We have a guest author today. Karen Stuck is retired from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She was a press aide to U.S. Senator Dick Clark of Iowa, and a former reporter for the Sioux City Journal. She lives in Washington, D.C.
This may have been the year that women’s college basketball really came into its own. Thanks to the star power of Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and Dawn Staley’s previously undefeated South Carolina team, attendance and viewership of the NCAA women’s tournament was pushed to new levels.
The success of the University of Iowa team is a reminder that Iowa was for decades a leader in providing opportunities for girls to play basketball. Until the 1980s, Iowa girls played a unique 6-on-6 game that had been in place since the 1920s. The court was divided, three girls played defense and three girls were on offense. No one could cross the center line, and the girls playing offense could only dribble twice. Many found it exciting; some saw it as “protecting” young women.
It certainly was wildly popular. The girls’ tournament in Des Moines packed the Veterans Memorial Auditorium. Elizabeth Merrill, reporting for ESPN this year, noted that “in the 1960s, the tournament was televised in nine states, long lines of cars following buses containing girls’ teams would clog rural highways, and in a number of towns, girls basketball was a bigger draw than the boys.”
But the landscape changed largely because of Title IX. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of Title IX, which Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana tucked into the 1972 Education Amendments. It prohibited sex-based discrimination at any school or education program that received federal funding by updating the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which had not mentioned discrimination in education.
Although much broader in scope, Title IX quickly became associated with equity in sports programs, and it wasn’t received with wild enthusiasm from all quarters. The idea that schools would have to provide equal opportunity for girls and women in sports programs raised the hackles of a lot of supporters of the men’s games.
College officials, particularly those with big football programs, came forward with dire predictions of the demise of their men’s programs with less participation. Sen. John Tower of Texas tried to get an exemption included for revenue-producing college athletic departments.
I was working for Iowa Senator Dick Clark at the time, and there were plenty of Congressional hearings about how the law would be administered under the Carter Administration. It was a difficult time for the Iowa delegation because the regulations proposed by the Administration were seen as a serious threat to Iowa’s 6-on-6 girls game.
When I moved to Iowa in the 1970s, the girls game was an eye opener, and I was a little jealous. In my small school in South Dakota, we occasionally had a girls basketball team—when there was some particularly good or tall player available. Otherwise, it was crickets for basketball or any girls’ sport, while the boys had baseball, football, track, and basketball. Well, we could be cheerleaders.
South Dakota wasn’t an outlier in those days—throughout the country, girls and women were short-changed in education programs. In 1970, 20 percent of all girls playing high school sports were from Iowa, according to the National Endowment for the Humanities, a reflection of the strong girls basketball program in the state
All of a sudden, a state that for decades was a leader in women’s sports, was back on its heels.
The regulations became final in 1975, resulting in a considerable increase in the number of female students participating in organized sports. In Iowa, the slow but inevitable movement away from the 6-on-6 game began. After Title IX was enacted, the landscape for women and girls in high school sports was remade. The rest of the country was catching up, which led to a further separation between the game played in Iowa and that played in most of the rest of the country and in colleges.
Within a few years, three girls would sue the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union calling 6-on-6 discriminatory. Watching the growth of women’s basketball at the college level—featuring the 5-on-5 game—led to concern that colleges would not give athletics scholarships to girls who never shot the ball. The lawyer for Five-On-Five, Inc., the nonprofit citizens’ group pressing for changes in the rules, argued that six-on-six basketball reduced the chances for girls to receive college scholarships, take part in interstate competition, and receive coaching in all aspects of the game.
But Mark Bennett—the lawyer for Joleen Enslow of Indianola, Shauna Russell of Lamoni, and Kari Wolff of Des Moines, all 12 to 14 years old—said the sport would be even more successful with 5-on-5 rules
In 1984, 26 schools in Iowa, mainly larger schools, switched to 5-on-5, and 40 years later, Caitlin Clark—a product of the current Iowa girl’s basketball program—was dribbling like crazy, knocking down rainbow threes, and just plain driving her opponents nuts. After the 1994 state tournament the 6-on-6 game was discontinued.
Iowans may have thought they had traveled back in time watching another Iowa star, Monika Czinano, who almost never put the ball on the floor. It didn’t prevent her from being selected four times to the all-Big Ten first team and in the third round of the 2023 WNBA draft by the Los Angeles Sparks.
So how did the NCAA mark the Title IX anniversary? It finally deemed the women’s national basketball tournament worthy of officially being eligible to be marketed as part of March Madness. They were probably reading the tea leaves—this year’s ratings and viewership of the women’s games hit a record high, while the men’s final was a record low. It’s never too late to hitch onto the bandwagon!
Editors note: Thanks so much for this perspective, Karen! If this topic is of interest - and based on viewership of the final two Iowa Hawkeye women’s basketball games, an unprecedented number of people are - here are pieces that appeared in columns produced by other Iowa Writers’ Collaborative members.
Former Des Moines Register Sports reporter, Jane Burns, was a guest columnist in Julie Gammack’s Iowa Potluck column. This appeared just before the last big game.
Former Des Moines Register Sports reporter, John Naughton
Iowa Boy, Chuck Offenburger, reports on the Iowa Hawkeyes team from Iowa City courtside:
Suzanna de Baca’s poetic tribute to Caitlin Clark:
The Iowa Writers’ Collaborative
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Laura Belin: Iowa Politics with Laura Belin, Windsor Heights
Doug Burns: The Iowa Mercury, Carroll
Dave Busiek: Dave Busiek on Media, Des Moines
Art Cullen: Art Cullen’s Notebook, Storm Lake
Suzanna de Baca Dispatches from the Heartland, Huxley
Debra Engle: A Whole New World, Madison County
Julie Gammack: Julie Gammack’s Iowa Potluck, Des Moines and Okoboji
Joe Geha: Fern and Joe, Ames
Jody Gifford: Benign Inspiration, West Des Moines
Nik Heftman, The Seven Times, Los Angeles and Iowa
Beth Hoffman: In the Dirt, Lovilla
Dana James: New Black Iowa, Des Moines
Pat Kinney: View from Cedar Valley, Waterloo
Fern Kupfer: Fern and Joe, Ames
Robert Leonard: Deep Midwest: Politics and Culture, Bussey
Tar Macias: Hola Iowa, Iowa
Kurt Meyer, Showing Up, St. Ansgar
Kyle Munson, Kyle Munson’s Main Street, Des Moines
Jane Nguyen, The Asian Iowan, West Des Moines
John Naughton: My Life, in Color, Des Moines
Chuck Offenburger: Iowa Boy Chuck Offenburger, Jefferson and Des Moines
Barry Piatt: Piatt on Politics: Behind the Curtains, Washington, D.C.
Macey Spensley, The Midwest Creative, Davenport and Des Moines
Mary Swander: Mary Swander’s Buggy Land, Kalona
Mary Swander: Mary Swander’s Emerging Voices, Kalona
Cheryl Tevis: Unfinished Business, Boone County
Ed Tibbetts: Along the Mississippi, Davenport
Teresa Zilk: Talking Good, Des Moines
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"In 1984, 26 schools in Iowa, mainly larger schools, switched to 5-on-5, and after the 1994 state tournament the 6-on-6 game was discontinued. Forty years later, Caitlin Clark—a product of the current Iowa girl’s basketball program—was dribbling like crazy, knocking down rainbow threes, and just plain driving her opponents nuts."
This phrasing is a little odd. The "Forty years later" is correct if referencing the 1984 switching to 5-on-5, but is off by a decade if using the 1994 state tournament discontinuing.