Jane Possee vividly remembers that evening in December 1975 when her University of Rochester women’s basketball home game against Oswego State was delayed by circumstances that spoke to the inequity and unfairness of the times. Instead of discussing strategy with her players courtside, the Yellowjackets’ first-year coach found herself in the lobby of the Palestra explaining to them and her counterparts from the North Country the reason tipoff was going to be a half-an-hour later than scheduled.
Seems the varsity men’s basketball practice was going long, and its coach had no desire to vacate the floor in a timely manner.
“It just wasn’t in his will to share and work with women because he never had to in the past,’’ Possee recalled the other day. “It was a different world back then.”
A world on the verge of dramatic change, thanks to a landmark piece of legislation signed into law by President Richard Nixon three years earlier. Title IX, which banned discrimination based on sex at educational institutions receiving federal funding, would help change-agents like Possee level the playing fields between men’s and women’s athletics. What’s good for the goose finally would be good for the gander on the fields, courts, rinks and tracks of play.
Change would not come overnight. It would occur in increments. And a half century after Title IX was enacted, inequities remain.
“There’s still work to be done,’’ Possee said. “But there’s always work to be done. The exciting thing is that we have generations of girls and young women who have experienced unlimited opportunities. Whenever I talk to them about how it used to be, they look at me in disbelief. They can’t comprehend. And I understand why because they haven’t known anything but this. This is the norm, this is second nature, and that’s a great thing; a sign of enormous progress.”
In some respects, Possee experienced the same good fortune they have, even though she played basketball, field hockey and lacrosse in those pre-Title-IX days when female athletes often were treated like second-class citizens. A Newark native, she attended an all-girls high school in Natick, Mass., and spent her undergraduate years at Centenary University and Skidmore College, two women’s-only institutions.
“I was very privileged in the sense that we had great competition and great support,’’ she said. “I realize that my experience was probably a lot different from what many of my contemporaries encountered.”
Possee would discover just how different during her two years as a graduate assistant coach at Syracuse University and her first several years coaching at UR. “Title IX was still so new and everybody was trying to figure out how to implement it,’’ she said. “At Syracuse, they were desperately in need of coaches for the women’s teams, so I was hired to start the women’s lacrosse program, and after I began grad school, I took on field hockey and women’s swimming and diving, too.”
Following a frenetic two years, Possee received her master’s degree in exercise physiology and coaching and landed a full-time job coaching varsity women’s basketball and field hockey at UR, while also launching the Yellowjackets lacrosse program, which was required to be a club team for three seasons before receiving NCAA certification as a varsity sport.
Early on, she encountered numerous hurdles, including that delay-of-game penalty on account of misogyny. In those days, the women’s hoops team wasn’t allowed to practice in the Palestra. Instead, it was forced to use a much smaller gymnasium that featured rounded backboards.
Possee advocated for the purchase of regulation, rectangular backboards and a refurbished court, as well as the construction of another locker room at the Palestra so the women players wouldn’t have to traipse across campus in the middle of the winter in order to take post-game showers. She also successfully lobbied for the women to be able to practice in the Palestra. Those were among the many victories for equality she would score through the years.
“The men were provided training table meals prior to every game, and I felt the women should have them, too,’’ she said. “If the men received sneakers, why shouldn’t the women? When I first got here, women’s teams would have to double up and travel together in buses and vans for road contests. Your field hockey match would be over, and you might have to wait several hours for the tennis match to end before both teams could board the bus back to campus. The men weren’t forced to double-up like that. It just wasn’t fair.
“I guess there were times I felt like I was a little bit of a squeaky wheel, but, at the same time, I don’t believe I was doing anything inappropriate. We weren’t trying to be unreasonable. We were just advocating for equity and support.”
Most of her male colleagues and bosses got that and were supportive.
“When I look back, I would say my experiences at UR have been quite positive,’’ said Possee, who has served as an administrator in the athletics and recreation departments since retiring from coaching in 1992. “We all were learning on the fly after Title IX became law. Yes, there was some hesitation, some resistance at times, but I never got the feeling from anyone that I was overstepping my bounds, that I shouldn’t be asking for what I was asking for.”
Possee just wanted the generations of athletes who followed her to at least have the same opportunities she had in high school and college. She experienced first-hand what girls and women’s sports could be and should be. Title IX would help her and scores of others level the playing field.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal’s sports columnist.