Kelly Belanger. Invisible Seasons: Title IX and the Fight for Equity in College Sports. Sports and Entertainment Series. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2016. 504 pp. $44.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8156-3470-6; $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8156-3484-3.
Reviewed by Louis Moore (Grand Valley State University)
Published on H-FedHist (October, 2017)
Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann
Invisible Seasons, by Kelly Belanger, is a necessary book in the growing field of women’s and gender sports history. Her work builds on groundbreaking texts that study Title IX and sports, including Welch Suggs’s A Place on the Team: The Triumph and Tragedy of Title IX (2006), Sarah K. Fields’s Female Gladiators: Gender, Law, and Contact Sport in America (2005), and Pamela Grundy and Susan Shackelford’s Shattering the Glass: The Remarkable History of Women’s Basketball (2005). What is new about this work, however, is Belanger’s singular focus as she specifically hones in on one institution, in this case Michigan State, and one sport, women’s basketball, and the battle for women college athletes to receive equitable treatment from their universities after the passage of Title IX.
Although only thirty-seven words, none of which say anything about sports, Title IX is a powerful piece of civil rights legislation passed in 1972 that shook the foundation of college sports. Before Title IX, men’s college sports, especially revenue-generating sports like football and basketball, received the bulk, if not all, of the economic support from universities, as schools used sports to brand their institution on a national stage and hopefully reap a financial windfall. When Title IX passed, male coaches, athletic directors, and university presidents worried that they would have to share equal resources with women’s sports and banded together to ensure that the cash kings, football and basketball, would not be touched. In other words, they did everything in their power to comply with the law as little as possible. In 1978, when Michigan State’s women’s basketball team realized the leading men on campus would not comply with the new law, they sued.
Before the women’s basketball team successfully took the school to court for sex discrimination, women’s sports received little funding, had no scholarships, and had inadequate equipment and provisions. Athletes had to share four people to a hotel room on road trips, received two-dollar per diems, and had to drive themselves to games, a dangerous circumstance in Michigan winters. Moreover, they had to share a locker room with the visiting women’s team and practice and play on an inadequate intramural court. With Title IX in place to legally support them, this unequal arrangement, based on the notion that women did not like sports and that women’s sports did not produce revenue, was untenable. All across that nation, women athletes protested for their equal share. In many ways, Michigan State basketball players led the way.
To be sure, the battle for sports equity on campus was an intense prolonged fight between players, coaches, and administrators, with many moving pieces. To help organize the abundance of information in this book, Belanger uses the language of rhetoric to make sense of the strategies the players, coaches, and administrators employed to protect their own interests. For Belanger, rhetoric is “the strategic use of language to influence action and perceptions, especially surrounding civic issues” (p. 3). While helpful, the emphasis on using rhetoric as an ordering device does not hold up well throughout the book. In fact, it seems forced and at times gets in the way of the story. When Belanger lets the narrative develop, however, the book triumphs.
The narrow focus of this book gives the reader a strong grasp of how contentious these battles were, while also personalizing the fight for fairness. Some people, like Michigan State’s Title IX compliance officer, Mary Pollock, were forced to resign after they challenged the university’s sex discrimination. Pollock was the leading activist on campus and persuaded the players to sue the university. Highlighting people like Pollock, as Belanger does so well, makes heroes out of otherwise unheralded figures in the feminist movement.
But Title IX encompassed more than fighting for fairness in resource allocation. The law also forced women athletic leaders to make a choice; model their sports after men’s sports and emphasize competition, money, and winning, or stick to their model of sports and promote health and education benefits while avoiding the so-called pitfalls of competition. Leaders, like Michigan State’s Nell Jackson, a black woman who had a renowned national reputation as the head women’s coach of the Olympic track team, had a difficult job advocating for equity, while also trying to ensure women that maintained power over their sports. Many women sports leaders across the country quickly learned that once male leaders acquiesced to the Title IX law, they would refuse to share power. Like most colleges across the country, Michigan State allocated more resources to women’s sports but also stripped away the independence of the women’s program and placed it under the male-controlled athletic department.
When it is at its best, Invisible Seasons digs into untapped resources to discuss this landmark protest. Along with the school newspaper and meeting notes from the board of trustees, Belanger also includes interviews from players, like star Kathy DeBour, and assistant women’s track and field coach Mark Pittman, who helped the team fight for equity. Remarkably, Pittman kept detailed notes of day-to-day activities during the fight. The interviews and the notes give powerful insight into the discrimination players faced, the uphill battle they had against the university, and the depths at which the administration would go to protect football and basketball, while making sure, to put it bluntly, women stayed in their place. Using these detailed sources, while also trying to reconstruct a chronology of events, creates a compelling narrative of this historical battle.
Every institution has a story like Michigan State’s that needs to be told. Invisible Seasons is affirmation to that fact. The length of the book, nearly four hundred pages, demonstrates that the struggle for sports equity was much more than just a piece of legislation; it was a daily battle to ensure that equitable access to sports was for everyone. Belanger’s book has carved out new territory that needs further exploration.
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Louis Moore. Review of Belanger, Kelly, Invisible Seasons: Title IX and the Fight for Equity in College Sports.
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