Estes was linchpin in UNM’s reach for sports equality

Linda Estes poses for picture by family and friends next to the sign during the dedication of the Linda Estes Tennis Complex at UNM on Friday, September 11, 2009. (Greg Sorber/Journal file)

Linda Estes, watching from her home on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, thoroughly enjoyed the 2022 women’s NCAA basketball tournament as televised on ESPN.

“You’re seeing how (the athletes) are treated and what skill levels they have,” Estes, the former University of New Mexico women’s athletic director and senior woman administrator, said in a recent phone interview. “That’s wonderful.

“But … I do think that athletes today take (athletic opportunities for women) for granted. They don’t know how hard people had to fight for that.”

For more than 30 years, Estes fought as hard as anyone.

“I put on my boxing gloves to go to work a lot of days,” she said.

Born in Arkansas, Estes moved to Albuquerque as a child and attended Highland High School in the late 1950s. A talented basketball and tennis player, she wasn’t able to play either for the Hornets because neither Albuquerque nor the state of New Mexico sponsored scholastic athletics for girls.

After earning a master’s degree from UNM, Estes was hired as the school’s women’s athletic director in 1971. Yet, she initially worked not in the athletic department but in the physical education department because intramurals were essentially the only sports outlets available to women.

Title IX, passed into law on June 23, 1972, prohibiting “sex-based discrimination in any school or any other education program that receives funding from the federal government,” changed the women’s athletics landscape – and Estes’ job – dramatically.

But it didn’t mean the battle was won.

Unquestionably, in the aftermath of Title IX’s passage, early progress was made. From 1971 to 1975, Estes’ budget for women’s athletics arose from $5,000 annually to a whopping $118,000.

By the middle of the decade, UNM sponsored nine women’s varsity sports. Coach Kathy Marpe’s UNM women’s basketball team (commonly referred to in Albuquerque Journal headlines as the “Loboettes”) was playing a full intercollegiate schedule. Estes was the tennis coach. An incipient track-and-field program existed. Volleyball – Marpe was the first coach – was getting underway.

Yet, major obstacles remained.

In December 1972, in the wake of Title IX, UNM President Ferrel Heady pledged to make women’s athletics a budget priority – even if that meant taking funds away from men’s sports.

In a United Press International story published in the Journal on Dec. 14, Heady said there was consideration within the Western Athletic Conference, of which UNM was a member, to return to one-platoon football – a change that might greatly reduce the amount of money spent on the sport and take pressure off UNM’s athletic budget.

That, of course, never happened.

In the ensuing decades, Estes said, “It was pretty lonely out there. People looked at it like if you wanted to give anything to the women, you were taking it away from football. And that was the prevailing attitude.”

It most certainly was the prevailing attitude of John Bridgers, a former college football coach and UNM’s athletic director from 1979-1986.

His parting shot:

“The most disruptive force, the most disruptive person in the seven years I’ve been here has been Linda Estes,” Bridgers told the Journal in 1986. “… She has consistently and constantly discredited me and the sport of football. She has done everything she could to say that football has been our main problem, and it has never been.”

Throughout her tenure, Estes insisted she wasn’t anti-football – just pro-equality.

“Women have a legal right to have the same kind of benefits … which are being made available to the 95 (now 85) football players presently on full ride athletic scholarships at the University of New Mexico,” she said in a 1976 statement. “…Revenue-producing sports are not exempt from the law and women’s athletics cannot be relegated to the status of minor sports.”

Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Estes never stopped fighting for women’s athletics. In the ’90s, in large part because of her efforts, good things happened.

In 1992, Rudy Davalos was hired as UNM’s athletic director. He and Estes quickly found common ground.

In 1995, local high school coaching legend Don Flanagan, after first accepting, then turning down the UNM women’s basketball job, re-accepted it. (He’d been passed over for the job six years earlier.) Soon thereafter, the Lobos became one of the nation’s best-attended women’s programs.

In January 2000, Estes retired at the relatively young age of 60.

“I had a lot of battles, and in the long run I think we’ve won them all,” she told the Journal at the time. “(Her mission de ella) was unpopular at the time, but now it’s not.

“Now, I go to a meeting, I don’t even have to bring up Title IX. I don’t have to be an advocate anymore. Society has changed.”

Changed, but not perfect. Estes said she was disturbed by the sub-standard facilities made available to women at the 2021 NCAA Tournament – ​​but encouraged that those discrepancies were widely condemned and then addressed in 2022.

“Boy, did that get changed fast,” she said. “… I think there’s (still) a long way to go, but we’re a lot better off.”

In 2012, Estes was the subject of an Albuquerque Journal story on the occasion of Title IX’s 40th anniversary.

“I hope I’m around when it hits 50,” she said at the time.

She is.

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