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Perspective | The NCAA erased an entire generation of women’s sports

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The purpose of records is not to satisfy the incurable enthusiasms of men with sweating beer bottles in hoarse bar arguments over arcane decimals. It’s to provide some memory measure of great deeds. Iowa’s Caitlin Clark is approaching a great deed, but the NCAA record book cheapens it by historically gutterizing women’s basketball. The greatest scorer in major-division women’s collegiate history is not Clark but Lynette Woodard of Kansas. You would never know this, however, because the old NCAA had no respect for Woodard’s era, so it canceled it and asterisked it.

The most remarkable thing about Woodard’s scoring mark of 3,649, set at Kansas from 1978 to 1981, is that many of those points came after she had been folded into a van because nobody would pay for female athletes to fly. The most airtime Woodard got was when she would go skylarking to the rim. She could flutter a shot in the net like a pianist touching keys despite being cramped up for hours — the tallest women suffered the most in those vans. Yet Woodard’s accomplishment isn’t formally in the record book because NCAA male administrators flatly refused to recognize or fund women’s sports until, get this, 1982. In response to a query, an NCAA spokesperson responded that women’s records pre-that date “were not completed while the schools/teams in question were NCAA members.”

To sum up, the NCAA doesn’t regard women’s basketball records as records, because before 1982 the NCAA didn’t want women in their organization.

“Those records should have been merged a long time ago,” Woodard says. “ … We’re so quick to erase anything we don’t like or think we don’t like. It’s just not fair. There’s a lot of history there, and it just should not be dismissed.”

What is a record, really? It’s an emblem of “continuous quest,” as Norwegian professor of philosophy Sigmund Loland teased out the question in an essay in “The Philosophy of Sport.” As Loland observes, a record is not an exact mathematical comparison of points or seconds within a standard spatiotemporal framework. Records are actually non-precise simply by virtue of time and progress. Johnny Weissmuller’s pool was not Michael Phelps’s. Yet they occupy the same human book. Records are symbolic messages that contain potential, history and memory, all in one.

The true history and memory of women’s basketball is this: In the 1970s, the NCAA was a male fiefdom of crew cut athletic directors who thought a dime devoted to a women’s sport came at the direct expense of a man. When a coach named Marynell Meadors proposed to start a women’s basketball team at Tennessee Tech and asked for funding, her athletic director sneered, “I’ll give you a hundred dollars.” She had to drive her team in a small bus that was so dilapidated, the sliding door wouldn’t fully close, and she worried she would lose a player out the door on a highway. That kind of thing.

There was only one way to change things for women: by winning. You changed things by winning. So ostracized university women self-formed an organization called the AIAW and for a decade funded and ran their own championship events — and grew them. They set records in cheap polyester uniforms that didn’t breathe, jerseys that got heavier with their sweat. They held bake sales and washed cars to raise money, forced their long bodies in 12-seat vans with their knees up, packed bologna sandwiches and drove cross-country to tournaments.

“Ten hours wasn’t uncommon,” Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer recalls.

At the inaugural women’s basketball championship in 1972 in Normal, Ill., teams slept in motels four to a room. That didn’t quiet the nuns of Immaculata University, who came all the way from Pennsylvania and expressed their fanatical fandom for Cathy Rush’s team by gonging so loud on pots and pans that their noisemakers had to be banned.

Over the next 10 years, the arc of performance grew breathtakingly — even as players such as Woodard went hungry because women had to wait hours for the last, worst and most obscure male athlete to leave Kansas’s Allen Fieldhouse before they were allowed on the floor.

“Every day was a fight even just to get practice time,” Woodard recalls. “And to get fed because if we had an evening practice, the cafeterias would close.”

But they wouldn’t have traded the experience, because it gave them a pride of possession, a sense that they were the architects of themselves and their game. Their success was entirely self-earned. They hadn’t been handed anything. They did it without recompense and for pure love of the thing and because there was a lot to be said for building yourself from the ground up.

“I navigated with my soul,” Woodard says.

By 1981 the AIAW staged 41 championships in 19 sports and put women’s basketball on national television. Which is exactly when the NCAA swooped in with a hostile corporate takeover, pressuring universities into abandoning the AIAW, to absorb what the women had built. And they stuck AIAW records under an asterisk at the back of the book, perhaps in the hope everyone would forget the NCAA leaders’ sexist miscalculating past.

Records should not be about whether something was completed under the right organizational alphabet, the NCAA’s runes. After all, the NCAA is just a set of “call letters,” Woodard observes.

There is nothing trivial about this. It’s an act of erasure. Example: The NCAA regards Michigan as the holder of the record for most college football victories of all time, with 989. Yet the NCAA didn’t come into existence until 1910, and Michigan began playing football in 1879. The NCAA doesn’t strike or asterisk anything Michigan won “pre-NCAA.” Otherwise, there goes Fielding Yost and his 56-game winning streak and a huge chunk of Michigan’s seasons. The NCAA wouldn’t dream of ignoring those years.

Yet they do so with women’s basketball. They take away anything done pre-NCAA — and here are some of the people and things you lose. Ann Meyers, Lusia Harris, Nancy Lieberman, Cindy Brogdon, Carol Blazejowski. It’s as if they never existed. Call up the NCAA record book online and try to find a trace of them. They aren’t there.

The first seven seasons of Pat Summitt’s career came outside of NCAA benediction. So did the first 10 of C. Vivian Stringer’s and the first three of VanDerveer’s. And all of Margaret Wade’s. Yet strangely, in the ultimate fit of illogic, the record book actually includes women’s coaching victories won pre-NCAA.

“It’s inconsistent,” VanDerveer remarked in an email exchange. “These are basketball records. And women’s basketball was played at a high level before the NCAA took over governance of the women’s game.”

Giving Woodard’s performance the proper respect and recognition therefore matters — greatly. The perfect occasion to remedy that is right now so that when Clark sets the record, the real record, it means what it should. With three games remaining in the regular season, Clark was still 56 points shy of Woodard and 75 points shy of men’s record holder Pete Maravich and seems likely to break both marks by March. If and when it happens, we should remember that without Woodard and all the other heroines of the AIAW era, there simply is no Caitlin Clark.

“Caitlin is having a wonderful, sensational career, and when there is a high tide, all boats float,” Woodard says. “There are so many things she is making people aware of, and I think it’s a great thing. But I just hope that if the call letters ever changed on ‘NCAA,’ her records might be blended.”

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