler recalls piling into her coach’s private car because access to university transportation was denied. Once, her team qualified for the regional tournament in Provo but, due to a lack of funding, could not compete unless they held a bake sale to raise travel funds.
Title IX changed all that. By carving out a niche for female sports, it took seriously the benefits and the uniqueness of athletics for the female body. Athletics are part of a well-rounded education of body, mind and soul. Since the fall of 1972, Title IX has contributed to the thriving of millions of women worldwide.
As a high school coach, Schuler would often tell her girls how fortunate they were to have opportunities that she never dreamed of. When she arrived in Lyman in 1976, there was no girls’ basketball program. Three years later, they were state champs. Next Evanston High School called her number and, by 1982, their girls were playing for the state title.
Schuler has coached both boys’ and girls’ teams in her long career. She reflected on how they are different. Coaching the boys, “was more challenging than the girls, in some ways. But, in some ways, it was easier.” Physical differences were only part of the equation, temperament and team dynamics also differed from boys to girls.
Since her retirement from teaching and coaching, she has watched with growing concern as biological males have intruded into female sports. Lia Thomas of U. Penn is only the latest headline. After three years of swimming as a male and ranking #462, Will Thomas now competes as Lia, and dominates the pool.
The NCAA, as well as the International Olympic Committee, has standards for hormone levels, Schuler admits, “but still, it doesn’t change the physical composition of a person. You can’t change their height, the size of their heart and their lungs, their bone density, the size of their hands and feet. Even if they suppress the hormones, it’s an unfair advantage; it’s a totally unfair advantage!”
The unfairness is not only a distant problem. Wyoming’s High School Activities Association currently allows biological males to participate on female sports teams. Female athletes in Wyoming are sitting on the bench while males take the field.
WHSAA Commissioner Ron Laird told the Casper Star-Tribune, “We feel that our policy has worked.” Maybe it works for him, but coaches, teammates, opposing teams, parents and fans beg to differ. How does this policy work to keep girls safe from bone-crushing collisions? How does it work in overnight hotel accommodations, locker rooms— and a host of other unforeseen complications?
Local schools that want to be responsive to stakeholders and responsible protectors of girls open themselves to legal harassment. WHSAA policy leaves them high and dry. Schuler has introduced legislation to fill that gap.
SF0051 “Fairness in women’s sports act” would restore safeguards against sex discrimination that were signed into law 50 years ago. By protecting women’s sports from the intrusion of biological males, it restores the level playing field that has helped countless women to thrive.
“I’ve got a granddaughter coming up,” Schuler said. “I don’t want her to have to deal with these issues. So, I am fighting for her and for all these little gals and young women and college women in Wyoming. I’m their advocate.” It’s just the right thing to do.