'We cannot relax': Lin Dunn proud of Title IX improvements but continues fight for more

·9 min read

A few years before Title IX passed, Lin Dunn had just earned a master’s degree in physical education from Tennessee after completing her undergrad at UT Martin. As a tennis and volleyball player in college, Dunn naturally gravitated toward coaching women’s sports.

Her real love was basketball, but in the 1960s, UT Martin didn’t have a women’s team. This wasn't a shock to Dunn, but rather a frustration. An Alabama native, Dunn was all too familiar with the discrepancies between men’s and women’s sports. When she was in junior high, interscholastic sporting activities for girls were outlawed.

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As Dunn graduated from Tennessee, discussion of the Title IX legislation had recently begun. Law or no law, Dunn had her sights set on being an educator and a coach. So in 1970, she accepted her first job: a physical education instructor, supervisor of the football and men’s basketball cheerleaders, and the volunteer coach of the women’s volleyball, basketball and tennis teams at Austin Peay.

Dunn would often stay at the athletic facilities hours after everybody else left just to scour through the men’s locker room for old equipment no one wanted anymore. She would take worn-out pinnies and tape numbers to them so the women could have some sort of jerseys. And Dunn would often spend her own money — which didn’t go very far — to buy uniforms or additional equipment.

“I wanted to create the opportunities for girls and women in college that I didn't have,” Dunn said. “I wanted them to have a chance to compete in sports, but there were very little resources. My first job was just ridiculous how little we had. We just, we didn't have access to the facilities, it was really bad. And so it was a constant battle.”

Two years into the job at Austin Peay, Title IX was passed, but in 1972, that didn’t mean much for women’s sports. The legislation was originally about girls and women having equal opportunities in the classroom.

While Title IX compliance for sports wasn’t mandatory until 1978, Dunn saw small changes begin to happen shortly after the law was originally passed. Yet, Dunn doesn’t think the law would’ve been passed in 1972 if congress and President Richard Nixon had understood the impact it would’ve made on gender equality in sports.

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“I don't think they realized when they signed it, and then when Nixon signed it, what they were signing,” Dunn said. “It looks really good when you read it. It talks about discriminating and equity and those 37 words and how powerful they are. I'm not sure they had any idea that it could expand to include extracurricular activities like sports, that occur in K through college so no, I don't think I had any idea.”

After coaching the Austin Peay women’s basketball team to four winning seasons, Dunn left in 1977 and became the women’s volleyball, tennis and basketball coach at Ole Miss. The job change allowed Dunn to see Title IX’s influence.

Instead of only giving out a few partial scholarships, Dunn was able to give out some full scholarships. Colleges began providing academic counselors for the women’s teams. Dunn even remembers the first time her teams were provided a training table.

While it was comforting to see these changes begin to happen, Dunn was also questioning why women didn’t need these things before Title IX, but the men did.

She was fortunate to grow up with a family that encouraged those questions. Dunn’s mother played basketball in the early 1900s when the court was divided into three parts and players could only take one dribble. Her father ran track at Vanderbilt. Dunn and her brother were given the same opportunities and motivation as children when it came to education and sports.

Dunn’s case was a rarity at the time. Many of her counterparts were discouraged from participating in athletics by family as sports were often seen as detrimental to femininity. Historically, society deemed sports too aggressive and competitive for women; they weren’t ladylike. These thoughts made it easy for schools and programs to justify not offering opportunities to girls who were interested in sports or putting any significant money into women’s athletics.

When Dunn got to junior high school, she was introduced to a physical educator, Noona Kennard, who provided girls the chance to compete in intramural sports during gym class. Being introduced to this competition, even at the lowest level, allowed Dunn and her female classmates to understand what it was like to be on a team. Kennard also enforced it was okay for a girl to love sports and to desire competition.

A couple of years later, Dunn’s family moved to Tennessee where she would complete high school. There, she met Buddy Viniard who influenced her desire to coach. Viniard was tough and demanding. He wanted discipline and attention to detail. He wanted the young women to play the same way young men were taught to play — with a competitive edge and a determination to win and improve.

