The proof of their influence is visible in the lives of the thousands of teenage girls they mentored as high school coaches.
Local pioneers Carolyn Jackson, Susan Thurman and the late Catherine Neely shaped student-athletes’ lives with equal parts discipline, drive and devotion, each working at a single high school for 40 years or more.
The fact that all three were players before Title IX — and began their coaching careers just as the federal law that would help ensure equal rights for female athletes was enacted — gave them a unique perspective they passed on throughout their careers.
Title IX — a federal law requiring gender equity in public schools and universities, including in athletics — was passed by Congress on June 23, 1972. The law states, in part: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex , be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or receiving activity federal financial assistance.”
“What I always wanted the young ladies who played for me to understand was just how fortunate they were to be playing in a time where girls’ sports were made to be a priority,” said Jackson, who played high school basketball at Riverside in the late 1960s, then taught and coached basketball at Brainerd from 1973 to 2013.
During that span, she also spent time coaching volleyball, softball, tennis and track and field, with more than 30 athletes coached by Jackson earning college scholarships.
By contrast, just a decade prior to Title IX, a proposal was made to the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association for the rest of the state to follow the Shelby County Board of Education’s lead and abolish girls’ basketball after several school administrators cited the belief that girls who played sports were more prone to physical injury as well as mental issues by becoming too competitive.
“When I started out, sports was a male-dominated area,” Jackson said. “It really didn’t enter our thoughts that it was unfair. That’s just the way it was. It was even the norm at that time that coaches for girls’ sports did not receive a (financial) supplement.
“What Title IX did was finally create a level playing field and allow women to get the recognition they deserve as players and coaches. When they started offering scholarships for female sports, I just thought what a great opportunity so many girls will have now.”
Thurman played basketball at Middle Tennessee State University in the late 1960s before returning to her high school alma mater, Red Bank, where she was a teacher and coach from 1970 until 2010.
“There was no such thing as scholarships for female athletes,” Thurman said of her college basketball days. “Not only did we have to pay for our own gas, food, hotel and whatever travel expenses for games, but we also bought our own uniforms.
“We were willing to pay to play because we loved the game. There are so many life lessons to be taught through sports — when you fail, get back up, and how to work as a team with people you may not have anything else in common with … Kids who are part of a team become better employees later when they go to work.You’re not always going to like your co-workers or boss, but if you played sports, you learned how to get past those things and get along to succeed.”
In the 50 years since the landmark legislation, the number of girls who participate in high school sports has risen from fewer than 300,000 to more than 3.5 million annually, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Also according to the federation, nearly 48% of high school girls now play at least one sport, up from 1 in 27 in 1971.
Title IX allowed three local coaching legends to influence countless female players
Until the 1963-64 school year, basketball was the only girls’ sport the TSSAA offered. That year tennis was added as a sanctioned sport, with track (1973), cross country, golf and volleyball (1975), softball (1978), soccer (1986) and bowling (2001) added along the way.
The Chattanooga area has had 372 team or individual female state champions since Title IX was enacted.
College numbers also have exploded, rising from just more than 30,000 female athletes nationally in 1972 to 504,619 in 2020, according to the NCAA.
Last year, the Women’s National Basketball Association celebrated its 25th anniversary season, and the US also has professional leagues for women in football, ice hockey, softball and soccer, allowing young girls to dream of competing in those sports as pros.
“It wasn’t that girls didn’t want to participate in sports all along, it’s that they didn’t have the opportunity prior to Title IX,” said Bernard Childress, the TSSAA’s executive director. “By requiring schools to offer equal opportunities for females, we’ve seen the addition of several sports that our state and others sanction, which means even more chances for girls to find a sport they want to be a part of and potentially excel in. “
A testament to the influence Jackson, Thurman and Neely had on their school communities — and a measure of the respect given them for having grown girls’ sports — is that their schools all named gymnasiums after the influential trio.
All three went from underappreciated to being inducted into multiple sports halls of fame.
In Jackson’s first year at Brainerd, a group of female students convinced her to revive the school’s defunct basketball program. She went on to win 965 games, and the Lady Panthers remain the most recent Hamilton County program to be state champions in Tennessee’s largest classification, winning the 1984 Class AAA title.
Neely, whose volleyball record still ranks third nationally with 1,395 wins, also won 626 basketball games at East Ridge and became the first woman from Tennessee to be inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame in 2012.
Thurman’s volleyball teams won 778 matches over 25 years, and she also coached basketball, softball and track — never having a losing season in any sport and reaching the state tournament in each.
“Those three ladies worked so diligently to promote female athletics that they are known, not just in Chattanooga or Tennessee, but nationally as being instrumental in helping grow athletics for girls,” said Childress, who is also a pioneer after becoming the first Black executive in TSSAA history when he was appointed in 1995.
Further validation of how far women have advanced in the sports world since Title IX: Neely and Thurman each worked as her school’s athletic director for more than a decade, overseeing as many as 17 prep sports programs.
“I’m so glad that while it didn’t happen for me, as far as being able to earn a scholarship or have so many of the benefits that come with being a college athlete, it did for my daughter and so many of my players,” Thurman said. “Those opportunities are widening more every day, and regardless of male or female, everyone has to be given a chance to start somewhere.
“All we ever wanted was a chance. Now girls are breaking all kinds of records and achieving things that not many believed were possible at one time. Through Title IX, I saw a lot of my players get scholarships who likely wouldn’t have been able to go to college otherwise, and that’s opened so many wonderful opportunities.”
One of those former players who stands out in Thurman’s mind is Tammy Tatum, a 1996 Red Bank graduate who earned a volleyball scholarship to attend Tennessee State University. Tatum turned that opportunity into a career as a health care executive. She is the director of physician services for HCA Healthcare in Tallahassee, Florida.
It is a career Tatum admits is owed to Title IX, as well as a female mentor who understood the gravity of the doors that could be opened through sports.
“I was going through some personal family things in high school that involved my living situation,” Tatum said in a phone interview. “I approached Coach Thurman and told her I wouldn’t be able to play in a tournament because of what was going on with my home life. Not only did Coach Thurman step in and tell me I could live with her family until things got better at home, but she made sure I was able to play in the tournament that weekend because she knew there would be college coaches there watching.”
Tatum played well enough to catch the eye of several college scouts in the stands for that weekend tournament in Nashville, ultimately choosing TSU because of its nursing program.
“I was oblivious to what Title IX could mean at the time because I was young and I was just playing a game I loved,” Tatum said. “But as you get older and look back, it afforded me, and countless others, so many opportunities. Sports can be a steppingstone to better choices in life.
“The ability to play sports was a way to channel my energy in a different way and not dwell on the things happening at home. Getting to be a part of a team allowed me to connect with other females, build lifelong friends, and it was the only way I was going to get out of the situation that I grew up in. It opened the door for me to pursue a better life.”