Roots of the Game – Women’s Basketball Championship History – 2006

As 64 women’s college basketball teams prepare to embark on the mad ride known as the “Road to the Final Four,” parallel celebrations are planned to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the NCAA’s Division I Women’s Basketball Championship. But to focus only on the last 25 years is to deny the decades–long legacy of women who sought to play, compete and be recognized as champions.

How it All Began
In 1891, Canadian James Naismith, an instructor at YMCA Training School in Springfield, Mass., invented basketball. Within weeks, the women of nearby Smith College were introduced to the game by Senda Berenson. Basketball spread across the country like wildfire, and in 1892 the University of California, Berkeley, and Miss Head’s School (a girls’ prep) held the first inter-institutional contest. Through the end of the century and into the next, women’s basketball flourished in both college and high school settings. As a college team from Nevada traveled to compete in California, the University of Missouri organized intercollegiate games with teams from Kansas and Nebraska. 

Basketball Backlash
As the game’s popularity grew, so did the backlash from educators concerned that the physical activity was unladylike, inappropriate and unhealthy. This seesaw battle of growth and resistance continued into the early ‘20s, but the balance shifted in 1923 when Lou Henry Hoover, head of Girl Scouts of America and wife of President Herbert Hoover, helped organize the Women’s Division of the National Amateur Athletic Federation (WDNAAF). In 1925, the WDNAAF passed a resolution outlawing extramural competition, opposing gate-receipts, all travel for women’s games and all publicity of women’s sports. The National Association of Secondary School Principals supported the resolution and they, in turn, pressured high school sports associations to disband tournaments. By the mid-‘30s, competitive basketball at elementary, high school and college level in many states had all but disappeared.

A Championship is Born
Women who wished to continue basketball found an outlet in the “Industrial Leagues” that emerged in the early 1920s. Sponsored by businesses that believed a winning team was good publicity, players were recruited right out of high school or college. Teams developed local championships, then in 1926 the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), which governed sports activities outside of high schools and colleges, sponsored the first-ever National Women’s Basketball Championship. Teams with names like Sunoco Oilers and Hanes Hosiery or, later on, teams from business colleges such as Nashville Business College and Des Moines Institute of Business dominated. By the mid-’50s and ’60s, small schools like Wayland Baptist and Ouachita Baptist University emerged as powerhouses.

In the mid ‘60s, the NCAA, previously a male-sports organization, began to show interest in governing women’s sports. However, it was the Division of Girls and Women’s Sports (DGWS), an organization of physical educators, now known as National Association of Girls and Women’s Sports (NAGWS) who took the lead in establishing national women’s collegiate basketball championships — the Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (CIAW) basketball championships. When DGWS realized that a professional physical education association could not govern an institutional membership collegiate athletic governance system, they called a convention to establish the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW).

Impact of Title IX
In 1972, the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments initiated a new era in women’s basketball. The federal law prohibited sex discrimination in any educational program or activity at any educational institution that received federal funds. This forced colleges and universities to fund women’s athletics and offer women athletic scholarships, and basketball teams began to reappear on campuses across the nation. The NCAA had no interest in organizing a women’s tournament and gladly handed over that responsibility to the AIAW. In 1972, Immaculata College won the first of three consecutive AIAW women’s national collegiate basketball championships. More than 3,000 fans watched the 1973 final between Immaculata and Queens College, and in 1975, when these two teams met again in Madison Square Garden, they drew more than 12,000 spectators. 

Growing Pains
The growth of the women’s tournament highlighted philosophical tensions between the NCAA and AIAW. The AIAW wanted equal funding and recognition, but it wanted to conduct its programs with its own core values, avoiding the “commercialization” they saw in the NCAA model. They initially banned scholarships, placed significant restrictions on recruiting and structured championships to promote broad participation more than competition. “Contempt might be too strong a word,” wrote Welch Suggs in “A Place on the Team: The Triumph and Tragedy of Title IX,” “but the men in the NCAA were not impressed with the AIAW’s attitude towards sports. To NCAA officials, the AIAW’s model was one of playing sports and having post-game teas, while the men were the ‘real athletes.’ They were dubious that a professional association of educators could manage a sports program, and they certainly did not think the women’s organizations were up to the task of administering women’s athletics.”

This conflict came to a head when, in 1981, the NCAA membership voted to establish Division I championships in various women’s sports, including basketball. The AIAW sued to prevent the NCAA from implementing the new championships, claiming the NCAA didn’t have the women’s best interests at heart. When the lawsuit was dismissed, it forced schools to choose between the two tournaments, signaling the eventual end of the AIAW. The final AIAW championship saw Rutgers University defeat the University of Texas. That same year, Louisiana Tech defeated Cheyney State and was crowned the first NCAA Division I women’s basketball champion.

A New Era
While many bitterly resisted and resented the takeover of the championships, others saw becoming part of the NCAA’s infrastructure as a chance to step up in competitiveness, legitimacy, and exposure. Ironically, though current NCAA policy supports Title IX, in the 1970s and ‘80s the Association actively sought to limit the jurisdiction and scope of Title IX. The Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988, which reversed a 1984 ruling that had denied the application of Title IX to college athletics departments, effectively ended the NCAA’s resistance and initiated a major, positive shift in its attitude towards Title IX. As a result, the women’s basketball championship has shown a slow, steady growth since its inception. The tournament field has expanded from 32 teams to 64 and television coverage, which was limited to five games in 1985, now includes all 63 games. While 9,531 fans saw Louisiana Tech win in 1982, the 2004 title game between the University of Connecticut and Tennessee drew a sellout crowd of 28,210, and when the finalists of the 2006 tournament meet in Boston, they will do so in front of the 14th consecutive sellout of the Women’s Final Four. 

And so, it comes time to celebrate 25 years of NCAA Women’s Basketball Championships. Let us honor modern-era trailblazers like Marsha Sharp of Texas Tech and University of North Carolina’s Sylvia Hatchell. Let us celebrate as the traditional powerhouses of Connecticut and Tennessee are challenged by up-and-comers like Baylor and Michigan State. Let us watch in amazement as players like Oklahoma’s Courtney Paris and Maryland’s Marissa Coleman continue to redefine how women’s basketball is played. But as we do, let us also recognize that their accomplishments, and the accomplishments of all those that follow them, are rooted in a legacy of stubborn struggle by women who simply wanted to play the game they loved.

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