Barbara and Sue Altman – a tale of Title IX

Standing at the edge of the parquet court in front of rows of cheering fans, Sue Altman was all smiles as she hopped and waved both her arms to the hundreds of supporters roaring above. Her light blond hair was pulled back tightly in a bun and sweat was still streaking down her cheeks. Her baggy shorts hung just above her trademark white kneepads as she was showered with affection from the bleacher seats known as “The Lion’s Den,” home to Columbia’s most faithful fans. Altman had just finished playing the final game of her storied collegiate career at Columbia University’s Levien Gym.

 It was a game to remember. Down 51-41 with 13 minutes left to play, Altman led a furious Lion comeback to seal a 74-69 upset victory over Ivy League-leading Penn on Feb. 28. Hitting one clutch shot after another, Altman posted her best game of the year, finishing with season highs of 32 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. More importantly, Columbia’s victory raised its record to 12-12, with only two games left in the season. No Columbia women’s team had ever finished with a better mark. The Lions concluded their season with two disappointing road losses at Brown and Yale.

Altman wrapped up her stellar career as a Lion, with a solid senior year in which she averaged 15.7 points a game. She was named to the All-Ivy First Team. It was only the latest in the long list of achievements from her two-year career at Columbia after transferring from Holy Cross: two-time Division I All-Met team, three-time Ivy Player of the Week, 13 times named to the conference honor roll and holder of the school record for free throw shooting. Altman become an immediate fan favorite for her rugged and spectacular play. She was perhaps admired most for her passion for the game and fiery style of play, with those puffy kneepads often put to good work.

Thirty years earlier, Altman’s mother, Barbara, was a standout basketball player as well. She was the star of her high school basketball team in Garden City, Long Island. Like her daughter she had great passion for the game and an intense competitiveness edge to boot. Yet, unlike her daughter, she wasn’t rewarded for these qualities. In fact, she was punished.

“I remember being kicked out of one of the biggest games of the year,” she recalled from her home in Clinton, N.J. “They said that I played too rough, that someone would get hurt.”

That was the end of Barbara Altman’s basketball career. She said that girls basketball was “nothing back then.” The University of Rhode Island had little to offer a female athlete and she eventually gave up sports. She became an antique dealer and later a full-time mother to two children.

Those were the days before Title IX, the landmark decision, signed into law on June 23, 1972, that prohibited sex discrimination in any education program or activity within an institution that received federal assistance.

Barbara and Sue grew up as athletes in entirely different times. Their stories are fairly typical of the “before and after” effect of Title IX. Thanks to the efforts of Barbara’s generation, the women of Sue’s generation have had the kind of athletic options their mothers could only dream about.

“It’s completely different. There’s been an enormous shift in what is available for women and how they are allowed to behave,” said Kathryn Jay, Director of American Studies at Barnard College. “[Now] it’s possible for women to be more aggressive.”

Jay teaches a course in American sports history, a major part of which focuses on the change in women’s sports over the past century. She noted that Title IX was only part of the social changes taking place at the time, in which women were establishing their place in American society. As far as sports are concerned, she said that Title IX is not just about the money.

“Title IX is about equal opportunity,” she said, noting that men’s sports, like football, are often more expensive to fund than women’s sport. “You don’t have to spend exactly the same, but you do have to spend equally.”

Jay added that very few athletic programs today are in total compliance with the letter of the law. However, she admitted, most are in line with “the spirit.”

The spirit of Title IX accompanied Sue Altman as she grew up in Clinton, a small town in western New Jersey, 15 miles from the Delaware River. Since she was a young child she was active in sports. In grade school, she’d play with the boys in recess, but throughout her life she always had the option to play with others girls, too.

“We always had girls leagues and I’ve always had great coaches,” she said. “In high school, we were very good and they [the boys team] were very bad.”

After starring in high school Sue was recruited by several top colleges before accepting a full scholarship to attend Holy Cross and play for the women’s basketball team. After her sophomore year, she transferred to Columbia, mostly for social reasons.

Seated on the steps of Low Library, in sunglasses, flip-flops and baggy practice shorts, her fingers and toes painted with pink and purple nail polish, the 22-year-old spoke candidly about being a female athlete. A few days earlier, the school’s student newspaper, the Columbia Spectator, as part of its year-old honor roll, unanimously named Sue as Columbia’s “hottest female athlete.” While Altman merely shrugged off the honor, Jay saw this as a monumental shift in the perception of female athletes. “Sue Altman is a jock,” she said flatly. “The fact that she is considered ‘hot’…I think it’s an enormous change.”

Jay was referring to the many stigmas attached with being a female athlete, namely that top female athletes were either lesbians or manly. Altman said she was aware of this growing up, but that it hardly ever bothered her. She said that while the fear always exists of being considered “one of the guys” it was “way cooler to be a girl who is good at sports and also feminine.”

Her mother noted that Sue had always been this way. “She has always been comfortable in her own skin,” Barbara said. “She’d go play basketball with the boys and then go get dressed up with the girls… they accepted her the way she was. Susan was not unusual. Things have changed. You no longer have to be one or the other.”

It wasn’t that simple in Barbara’s day. While Sue enjoys great support from both her parents, who embraced her competitive nature, Barbara was not so lucky. “In a way, I feel like I could have been a contender,” she said with a chuckle, noting that her parents were hardly supportive of her participation in sports. “There was a whole different mindset back then. Title IX helped change that.”

Title IX indeed brought about a complete change in the overall perceptions of female athletes. Jay noted that back in the 60s there was a sense that sports would physically harm women, specifically their reproductive organs. This fallacy was addressed in 1997, when Donna Shalala, then Secretary of Health and Human Services, released a detailed report outlining the health benefits of athletics for women. As more women participated in sports, more equality came about.

“There are a lot more female role models now,” said Kristin Harrer, advocacy coordinator at the Women’s Sports Foundation. “This is a generation that grew up knowing that there is something they could fight for.”

There is still a long way to go, though. According to Jay, women make up 53 percent of college students but only 40 percent of college athletes. The University of Iowa’s Gender Equity in Sports project reveals several inequalities that still exist. For instance, men hold 75 percent of the coaching positions in college and, on average, their salaries are much higher that those of their female counterparts.

There are several drawbacks to Title IX as well, most notably its adverse impact on smaller men’s sports. Over the past decade, Title IX has come under fire as the alleged cause for the elimination of several men’s wrestling programs. Anne Lilburn, a former captain of the women’s cross-country team at Colgate, noted that granting the women’s ice hockey team varsity status in 1997 led to a budget crunch at the university that almost resulted in the merging of the women’s and men’s track teams. However, she stopped short of directly criticizing Title IX.

“Smaller sports often get punished, but it’s not the women’s fault,” Lilburn said. “College administrations go about implementing Title IX the wrong way. It can be used to create gender equality, but it can also be used to promote inequality between the sports.”

Sue Altman also has complaints, but they mostly relate to the minutiae of competitive sports. “The school treats women’s sports equally, but the difference is in the expectations,” she said. “[Men’s coach] Joe Jones expects more from his players than [women’s coach] Jay Butler. I always wanted to be really good and they [the coaches] made me feel like there is something wrong with that.”

Nonetheless, there is no denying the advances Title IX have awarded women in sports. Sue Altman is living proof. While she admits that Title IX rarely crosses her mind she recognizes that she represents the first generation to have benefited from it. She calls it the “beginning of a wave” and sees women’s basketball growing much stronger in the future. Personally, she hasn’t ruled out a professional career either. She hopes to continue playing competitively in Europe but admits that her plans are uncertain.

“Hopefully,” she said. “I’m not done with basketball yet.”