Everyone has a Mildred Ball story. You don’t blaze a trail without impacting lives. She did both, as an IHSAA assistant commissioner from 1977-1997. Just how impactful was she? The year after she retired, 1998, she was the first woman inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.
Oh, there are stories. There’s the woman who taught herself how to officiate, only to find herself refereeing the first girls basketball state title game in IHSAA history. There’s the woman who refereed a game with a man, and she was told, “Do n’t walk in front of me.” There’s the woman who found a kindred spirit in Ball.
But before we get there, Ball has a story of her own.
Who is Mildred Ball?
She was born in Gary in 1936, and was one of eight children — five brothers and two sisters. Her mom de ella died when she was 4, so her dad de ella had to turn into “Superman” — and he did. Ball grew up playing in the streets with her siblings from her. Sometimes they’d have to stop to let a charge go by — and then they’d keep on playing.
She attended Gary Roosevelt from kindergarten through her senior year of high school, one of the four black schools in the state. If there was a sport to play, she’d play it — basketball, soccer, volleyball, and track and field. In junior high, she jumped 17 feet in the long jump. At the time, the world record was 20. She says that, if she’d had the chance, she might’ve been an Olympian.
By her freshman year, she’d played so many sports that she got a varsity letter normally reserved for juniors.
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Of course, there’s a caveat here. She could only compete in the Girls Athletic Association.
It wasn’t until she got to college — she attended Indiana University — that she began to wonder why there weren’t more athletic opportunities for girls.
“After I got to college and looked back and saw the whole picture, that’s when I really started thinking that we were not being treated fairly,” she said.
She majored in physical education, inspired by Katherine Cook, her physical education teacher in high school. Indiana would teach the boys how to be coaches. They’d teach the girls how to teach other boys.
“We started out behind the eight ball,” she said.
She taught PE, health and dance for 17 years in East Chicago. She and her husband de ella were considering moving to pursue other opportunities, when the PE supervisor for East Chicago Public Schools came to her with a question: Had she considered applying to be an assistant commissioner with the IHSAA? There was an opening.
There were 54 applicants for the job. She was one of eight women. She got the job — to the surprise of many.
“I was surprised that they had hired an African American woman,” said Terry Miller, who was an IHSAA official from 1972-1995. “I was thrilled that we had another avenue to support women’s sports.”
Working in sports after Title IX
Title IX had been enacted in 1972, providing new opportunities for girls and women in sports. But in its infancy, it was far from smooth sailing.
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“We were not welcome at first, because we were interfering with the boys’ programs,” Ball said. “Most schools have one gymnasium, one swimming pool, one everything, and the men didn’t really want to share.”
Patricia Roy had been hired by the IHSAA as its director of girls sports in the months leading up to when Title IX would become federal law.
“Pat had to be tough,” Ball told IndyStar in 2017. “She was tough because she had to be in the beginning. Not only because she was dealing with some ADs and coaches who didn’t believe in what she was doing, but also because there was a big learning curve for women in the early 1970s. There was no training. Pat caught hell for her first few years. She was still catching hell when I started at the IHSAA.”
Ball served on the association’s equity committee, and was tasked with overseeing and training officials. Her persona de ella — bold, charismatic and warm — was a stark contrast to Roy’s more stern demeanor de ella.
“Pat didn’t come across as a warm, fuzzy personality,” said Priscilla Dillow, an athletic director at Ben Davis for 34 years from 1968-2002. “She was very competent and outstanding at her job. She just went about it a whole different way than Mildred. Mildred was congenial, open, easy to talk to. She was a great listener and got the job done. Under that congenial demeanor, she was a very tough lady.”
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Rosie Leedy was a PE teacher at Pioneer High School, and her husband was a coach. Lee Alridge, then the athletic director, came to Leedy with a proposal: Would she be an official for volleyball?
She took the test, and passed. So he had another suggestion: How about she officiated basketball, too?
Life as a woman official in Indiana
Her husband had been a referee in college, and she’d watched plenty of games from the stands. She took the test, and passed. Her schedule was full of games. She says she got little pushback from players, coaches or other officials, despite being one of the only women with the job.
“They knew when I made a call that there was no way I was gonna change my mind, and there’s no escaping it,” she said. “I was pretty dead set on what I did. A lot of these coaches knew my husband. They were very polite, very respectful.”
She was one of the officials for the first girls basketball state title game in 1976. She was one of two women on the crew, along with Theresia Wynns.
The next year, she met Ball.
“She just made you feel so comfortable,” Leedy said. “There was never any intimidation of any kind. It was always a welcoming feeling that you got from her. She made me feel that I was worthy, because sometimes I didn’t feel like I was. I didn’t officiate like a lot of these other girls did in college.”
Wynns began officiating in 1972, and continued until 1995. She got her start in the Fall Creek Officials Association, which was primarily for Black officials. She saw Ball endure plenty of grief from men who weren’t used to women in their field.
“The men were always trying to tell her what to do,” she said. “She was strong-willed in a nice way. She butted heads, but she could do it in a very nice way. She went up against a lot of roadblocks.”
But she didn’t take any nonsense.
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“She wanted to show Indiana how competent and efficient and talented black women were,” Dillow said. “She stood her ground on any issue that she thought was important. Men and women responded to her very positively, but it wasn’t that she was agreeing to anything that anybody wanted. That was not the case. She was very much her own person.
Women who were officials in the infancy of Title IX encountered frequent struggles. There weren’t separate dressing rooms for the men and women officials, so they’d dress with the players. Miller frequently got grief from the fans.
“Even if it was the guy’s fault, they’d yell at me,” she said. “They always said, ‘Hey, lady.’”
She even got pushback from her male counterparts.
“I remember one particular time, there was a man who had never officiated with a woman before,” she said. “He was very concerned, so he made sure he told me that I was not to walk in front of him. I was to walk beside him. I was not to say anything I wasn’t meant to. I was supposed to stay right with him. He made it known that he didn’t want me to shine in any way, shape, or form.”
But Ball was always willing to lend a listening ear.
“She always made me feel valued,” Miller said. “Whether you’re in a meeting or a ballgame, if you had a question, she always had time for you.”
The IU School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation gave her the John Endwright Distinguished Alumni Service Award in 1996. She retired from the IHSAA in 1997 and was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 1998. Earlier this year, she was awarded the IHSAA Richard Lugar Award, given to an individual who exemplifies “the highest standard of professional ethics, sportsmanship, moral character and (carries) the endorsement of their IHSAA member high school.”
Her impact lingers, even decades after her retirement. Even today, in her mid-80s, she’s an advocate for girls in sports.
She was somebody special,” said Sandra Searcy, an IHSAA assistant commissioner from 1999-2015 and now the Director of Sports for the National Federation of State High School Associations. She’s still mentoring. That’s her life’s work de ella is mentoring young women and providing opportunities for athletes, officials and administrators. She always treated others as you would want to be treated yourself.