While Dunn is grateful for the small opportunities she received, it didn’t lessen the bitterness she felt when she saw how the boys had it.

“It wasn't just college, it was high school, junior high, all areas of women's sports prior to Title IX were just really pitiful, would be the word,” Dunn said. “Non-existent in some instances, sporadic, underfunded, not funded at all. Of course, I personally played sports before Title IX was passed, and I know how few opportunities I had. So it was not good. In many instances, junior high, high school and college programs provided quite a few opportunities for boys to participate in several different sports. And in most instances didn't offer any opportunities for girls to participate and there certainly weren't any scholarships in college.

“I think that was the main thing that, in my mind, is when I got ready to go to college, there were no scholarships. There were all types of athletic scholarships for boys. At colleges there were, I don't know, 6, 7, 8, ten sports, but none for women. There was a significant discrepancy.”

When Dunn got to UT Martin, she admits she was “a pain in everybody’s ass,” and continued to be everywhere she went. She refused to settle for little to no opportunities, resources or funds for women’s sports. Her career was and has always been just as much about the fight for equality as coaching.

Dunn coached Ole Miss to a 25-15 record in 1977, then left for Miami and took the Hurricanes to their first-ever postseason appearance in 1981 as the Florida Coach of the Year. She wrapped up her collegiate coaching career with a nine-year stint at Purdue where she was Big Ten Coach of the Year in 1989 and 1991. Dunn coached the Boilermakers to two Sweet 16 appearances, an Elite Eight appearance and a Final Four run. But in 1996, Dunn was fired after disputes with the Purdue athletic director, recruiting violations and equal pay and opportunity issues.

Fighting for that continued equality may have cost Dunn her job, but that would never be a regret. One thing about Dunn, she was never going to sit around and wait for the right thing to be done.

“People are not always just gonna do it out of the goodness of their heart. They may do a little or they may do a piece,” Dunn said. “But historically, there's just been no constant, 'hey, this is how we're gonna treat our girls. We're gonna treat it just like we treat our boys. The opportunities we're giving our boys we're gonna give our girls.' That just hasn't really flown, I guess you could say, been accepted. And it's gotten better, there's no doubt in my mind, it's gotten better. But we're still not in full compliance with Title IX. There are still lots of colleges and universities and high schools where the girls don't get the gym until all the boys teams are through using them. And it's still not like it should be.”

Decades later and Dunn hasn’t quit the fight. After decades of coaching and front-office positions in the WNBA, she still sees Title IX through the same lens. While the opportunities for girls and women’s sports have expanded behind Dunn’s belief, equal pay and distribution of funds have become larger issues.

Dunn believes the current fight is about investing the appropriate amount of time and money into women’s sports. She has witnessed the success of the U.S. national women’s soccer team and the Olympic women’s basketball team. That success is derived from the investment in those teams. Dunn knows when female athletes are given the same resources as men, they can have the same or even greater success.

From yearning to play basketball as a young girl when she had the law pushing back to seeing young boys wearing a Kelsey Mitchell jersey at Indiana Fever games, Dunn has witnessed a generational change in women’s sports.

Dunn can’t help but feel excited about the trajectory of women’s sports across all levels. There’s no room for satisfaction. Even today, Title IX lawsuits are being filed. Dunn recently read about San Diego State getting sued for unequal distribution of athletic funds. She wonders how many other institutions are putting themselves in a position to be sued.

“I feel real strongly that we cannot relax,” Dunn said. “We cannot take for granted what we have and what we've achieved. And we cannot be passive about the progress that we've made. Because just as hard as we've worked to get it, it can be taken away in a minute. legislation can be repealed, things can be changed. And so I think we have to be diligent about Title IX and preserving it and treasuring it, and enforcing it.”

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Dunn proud of where Title IX has taken women's sports, knows the fight isn't done